Memory studies research into the cultural value of urban water (Westling et al 2009) indicates that we have adopted neglectful behaviours when it comes to rivers in the UK.
As civilisation has progressed and developed, we consider them less as a life force and more often, a dumping ground – a cheap, handy refuse disposal to become somebody else’s problem down river.
And the UK is not alone. Studies in Brazil have revealed urban waters engineered and canalised to hide problems relating to the disposal of sewage and industrial pollution. (Magalhaes & Marques, 2014; Sakai & Frota 2014)
Urban riparian nurture-neglect of our rivers appears to be a global issue.
What does riparian mean?
There are different understandings of ‘riparian’ in research terms.
The UK Government/Environment Agency publication ‘Living on the Edge’ (2014) clearly defines ‘riparian landlords’ as legally responsible persons owning the land on the edge of rivers. In these contexts ‘riparian’ also embraces not only the river bank where water meets the land but also the flora and fauna inhabiting the area.
However this definition overlooks those enthusiasts who live, work or pass time on and around the river.
Here another ‘riparian’ sense of identity can be witnessed – people who immerse themselves in river life – fishing, boating, walking, small businesses, industrial tenants and those who engage in river cleanups to provide them with a waterside sense of place and community. Whilst not legal owners, they take responsibility for their waterways, investing time, efforts and often their own money in order to bring a favourite neglected river back to life. Ultimately they become the custodians of ‘their’ waterside.
In London, there are many examples of urban rivers which have been ‘daylighted’ and regenerated. ‘Hidden rivers’ which have been nurtured to have life restored to them after years of neglect.
The River Ravensbourne and, in particular, an area in its catchment called Ladywell Fields in South East London are examples of a hidden river remembered, reborn and regenerated.
What do we mean by nurture-neglect?
Until recently, rivers have tended to be overlooked as fundamental to our landscapes and largely considered there to be used or abused as we like. We are equally free to throw a shopping trolley or unwanted bicycle into them as we are to canoe along or fish in them.
It’s only when they flood that they become part of our active consciousness. And that’s when we also become aware of how we’ve been treating them. Floodwater tends to bring secrets with it. And when it subsides, the full enormity of what it has carried is on display for public scrutiny.
But rivers only used to flood on rare occasions in the past. As a result, somewhat Draconian measures were taken to avoid future flooding – rivers were re-engineered, re-routed, disguised or even blocked – losing their relevance, aesthetic appeal and often becoming eyesores. The public was quick to turn its back and they fell into neglect.
It’s only recently that river flooding has become an annual occurrence, forcing communities to face up to their disrepair and the impact of misguided generations before them. In the quest to understand the root sources of flooding, ‘hidden’ rivers have been unearthed.
Work has been started to ‘daylight’ them, putting the needs of nature first and restoring natural environments so that they are better equipped to make space for, absorb and attenuate floodwater – thus working with mankind to alleviate the impact of flooding.