There can be no sound more soothing than the sound of water. Whether it’s your babbling brook, breakers crashing in the distance or gently lapping at the shore, or even a rushing waterfall, we all love the sight and sound of water. We’re genetically programmed to love it. Water means life.
And, yet, how many of us actually live or work on water? Very few.
Sure, not all of us live by the sea, but just about every town and city in the world, grew around a river. Think of any great river - the Hudson, the Danube [below], the Nile - millions, if not billions, live in settlements along either side of rivers.
And, yet, the more advanced we become, the less use we seem to make of our water.
Water, water, everywhere, but...
Take London. The greatest city in the world, we are told. A booming economy, people from everywhere, a melting pot of culture, finance and goodness knows what else. Flowing right through the middle of it and beyond we have the magnificent Thames.
But while hideous building after hideous building has sprung up on its banks over the last 15 years, all the way from east to west, the river has been overlooked.
Glance at some of Canaletto paintings of the Thames in the 18th century and you’ll see a hive of activity. Boats ferrying people about and delivering goods. Industry, commerce – as well as people living in boats moored all along the banks. It was bustling.
The pictures of the river around Westminster Bridge are, unsurprisingly, the most busy, but I’m showing you this one for a specific reason. It is Greenwich hospital as seen in 1753 from the other side of the river on the Isle of Dogs.
As an experiment, I went for lunch in The Gun, about a mile from where this was painted. In the hour I was there, I counted four boats go past. The bank wall is unused on either side.
The reality is there is very little going on on the Thames. A few party, pleasure and tour boats; some freight; HMS Belfast; the Thames Clippers; a couple of floating restaurant-bars; and the occasional mooring for houseboats. That’s pretty much it. It’s an economic desert.
In this era of congested cities, extortionate rents and unaffordable housing, we should all, wherever we are in the world, be taking to our rivers and canals again, both to live and work. There is plenty of unused space (in fact it could alleviate crowding elsewhere) and in many cases, we’re talking about some of the most prime real estate any city has to offer.
Boats are beautiful; boats are inspiring; boats are cool. The same goes for those that dwell on boats. The most tightly-knit, loyal, creative and supportive communities spring up around boats.
I can imagine a Thames that is a bustling haven of activity, beyond the reach of rent-seeking landlords and the large corporate monoliths. Instead we have beautiful floating buildings, homes, shops, workplaces, offices, cinemas, theatres, and small craft ferrying people in between. Maybe there are walkways.
The possibilities are enormous. Take a leaf out of Venice’s book.
Of course there are ecological and aesthetic concerns, but these can be addressed, while the technical and engineering concerns (in the case of the tidal Thames) will create all sorts of opportunities for entrepreneurs and inventors.
Fix the rules and entrepreneurs can make the Thames great again
The problems are multi-fold. There are numerous regulatory hurdles and the large public bodies responsible for waterways are not always the most dynamic or progressive. Then there is the matter of ownership. It is not clear, and capital will not get invested until it is.
The water, as it moves, is of course impossible to register as you would land. On the tidal Thames (from Teddington to the sea) the bed is in the hands of Port of London Authority and is not for sale, while ownership of the foreshore and the bank wall usually belongs to different bodies. You need clear title to all three, before there can be any progress and there is no clear title.
That’s the tidal Thames. The non-tidal Thames has its own set of rules, and the canals and other rivers their own rules.
We need a dynamic leader with drive and vision to bring in reform, yet none of that changes the fact the possibilities our waterways could create are enormous and arguably represent the perfect home for your next generation workspace.