A river runs through it – Lea River Park enters ‘watershed moment’

Monday 10 April 2017

The Lea River Park is being transformed from an area that has served London’s basic needs on issues like sewage, industry and power, to a different kind of facility – from a private landscape to one of public connections, leisure and regeneration.

That was one of the key messages to emerge from a breakfast talk this morning on this project to create a park for Londoners along a three mile stretch of the River Lea. It comes, said 5th Studio director Dr Tom Holbrook, at a ‘watershed’ moment for the project as the baton passes to Newham and Tower Hamlets. The project has a long lineage, he said, dating back to the 1940s and Abercrombie imagining London’s Green Belt, and will help serve the rapidly growing communities in the area – with 20,000 new dwellings expected in the next two decades. ‘As this part of London becomes denser it becomes a regeneration project, not just making a landscape’, he said. ‘We have been focusing on the connective infrastructure that allows people into the valley.’ The tradition of keeping people out of the area, however, meant that the park does not have a great constituency of people that cared about it – now the focus is on working in a ‘Jujutsu’ way with elements already there on the ground, overcoming severance and creating new connections across the fragmented sites, and with the area’s gasholders representing a real opportunity to create a busy space akin to an Eden Project or Kew for the Lea Valley.

Newham director of regeneration and planning Deirdra Armsby said that one of her borough’s strengths was its stability, and that once there was buy-in on schemes, people within the council were often insistent on seeing them through. And here is it not just about the physical, but how it impacts on people. ‘Our borough’s motto is “progress with people”’, she said, ‘and this is a great vignette of how we are doing that.’ Neither is the landscape there just as something that developers can sell as to why you should allow high density, Armsby added. ‘We need these sorts of projects that are proper regeneration because they will not be done by the private sector; they will do development…These things are not for a certain part of the population – it is landscape for all.’ The Thames Barrier Park was a similar ‘hidden gem’ that has now become more popular to the extent that there are now protests from people because of concerns that developments nearby will impact on public access. It is all now about the ‘physical and visual connectivity that we need to get on with’, Armsby added. ‘The journey continues; it is a great gem for us’.

The conference also heard from Paul Brickell, executive director, regeneration and community partnerships, LLDC, whose distant relative was a plumber at Three Mills whose job included opening the waste tank up and turning the river ‘purple’. Brickell’s work on the area since, he joked, was partly atoning for that, but he was gratified that the young were now rediscovering the area’s appeal. They were also discovering that the Lea River Park was moving from being an area which gave rise to key moments of invention and manufacturing to now being the home of ‘not dirty, smelly things’, but the design and manufacture of small, clean and digital things, with the rise of Here East and influx of educational establishments like Loughborough University and UCL. The reason that the baton has been passed so much over the years over the direction of the park is that it is ‘such a strong idea’, said Brickell, owned by the local communities. ‘It’s been a long journey’, he said, ‘with hard-won yards.’

The event formed part of a wider series taking place at NLA, including a lunchtime curator-led of the Lea River Park exhibition, and walking tour of the area, visiting Three Mills Green, Twelvetrees Crescent and Bow Creek.

David Taylor
New London Quarterly 

Part of the NLA Placemaking & Public Realm programme

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