Friday, October 8, 2010

London's Lost Rivers

Every Londoner immediately recognises the River Thames on a map or aerial photo—not least because it's in the title sequence of one of Britain's most popular TV shows—but not everyone knows about the many tributaries to the Thames which have been buried over the years. London being a mixture of the Thames's historic floodplain (most of the centre) and rolling hills (most of the suburbs), in a famously rainy part of the world, it has a lot of small rivers. Their historical importance shows up in place names all over town, but many of them are entirely or partly hidden from view.
I've written before about how London has many admirable attributes of a sustainable city entirely by accident, and this is one of the things that would look very different if the Victorian builders of most of London's infrastructure had understood what the consequences would be.  Each section of river that was built over or diverted into a culvert must have seemed like progress: one less inconvenient barrier to cross; one more road passable to carriages.  But the whole is much less than the sum of its parts, and modern Londoners suffer from having lost the flood control that a naturally functioning watershed provides, and want the wildlife habitat and public amenities that they could have if the rivers were restored.
Today there is a significant restoration effort in progress, which has been very encouraging to watch.  When I was in London in June I visited a few interesting sites, and over the coming week or two I'll write about a couple:
Daylighting the River Quaggy in Sutcliffe Park
Some of the surprising places where you can see long-concealed rivers
And some thoughts about similar work going on here in Seattle

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