Millions of people in over 70 countries around the world celebrated World Rivers Day on Sunday 27th September. This is a celebration of the world’s waterways and aims to highlight the values of rivers and increase public awareness and encourage the improved stewardship of rivers around the world.

In support of this important celebration Eunomia looks at the work being carried out on our rivers and waterways, Yvonne Rees, Eunomia’s Natural Economy Lead makes the case for ‘daylighting’ our urban rivers.

Years ago, we relied on our rivers for transport and industry – many towns grew up around them. This was followed by a period of mixed use and abuse, resulting in many rivers being covered up (or culverted), to hide the sight and smell of often highly polluted rivers, and to make space for development and roads. Fortunately, we are seeing a ‘u-turn’ as the benefits of ‘opening up’ or daylighting rivers are increasingly being recognised by town and city councils.

There are good examples where bringing the river back into view has changed the way people use their urban spaces, spending time enjoying a natural environment that brings benefits to both wildlife and health, as well enhancing local business.

The multiple benefits

Eunomia has undertaken assessments of these benefits to support economic and financial cases for re-opening rivers, drawing on the experiences of towns and cities throughout England which have already realised this opportunity. Everywhere we searched, we found people were clearly delighted with the results. To quote from just a few examples:

  • In the Wandle Park in Croydon, London, a project which deculverted the River Wandle and created new gardens and outdoor facilities,  Boris Johnson commented it “ has also resurrected one of London’s lost rivers and returned it to the local community to enjoy.”
  • In Rochdale the Leader of the Borough Council talked of “the river re-opening project truly is a celebration of Rochdale’s past, present and future” and
  • in Sheffield, where the County Council uncovered a stream culverted beneath a factory floor and created a ‘pocket park’ Councillor Mary Lea highlights “the successful transformation of what was once just a temporary car park into a brand new riverside public open space. Although this is only a relatively small project, it has had a big impact on the urban environment and is already seen as a catalyst for regeneration and further improvements upstream.”

The financial return

The benefits reported relate to a sense of place, recreation, wellbeing, and health arising from opportunities to relax and connect with nature, and by ameliorating the effects of urban heat and air pollution. There is also scope for reduced flood risk.  A detail cost benefit study in Mayesbrook Park estimated that every £1 invested yields £7 in benefits ((actual figures, £27m benefits, £3.8m total project cost).

In Rochdale, for example, the re-opened river is expected to bring an extra £6.72m into Rochdale’s economy over the next ten years and flood risk benefits worth £4.42m, including flood protection for 40 properties in the town centre and improved drainage for a further 500 properties. Despite this attractive cost benefit ratio, a perennial problem is justifying the initial investment costs, which are not insignificant and often rely on councils already stretched budgets. The average costs of deculverting schemes were estimated to be €21k/m (urban) vs €6k/m (non-urban) by Wild et al 2018.

But there is evidence that daylighting rivers in town centres can also lead to tangible financial returns, adding value to properties and increasing economic activity. Based on a review of literature, combined with a local stakeholder survey, our research suggested financial benefits would include:

  • increased property values with views of waterways
  • an uplift in business rateable value and council tax for properties with greenspace
  • increased prices for land with river restoration
  • increased spend in greener retail areas as shoppers spend longer
  • increased numbers of businesses due to the attractiveness of the area.

Nowadays, the Environment Agency is in general opposed to the culverting of watercourses because of the adverse ecological, flood defence and other effects that are likely to arise.

Still much more to achieve

But there are many thousands of km of rivers still buried out of view. As Covid has highlighted, green/blue space is important to us all and in short supply in urban areas, with the funding now available from Government for green recovery, there has never been a better time to consider how we can bring rivers back into our lives.