Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
Several new efforts to clean up London's long-polluted waterway appear to be working. One day soon, you might even be able to take a slime-free swim.
I’m not going in there. For centuries, this would have been any sane person’s response to the idea of jumping into the Thames in London. A murky (but economically vital) slug trail running thick with noxious ooze, dunking in London’s river was about as appealing as swimming in a spittoon. Dickens got it right when he depicted the river as a place from which bodies were trawled or, further downstream, where a convict could escape across sludgy marshes from a prison ship. But could the Thames finally be shedding its muddy reputation for good?
Looking at the recent stream of good news about the river, it looks like it already has. Thanks to improved sewage treatment, water quality has been steadily improving since the mid 1960s. So radical has the river’s turnabout been that the Indian government has been looking at the Thames as a possible model for cleaning the Ganges. This summer, almost a thousand seals have been spotted in the once moribund Thames Estuary. As this marine mammal map shows, some of the spottings were so close to London’s built-up area that the harbor seals in question might almost have been caught on a commute into town.
Due to another major story out this month, this clean bill of health looks set to continue. At the beginning of September, it was announced that London Mayor Boris Johnson’s plans for a Thames airport have been finally, summarily rejected. A pet project that the mayor has passionately promoted (using taxpayers' money despite lack of popular support), the plan for a new London airport—universally dubbed “Boris Island”on the Thames’ Isle of Grain—did have a certain appealing, futuristic swagger to it. (Perhaps Johnson imagined himself ensconced in his own high control tower there, stroking a Persian cat.) The astronomical expense of the plan, as well as the potentially vast negative environmental impact it could have had, has killed the project—and its corpse, happily, is not bobbing in the Thames. While the land where it would have stood remains one of the key future development corridors in England’s crowded Southeast, it seems the seals are safe for now.
Meanwhile, back in London itself, there are currently two plans to bring back swimming in the river. Yes, that’s actual swimming in the actual river. To be fair, the most immediately viable plan is for a floating freshwater pool resembling a ship’s hull, along the lines of existing pools in Berlin and other cities. But there’s also an alternative, far more radical plan to create three pools using actual river water. These would partly filtered and cleaned through a fringe of reeds around their perimeter and replenished every high tide; the London stretch of the Thames is close enough to the sea to experience tidal fluctuations.
As things stand, this project still faces a major hurdle. The Thames may be cleaner than before, but it still acts as an overflow for the city’s sewers after heavy rain. (I’ll let you into a secret: heavy rain is something that happens quite a lot in London.) When the sewers were constructed in the mid 19th century, this overflow plan was included as a last-ditch emergency measure. Now, with over 8 million people living in the sewer systems' drainage basin, overflows can happen up to 50 times a year. London’s daily tides do a decent job of diluting this gunk, but that’s hardly good enough.
London’s answer is big and bold, in keeping with the city’s current yen for massive engineering projects. The city, or rather its privatized water company, Thames Water, is planning a huge 16-mile-long super sewer beneath the river, to store and re-channel the city’s massive runoff. Work is due to begin next year, with completion slated for 2023. The scheme has many critics: Londoners will pay for the project’s £4.2 ($6.8) billion cost through water bills, while tax breaks have allowed the company to serve up fat dividends to its shareholders. Green advocates point out that other effective solutions would be cheaper and cleaner, such as the replacement of water-resistant, impervious surfaces with vegetation or other spongier, more porous materials. I personally have more enthusiasm for little, local-level mosaic projects, but I’m still glad something’s being done.
That there’s political will for projects like this is a sign of the times. When it comes to huge, shock-and-awe infrastructure projects, London’s powerful definitely have a "Yes We Can" attitude right now. London currently has the massive Crossrail being burrowed beneath it with admirable efficiency, while the Thames is also due to get further prettified with an £175 million garden bridge.
The other side of this coin is an indifferent "No We Can’t" attitude toward matters like providing affordable housing and halting galloping social inequality. But while London’s rulers have their priorities a little twisted, there’s still something irresistible about the idea of London’s river being reborn. From toxic soup to sparkling seal pen, I can’t wait to have a river clean enough to just jump into. As long as you go first.