Why cities must make more of their rivers

Paris is roaring back despite everything. This week is la rentree, France’s national return to work after the summer holidays, and the government is doing everything it can to avoid another lockdown. Masks are obligatory in public places, but otherwise life proceeds almost as it did before the pandemic. Stand in the middle of Paris, look around you, and the roads, offices and flats are packed again.

Only one (vast) bit of the city centre is almost empty: the river. Most cities were built on rivers. People originally settled in Paris because of the Seine, and in London for the Thames.

A third of New York City’s surface area is water. For centuries, city folk used rivers for shipping, sewage, fishing and play. In a rare city without a big river — Johannesburg, say — you notice its absence.

Yet in recent decades, we have neglected urban rivers. Now, as coronavirus prompts us to remake cities for the age of working from home and Amazon Prime, we need to return the waterways to service. The Industrial Revolution ruined rivers for more than a century.

Huge new urban populations overwhelmed them with sewage, factory emissions and the sulphurous fumes of freight ships. In Newcastle in the early 1800s, salmon had been so plentiful in the Tyne river that apprentices were said to have clauses in their indentures stating that their masters shouldn’t make them eat it every day. By the 1950s, the salmon were gone.

In 1957, London’s Natural History Museum declared the Thames biologically dead, meaning the water was too filthy to support life. In recent decades, rivers lost their industrial function and cities began cleaning them up. The Thames is now the cleanest it has been in 150 years and boasts seals, porpoises and the occasional whale, sometimes alive.

The Thames Tideway tunnel, due to open in 2025, is supposed to get rid of periodic sewer overflows and make the river the cleanest it has been since the Industrial Revolution. In cities from Chicago to provincial China, soot-covered riverside warehouses have been turned into hipster restaurants and prime waterfront apartments.

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The latest trend is to convert urban waterways into the natural play spaces so lacking in most cities. A few years from now, if there are any office workers left in New York, they may be able to take an outdoor dip at lunchtime as people already do in Copenhagen and Zurich.

Paris recently transferred its riverbanks from cars to revellers. In Los Angeles, the 91-year-old architect Frank Gehry is involved in plans to revitalise the banks of the once neglected LA River for parkland, cycle paths and arts projects. But rivers also need to regain their original purpose as transport hubs.

Cities are now on a post-corona push to reclaim their streets from cars and lorries. To do that, they’ll have to shift more traffic back to the river — but this time cleanly and silently, using the coming generation of electric ferries, barges and short-haul cargo ships. Ferries already transport 2.1 billion passengers a year (including 108 million a year in Istanbul alone).

Numbers have been rising in San Francisco, New York and Sydney, while London plans to double its annual total of riders to 20 million by 2035. Admittedly, ferries go slowly, but so do cars stuck in traffic. Passenger traffic may diminish as an urban issue if working from home gets entrenched.

But there’s one form of urban traffic that just keeps growing: deliveries.


This year’s unprecedented boom in digital shopping will outlast the pandemic, predicts consultancy McKinsey: “US consumers report an intent to shop online even after the Covid-19 crisis.” The usual business model of delivery companies is to send trucks into the city to pollute and double-park while dropping off parcels. Amazon, in particular, decimates high-street shops while paying hardly any tax. Its 2018 profits were just £10.1bn on worldwide revenue of £232.9bn, while its tax charge was only £1.2bn and more than a third of that was deferred.

Imagine using the immense capacity of shipping to take delivery trucks off the roads. One of the newer Thames freight barges with a capacity of 1,750 tons can replace 44 large trucks. Even without being electric-powered, it uses much less energy per ton and causes less noise pollution.

In other words, we need to turn truck drivers into barge captains. This won’t happen in a day. Delivery companies will need to build new distribution centres on cheap riverside land outside cities.

When their boats dock at the new downtown wharves, electric cargo bikes — which can carry up to 350kg each, more than some fully loaded vans — will deliver packages the last mile. DHL in Amsterdam already does a version of this. Later, drones could handle the last mile, but for now regulations impede them.

Boat-to-bike is more cumbersome than delivery by truck, because it adds a stage. You might have to pay more to get your parcels the same day. On the upside, it will unblock city centres.

Rivers are the reason our cities are where they are. We just forgot about them. Follow Simon on Twitter @KuperSimon and email him at simon.kuper@ft.com

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