Blue is the new Green

The role that green spaces play in healthy city living has been increasingly recognised of late, particularly with half of the world in lock-down. But less attention has been focused on the benefits of water within urban environments. Fourth Street consultant Tom Agar explores how man’s relationship to water in cities has changed over time, and discusses how COVID-19 may bring us closer than ever to its edge.

The sound and sight of water has a restorative effect on the human brain. From the roar of a waterfall to the trickle of a garden pond, people have always been instinctively drawn to the water’s edge.

Today’s developers have thus learned to tack terms like ’riverside‘, ’marina‘, ‘waters’ and ’docks‘ onto place names for all the positive associations they conjure. Fountains are the focal points of piazzas and public parks. The banks of rivers and canals – once crowded with working wharves and moorings – are now made for cycling and strolling, gifting moments of car-free tranquillity in the middle of bustling cities. With the terrible effects of COVID-19 paralysing cities, people are no longer taking such contact with nature for granted.

Our relationship to water in cities has changed. Waterways were once the infrastructure of industrial development. We used it for transporting people and goods and – sadly – for disposing of waste. Sepia-tinged images of Londoners enjoying the beach at Tower Bridge may suggest otherwise, but for much of the last 300 years a refreshing swim in the Thames came with a high risk of cholera or worse. In the 1960s, the river was so polluted that it was declared ’biologically dead‘. Even today it is effectively illegal to swim anywhere between Putney and Thamesmead for reasons of public hygiene.

Similar stories could be told about the Hudson, the St Lawrence, the Danube and the Rhine. And few cities turned their back to the river more defiantly than Tokyo. Once named the ’Venice of the East‘, Tokyo grew rapidly because of the great extent of its waterways. But these waterways became so heavily congested with barges and houseboats that locals all but abandoned the waters and transitioned at speed to a more ‘western’, landlubber lifestyle. The scale of pollution led its post-war planners to physically re-orientate the city away from the water, burying rivers and diverting canals in the process.

The rediscovery of waterfront living is a relatively recent phenomenon. Since we stopped dumping waste and chemicals in our rivers, they have become cleaner, healthier, teeming with flora and fauna. Britain’s rivers, including the Thames, have slowly transitioned from open sewers and industrial highways into natural assets – central to the health of our urban environment and its biodiversity. They are far less polluted now than they have been for centuries past. Fish, dolphins, seals and the occasional whale are now spotted swimming through central London, with eel, trout and chub returning to rivers across the UK. The Thames is now regarded as one of the cleanest rivers to flow through any major city.

Cleaner water has drawn people back to the waterfront. Without the perilous health warnings, harbours and docks in London, Newcastle, Salford, Belfast, Glasgow and Cardiff – amongst others – have become desirable places to live and destinations to visit. For several weeks each summer, parts of the Seine are transformed into Paris Plages, with riverside beaches and swimming pools drawing huge crowds. Similar beaches have appeared in Detroit, Amsterdam, London, and Vienna.

The Cheonggyecheon in Seoul was a $900m project to convert a hidden stream covered by a multi-lane highway into a 11km-long public recreation space, focused on the water flowing through it. Controversial at first, it is now one of the city’s most popular tourist attractions, attracting new species of birds and wildlife to the city at the same time.

It remains to be seen how COVID-19 will change people’s attitude towards water in cities. The lockdown has led to reduced air pollution and noise pollution. Little has been reported here about its impact on our waters but, interestingly, Venetians noted that within days of the lockdown, the fish returned to La Serenissima, its canals running clear for the first time in decades. The scale of the impact that we were having, and what happens when we stop, has been revealed to us with astonishing speed and force.

Issues around green and blue infrastructure, water quality, and the health and wellbeing benefits of nature were being discussed even before the pandemic, but the dramatic lifestyle changes that have been forced upon us now put our options into stark relief. It turns out we can do things differently when we have the will. Much has been made – quite rightly – of the need to exploit this peculiar moment of history to re-imagine how we design, use and regulate roads, parks and public transport. We should also take this opportunity to think about how we can improve the quality of our waterways and public access to them.

Cities can be greener, healthier, and happier places for everyone. We can design urban spaces with and for nature and not as a constant attempt to conquer it. And, if we choose to, we will be able to swim, without worry, in the Thames, the Seine, the Sumida or the Han once again.