Architecture and Water (Part 2): Gentrification machine?

The second of a three-part documentary series explores the gentrification along the Thames driven by desirable riverside living.

“The canals and the rivers have been implicated in driving that corridor of gentrification through London, so the big question is– for architects and urban designers – how can we change that story? How can we use the relationship to water to open up new urban and social opportunities [as well as] new architectural opportunities?” These questions – raised by Phineas Harper, assistant editor of The Architectural Review and director of the "Architecture and Water" documentary series – form the meat of the issues raised in part two of the series, produced in collaboration with the Old Royal Navy College

In this installment, we delve into the issue of riverside property, land that now commands a huge premium. Traditionally earmarked for economic activities related to shipping, in recent years huge demand for housing in the city has led to large parcels in key waterfront areas being sold off, usually at top prices, either to a wealthy elite or rich foreign nationals.

The result is that everyday people are excluded from accessing waterfront property.

As Harper puts it, You’ve got working-class people getting priced out of the city and middle-class people spending more and more of their incomes to stay in the city.

Dan Clarke, a property developer at Native Land, is unapologetic when it comes to riverfront land use: “The river is an extremely attractive honeypot for investors… Does the river cause gentrification? Well, on one level, yes it does and you’d be naive to suggest that it didn’t.” Clarke’s argument is that underprivileged areas suffer the way they do due to a lack of gentrification – that is, a lack of wealthier residents willing and able to pay taxes and amenity costs for the community. 

However, because most of the new developments on the banks of the Thames do not include spaces for the public to interact with the river, these projects are essentially just opportunities to sell views.

Harper suggests that the issue of riverside developments needs to be seen in the wider context of place-making and the quality of urban living: “What we need to do as a city is find ways of building developments that are not just anodyne cubicles to store workers in between office hours. They need to be dynamic neighborhoods. They need to have a meaningful relationship to the water that’s more than just a nice view to raise the property prices.”