Stephen Glenny - Consultant
The Thames has been many colours over the years, but can it be turquoise?
Temple recently discussed using the Thames more effectively.In this blog, we use our concept of Turquoise Cities to assess TfL and the Mayor of London’s River Action Plan. The Turquoise Cities concept addresses the blend of four elements needed for a sustainable city: liveability & usability, water & climate resilience, harnessing environmental systems and being innovation enabled. We previously applied this concept to assess London's draft Infrastructure Plan for 2050.
Overview of the River Action Plan
The River Action Plan for the Thames was published in February 2013. It outlined improvements to river services between now and 2020 with the aim of increasing passenger journeys to 12 million and ensuring that Londoners and visitors make the most of the river. £10m has been allocated for delivery of the actions (approximately £1.4m a year).
The plan gives actions in four key areas: better piers; better information and integration; better promotion and better partnership working. Three main delivery phases are identified:
- 2013-2014: improved pier management, signage and integration plus new promotional activity;
- 2014-2015: completion of physical works to expand the capacity of key piers; and
- Beyond 2015: occupation of new riverside developments.
Initial signs for increasing the use of the Thames for transport are good: there were record passenger numbers in 2013/14 and significant growth in both River Bus and River Tours services. However, what is the longer-term future likely to hold?
The Turquoise City Assessment
So is the River Action Plan strong on strategic intent and deliverability across the four elements needed for a Turquoise city? The overall rating is illustrated on the grid below and it shows that the strategic intent could be much stronger in all four elements. It also suggests that the actions needed to address water and climate resilience and the harnessing of environmental systems will be hard to deliver.
Let’s take each area in turn.
Liveable & Usable: Making places more enjoyable, safe and inviting to live and improving quality of life.
The River Action Plan clearly states that it wants to improve piers as places for people to enjoy, attracting more visitors to the riverside and onto boats. The plan gives actions such as exploring “high-quality public realms including small river plazas, seating, weather protection and other such facilities that make piers more attractive as public places.”
It is also recognised that better information and integration contribute to the user experience. To address this, plans are afoot for seamless interchanges through clear wayfinding and signage of routes between piers and other public transport networks.
Discussion of how the Thames and the riverbanks could be enhanced beyond the piers is not covered, as the document is purely focused on transport, limiting the potential actions. Recent plans have been released by the River Cycleway Consortium for an 8-mile floating bicycle path on the Thames: Though the benefits of this scheme compared to the level of investment involved may be questioned, proponents would argue that London needs iconic ideas such as this to ensure it remains a world city.
A similar level of ambition could be included with this action plan. As the plan acknowledges, making the riverside an enjoyable environment and destination for locals and visitors will help to grow the use of the Thames for transport.
Water and Climate Resilient: Reducing vulnerability of people, infrastructure and assets to extreme weather, exacerbated by climate change.
Very little mention is made of climate resilience in the plan. This may be because the Thames benefits from the Thames barrier, which is predicted to provide sufficient protection from tidal surges and river flooding until at least 2070. Putting aside nightmare scenarios of extreme flooding, increasing the use of the Thames could help to alleviate the impacts of climate change on other public transport; it could act as a useful alternative transport route if other methods are affected by localised flash flooding or overheating.
Harnessing environmental systems: Use of Green and Blue infrastructure for provision of ecosystems services in an urban setting.
While the use of the Thames for transport is a form of harnessing an environmental system, the idea of including environmental systems and the services they provide is not included in the plan. The inclusion of Green Infrastructure and Sustainable Urban Drainage within designs for pier and nearby enhancements would be a good place to start. These provide rainwater attenuation, biodiversity in an urban environment and local air quality benefits.
Incorporating environmental systems into the infrastructure of the Thames has been in the news recently with plans for a ’garden bridge’ spanning the river near Temple station.
Innovation Enabled: System of systems approach to design and integration of connected assets and infrastructure.
The plan’s discussion of innovation covers wave-and-pay payment technology; integration with other modes of transport, such as hire bikes; and provision of real time information for passengers termed ‘iBoat’. These data will be made available for third party developers to use for app development.
The plan also mentions that TfL will encourage boat operators to adopt eco-driving techniques and explore innovative technology, such as hybrid engines to reduce emissions.
The actions covered in the plan are a good start but could be more ambitious to help deliver an innovation enabled transport system. For example, incorporating innovations such as renewables (e.g. Solar PV) into the piers and boats would reduce emissions, operating costs and make river transport more affordable, while greater application of an “internet of things” approach could provide further benefits.
Only when river transport services are fully integrated with the rest of London’s transport system will they be able to realise their full potential. This will require more strategic intent across wider systems than a piers and passenger numbers focus.
Would a broader River Action Plan, including transport as a key element, be a better way to provide leadership on the use of the Thames?
This Turquoise Cities assessment is intended to help focus productive dialogue on how the plan could achieve even more. The remit of the current plan is necessarily narrow in focus: produced by TfL, it focuses on transport improvements only. There is certainly a case for including this plan as part of a more ambitious River Thames Action Plan, looking at what can be achieved on and alongside the Thames to make it an innovative, usable, resilient and integrated part of the city. The success of events such as the Totally Thames Festival demonstrates that there is an appetite for making the most of the Thames. If the River Action Plan can help to harness this, then maybe one day we could see a metaphorical Turquoise Thames bustling with Londoners and visitors on its boats as well as its banks.