the liquid city

A project that proposes to re-establish an “intimate and playful link” between Londoners and the Thames raises the idea of moving through the city via its waterways.

In August 2013, one of the participants in the Demolition Project, Annalisa, decided to drain the Thames and fill it with blue Mediterranean water. Now we find that others are planning to turn the river into a swimming pool, as discussed by Ian Steadman in the New Statesman, who notes that “semi-wild swimming is a very London thing” (he cites Hampstead Heath ponds, the Serpentine and Shadwell Basin as examples).

The Thames Baths Project proposes to “re-establish an intimate and playful link between Londoners and the historic lifeblood of the city”. Led by architects Studio Octopi and landscape architects JCLA, its supporters include the Architecture Foundation (the project was submitted as a proposal in the foundation’s London As It Could Be Now: New Visions for the Thames competition) and the Outdoor Swimming Society, Jenny Landreth, who blogs about her goal to swim in all of London’s pools, and Amy Sharrocks, whose work has included walks tracing London’s ancient rivers, swimming across the city via its pools, and collecting water donations.

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It strikes me that swimming is often overlooked as a way of exploring or relating to the city – yet all cities are patterned with watery places, from manufactured canals, pools, fountains and reservoirs, to natural rivers, lakes, estuaries and sea-coast. The Outdoor Swimming Society has a great map of wild swimming in the UK with a surprising number of sites in London, liberating swimmers from lanes, footbaths and chlorine. In central London, where the water is nasty and the currents can be fierce, it’s considered dangerous to take a dip and in 2012 the Port of London Authority banned swimming without prior permission, so it’s probably not such a good idea to try it out in the Thames just yet. Some alternatives are listed below.

A great thing about the Thames Baths Project is that its stated aim is to to restore the Thames as a genuinely accessible public space. As the project points out, it has become increasingly difficult to use the Thames as river traffic has increased, building work has blocked access to the riverside, sewage has increased and the quality of the water has declined. The Thames has a long history of being a focal point for utopian projects – from Willey Reveley’s 1796 plan to straighten it, to HR Newton’s 1861 proposal to build locks across it to halt the tidal flow – and this may be just the latest. But we can dream.

It would be nice to share experiences of liquid locomotion in the city, whether paddling in fountains or wading through the canals…

Links

• The Thames Baths Project

• Swimming in Hampstead ponds and in the Serpentine

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