The Landscape Guide

London's Riverside Landscape

London Landscape Plans: 1829, 1900, 1929, 1943, 1951, 1969, 1976, 1988, 1990, 1992, 2000, 2004, London landscape architecture,

London's riverside landscape has been in flux throughout history. In celtic times the Thames was a broad swampy river with reed marsh on both banks. The Romans built the first London Bridge and a walled city (Londinium) on the north bank of the River Thames. The Saxon kings had a palace within the walls and the Normans made a royal palace at Westminster. During the Middle Ages the banks of the Thames were used as wharfs and for shipbuilding. With the renaissance, grand houses were built along the riverside in central and West London. Industry became the predominant riverside use, especially in East London, during the nineteenth century but this trend was reversed in the twentieth century as other means of transport came to the fore. Abercrombie's 1943 plan advised a trasformation of the riverside to amenity use. The 2004 London Plan included a Blue Ribbon Policy for extending this transformation to London's other rivers. But before contributing to this work, landscape architects and planners should walk or cycle along the Thames. They will find much good landscape planning but little good landscape design.

The Thames Path runs for 184 miles (294km) from its source at Kemble in the Cotswolds to the Thames Barrier in East London. The route was planned by the Countryside Agency in the 1980s. The London section of the Thames Path was proposed in the great 1943 London Open Space Plan. Depending primarily on its power to stir the imagination, work has been underway since 1943. The most dramatically successful section, between Westminster Bridge and Tower Bridge, has become the most popular tourist destination in London. The following plan is recommended:

  • take the Tube to Trafalgar Square
  • walk down Whitehall to Parliament Square
  • cross Westminster Bridge
  • walk via the London Eye and Hayes Galleria to the Tate Modern and Globe Theatre
  • make an excursion to St Paul's Cathedral
  • continue, via GLA building, to Tower Bridge
  • cross to the Tower and St Katherine's Dock
  • take the boat back to Westminster (or walk back on the North Bank walkway)

Sitting on the boat, one might like to reflect on the following points concerning London's riverside landscape architecture and planning::

  • the riverside walk is very diverse, and this is its strength
  • it leaves the river for short sections, and this is an additional strength
  • the section between Blackfriars Bridge and London Bridge was walkable from 1980-2000, but was remarkably empty during this period
  • what made the South Bank walk popular was the opening (c2000) of the London Eye, the Tate Modern Gallery and the bridge to St Paul's Cathedral
  • unless they are fabulously beautiful, walkways succeed when they link origins to destinations
  • the walkway is a great landscape planning achievement but most of the landscape design is banal

See comment on London Greenways. There are some problems along the riverside walk, which will surely be corrected in its next half-century:

Hermitage Wharf, London The 2002 section of walkway in front of Hermitage Wharf (designed by Andrew Cowan Architects ) is an absolute disgrace: too wide, too high, too vacant, badly paved.
Dundee Wharf on the Isle of Dogs is one of the few places with access to the Thames beach. (See also: Johnson's Drawdock and Dunbar Wharf)
The Thames shore (beach) is mostly inaccessible and no work has been done to make it a place to walk or a place to relax. One day, this will be done - and the shore at London City Hall should have priority.
Thames Beach, London A small section of Thames beach in use at Bankside.
London Some older sections of walkway are due for a re-design (by the Angel pub, near Southwark Park)
London A blank patch of 'landscaping' with a plastic tree (at More London, near the Greater London Authority GLA) building
GLA, London A visually dramatic feature outside the GLA building offers a hint of the landscape design potential which has not, yet, been realised along the length Central London Riverside Walk
Customs House, London An old section of riverfront, belonging to HM Customs, is even worse - it is used as a car park and rubbish dump (the security staff asked me not to photograph it)
  The Abercrombie 1943 plan for London's riverside (below) showed a progressive concersion from industrial and wharf use (shows in black) to residential and public open space (shown in lighter colours in the lower plan).

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Trafalgar Square

Parliament Square

London Eye, Waterloo

Bridge to St Paul's Cathedral

Tate Modern

Shakespeare's Globe Theatre

GLA Building

Tower of London

St Katherine's Dock, London