Water Works: Designing With Water workshop

The historic association of London’s canals with industry, transport and trade means that much of the capital’s 100-kilometre canal network runs through former industrial areas that are now being redeveloped. While urban regeneration by the Canal & River Trust (CRT), its partners and other third parties over the last decade or so has resulted in better used and valued waterway spaces in London, construction near canals continues to bring with it certain challenges.

Following our field trip to the Lower Lea Valley in May, which looked at how the CRT maintains, funds and manages uses along their sections of London’s waterways, FoL invited the CRT to facilitate a workshop exploring some of the challenges – and opportunities – that arise when designing with water.

A no-go area along Manchester’s canal network, courtesy of Canal & River Trust.

Creating waterside neighbourhoods

To encourage people to engage with their local waterways, good design is key. Poor quality design around canals – such as a lack of lighting under bridges, or restricted access to the towpath – can create an impression of neglect and lead to anti-social behaviour like graffiti and fly-tipping. This puts people off using the towpath, and makes it hard for the canal network to be seen as a focal point for regeneration and positive development.

“A lack of engagement with design alongside canals results in disconnected communities with no relationship to the waterways”, says Peter Chowns, Principal Architect and Conservation Specialist at the CRT. “What we want”, he adds, “are neighbourhoods where residents and visitors engage with the local waterways, engendering a sense of pride and care”. Successful waterside neighbourhoods support and protect the traditional waterway uses, while encouraging and enabling new, innovative uses.

The redevelopment of Regents Canal at Kings Cross is an example of how high-quality design can transform a waterside neighbourhood. The CRT worked with Argent, the developer, to retain key historic elements of the basin and encourage more people to interact with the water. What was once an area of high crime is now a waterside space where people want to linger.

Regents Canal at Kings Cross, courtesy of the Canal & River Trust.

Similarly, the improvements to the public realm around Paddington Basin – such as ground-floor restaurants and bars, and commercial and recreational activities, like canoe hire, that make use of the water – have helped to ‘soften’ an otherwise potentially harsh urban development.

Starting with a strategy

A key starting point for canalside redevelopment, Peter suggests, is to look at the area around the waterway and consider the benefits that being near to the water brings to the neighbourhood. The CRT recommends developing a Waterspace Strategy that examines all the strategic issues and opportunities in that waterspace and its surroundings, to best realise the canal’s potential.

When LB Hounslow began to think about redeveloping Brentford Lock, a disused industrial estate with derelict warehouses and no access to the canal, they commissioned the CRT to write a Waterspace Strategy. It recommended several ways to improve the links between the land-based uses and the water, many of which were drafted into the masterplan.

Phase 1 and 2 of the mixed-use development have resulted in major public realm improvements, including better access to the canal, a wider towpath, an orchard and the retention of several historic art-deco façades. Phase 3 is currently underway, with plans to turn one of the derelict warehouses into a neighbourhood hub for the area.

Workshop attendees propose design solutions for Greenford Quay.

Greenford Quay

Workshop attendees had a chance to ‘test out’ some of these design principals. Using maps and plans for a site that’s currently under development in Greenford (LB Ealing), groups were asked to debate and propose design solutions for the canal and its surrounding areas, around themes such as biodiversity, bridge crossings and building heights. The CRT then revealed the actual site plans for Greenford Quay and attendees reflected on how the developer has responded to the issues they’d been discussing.

While some expressed concern about the tall buildings on the site and the risk of overshadowing on the towpath, many of the groups’ other proposals had, in fact, been addressed by the developer, such as a pedestrian and cycle bridge link, plans for new commercial moorings and new areas of planting to support the biodiversity of the canal.

Steve Craddock, Planning Manager – South & South Wales, explained that, overall, the CRT sees this development in a positive light, particularly the ways in which it makes active use of the canal and provides landscaped areas adjacent to it, as this creates natural surveillance over the waterway. The CRT are still in discussions with the developer about further opportunities for making the most of this waterspace.

CRT’s top tips for designing with water:  

  • Orientate buildings so that windows face the canal. Active uses of the ground floor canal encourage passive surveillance.
  • Integrate the towpath into the neighbourhood, to open up access to the water and create new destinations.
  • Think about the scale of the local waterway corridor within the wider neighbourhood – and make sure this is reflected in the plans. This will help avoid overshadowing, wind tunnelling or over-development.
  • Combine waterside spaces and the waterspace itself. Using the water in a meaningful way will encourage people to continue interacting with it.
  • Incorporate visitor access to the canal into the other public realm improvements.
  • Engage with, and tease out, the qualities and benefits of being by water. Remember, most visitors and passers-by will be travelling at 4mph or less.

This workshop was part of Future of London’s major 2019 project Making the Most of London’s Waterways.