London's Bold Plan to Re-Wild Its Eastern Wetlands

By 2017, the wetlands of East London’s Upper Lea Valley will be preserved on a scale unmatched by any other European city. But 2,000 new homes will get built there, too.

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The wetlands of East London’s Upper Lea Valley. (Ron Ellis/Shutterstock.com)

London will soon be home to Europe’s largest urban wetland. By 2017, a large chunk of East London’s Upper Lea Valley will be re-wilded, its waters recolonized by reed beds and waterfowl, creating a marshy green chain leading from the built-up inner city out into open fields. By removing drainage from the rims of reservoirs and using fresh stretches of green to patch up a watercourse now truncated by brownfield and private land, the project will create a phenomenal result. By 2017, London should have an all-but-unbroken marshland valley, uniting green banks that altogether cover three times the size of New York’s Central Park.  Along a river often swollen by heavy rain, the new marshlands could also help mitigate flood risk to the low-lying surrounding areas, sopping up water overflow like a big green biscuit.

What makes the project yet more remarkable is that it has largely flown under the radars of most Londoners. This could be because, compared with the impressive effect, the work to be done is humble. The location itself also remains a relatively obscure part of Britain’s capital (though that statement will rile East Londoners).

The River Lea is quite literally a backwater, entering London not with a bang but a whimper. It creeps unobtrusively into the city through its eastern back door, through suburbs not previously known for their fanciness or fame. If you’ve taken the train into London from the city’s Stansted Airport, you might have seen the river’s rural, willow-lined upper reaches, clogged with narrowboats and frequently gorged to the point of bursting with storm swell. It then flows through a once heavily polluted former industrial area before belching its silt into the Thames in London’s old docklands. Some big things have been changing, however. The Lea’s ex-industrial stretches are now covered mostly by the Olympic Park, while thanks to London’s galloping prices, its bordering neighborhoods in the upper reaches are steadily having a form of fanciness thrust upon them. It may be small, but the Lea won’t be a backwater for much longer.

Happily, the new wetland project should do a lot with relatively little. The Lea has always been vital for migrating waterfowl, as well as for nesting herons and cormorants, and much of it is already protected as a regional park.  Since its marshes were largely drained in the 1950s, however, its banks at times lacked biodiversity, which drained away along with their dampness.  That doesn’t make it a dull place—its mishmash of boats, pylons, long grass, and heron-filled creeks has its own charisma—but it’s not quite the riot of waterfowl and fish-teeming streams it could be.

The new project will not create new wetlands out of nothing, but rather return the fringes of existing reservoirs to their proper swampiness. It will open up and recolonize those patches of brownfield and private land, focusing its efforts around a modest nucleus of around 500 acres. The effect will be to relink a chain, creating a seamless watery habitat from just north of the Olympic Park far out into the countryside. If you zoom out from this map, it’s easy to see how the river creates a north-south seam of green and blue. With its $13.5 million of funding, the scheme will create riverside bike paths, improve fishing opportunities, construct an observation tower, and convert some battered industrial buildings into a visitor’s center. It sounds like it’s going to be beautiful.

This being London, though, there’s a characteristic irony to the project. The sprucing up of the waterway comes just as wealthier (if hardly super-rich) newcomers are starting to repopulate the surrounding area. Around the center of the project, 2,000 new homes are due to be built in the next 10 years, suggesting that it’s their presence that has kick-started the flow of public funds.

Looking on the brighter side, the plans may counter the fears of some Olympic skeptics. Bits of the marsh area were commandeered for the 2012 Olympics, with locals doubting promises that they’d be returned. Now it seems that they have not only returned to public use, but will be enlarged into something no other major city in Europe can boast. Could the wetland project be one of those rare beasts—a sign of something actually getting better? Let’s wait and see, but it looks like it might.

(Top image via Ron Ellis/Shutterstock.com.)

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