Riverside stories – Beyond

Living with Water – Hull, UK

The very-similarly-named ‘Living with Water’ project that has been underway in Hull since 2017, based on a partnership between on a partnership between Hull city Council, East Riding of Yorkshire council, Environment Agency and Yorkshire Water. This is a scheme with a lot of investment and promises huge construction projects to both keep water out but also develop the city further to live in harmony with water.

Watch the video below describing the work they have been involved with and that is being carried out in York. It is a very clear, slick and well presented video and provides a fascinating historical glimpse at the development of Hull too. It points out how Hull, like York and many cities in the UK developed on floodplains mainly due to the ‘use values’ that the river provided for economic growth as well as providing for societal needs. As a result it drained these floodplains of water to build and develop further on the land and build the city of Hull we recognise today. This way of valuing nature fits with the kind of ‘neoliberal’ approach to valuing nature that the government still advocates for today (i.e. White Paper, 2011).

However, as this video shows, decisions made along the way of this type of approach quickly become a subject for engineers alone and few members of the public would be a part of that process. Similarly, it is now recognised that these approaches only work so far – the environment eventually wins and we can’t keep water back or out forever. As you watch this video, notice these same trends – these are still, highly impressive, technical solutions designed seemingly by engineers alone. Even the promise of ‘living in harmony with water’ is only made in account of innovative development and growth of the city’s economy. Who is making these decisions and who are these decisions being made for?

Note the call to open our minds to new ideas and new ways of thinking about our relationship with water – this is then quickly followed by ‘our vision’. While this is also a valuable insight, this ‘new chapter’ of flood management, including ‘adaptive green space’, sometimes called ‘blue-green infrastructure’, or even Natural Flood Management are all part of these future directions in flood management policy-making. However these are all political decisions and affect the places and spaces in which people live and interact with water. Who looks after these spaces? What kind of ‘blue-green spaces’ do people want to see? Who will these spaces be designed for? This is why it is important to understand ‘your vision’ (and values) too!

Ilkley Clean River Campaign, UK

The river Wharfe runs through Ilkley, a beautiful spa town on the edge of Ilkley Moor, the setting of the old folk song ‘On Ilkla Moor Baht ‘at’ – which is considered to be the ‘anthem’ of Yorkshire. The residents of Ilkley Moor recognise the significance of the beautiful river Wharfe which runs through the towns heart. The river flows through Wharfedale, one of the Yorkshire dales, and connects many of the towns and villages in West Yorkshire.

However these residents have noticed an increasingly poor quality of water, owing to amounts of sewage being pumped into the river throughout the year. To call attention to this and to campaign for action to prevent this sewage being dumped, a campaign group was set up to focus on one popular recreational value that people held with regards to the river; swimming in it! Whether or not the river is ‘swimmable’ for humans (or being given the ‘public bathing water status’), the group state, should be a benchmark as to the standard of water quality they should expect in their town. The idea being – ‘If it’s not good for humans then it’s not good for wildlife or the ecosystem as a whole’. Shockingly there are no rivers that are actually granted a public bathing water status in the UK. I for one regularly swim in the Ouse around Fulford Ings and find it slightly alarming that this water is not considered fit for public use.

Other campaign groups, such as Surfers Against Sewage have used a similar tactic to raise awareness and campaign for better protection of the natural environment they live in – this time focusing on the recreational values of surfing that they derive from the coastal marine environment. It would be interesting to consider what York would hold to be it’s ‘vehicle for transformation’ of the way we treat our rivers in York. Would it also be swimming or perhaps rowing? Or maybe walking along the Foss? Or even fishing? It is an interesting case study to see how the way in which people value the environments they live in can play such an important role in gaining public support for an issue or a campaign, leading eventually to different decisions and outcomes. Just recently, the decision from the Environment Agency to investigate this problem in the next decade has been surpassed by Yorkshire Water declaring they would look into this in the coming year – a huge turn around.

You can see their campaign website and read more information about the group here as well as read up on this story in this Guardian article.

The Megatron – Sheffield, UK

The ‘Megatron’ lying beneath Sheffield is a majestic testament to the way in which we have shaped and directed our waterways underground (culverted) to act as gigantic drains for our cities. Here in these underground chambers, the only people who come into contact with the once free river Sheaf and porter Brook are urban explorers and, as the video below shows, some water sports enthusiasts.

Sheffield, much like York, is a city designed around the confluence of two rivers; the river Sheaf (Sheffield’s namesake) and the river Don. However, for the last 150 years or more Sheffield has built over these rivers, with the Sheaf now all but invisible through the city centre. Imagine if the Ouse flowed underneath York. What would the city look like? What would you miss most?

Whanganui River – New Zealand: river legally recognised as a person

The River is Me – short documentary following the historic legal case granting personhood to the Whanganui River in New Zealand.

The Whanganui River is the first river in the world to have been granted legal personhood status – recognising the river as a living being. An MP who represents the Maori community who live with this river said “from a Whanganui viewpoint the wellbeing of the river is directly linked to the wellbeing of the people and so it is really important that’s recognised as its own identity.” It is worth noting that corporations in USA have benefited from this same legal status since the 19th century.

So what does such a move mean? For the Maori people it was a huge landmark case, where they had been fighting for the health and respect of the river for a long time – a fight that was inherently tied up with a history of British colonisation. Now the river can be ‘represented’ in the court of law. What would happen if this was enacted in the UK, specifically in York? Moreover, putting the legal status aside for a moment, what if we as communities tried to think of the river as a living being?

Watch this short documentary above. Notice when the interviewer asks at a certain point, following on from trying to understand where the river’s boundaries are, whether the implications of this case is that at some point in the future all of the parts of the natural world will be ‘spoken for’. What if we were to try and enact this on a local democratic level?

Similarly this video touches on an important point about how different worldviews (ontologies) about the nature of ‘things’ or ‘what exists’ can differ greatly around the globe according to different cultures and communities. Different worldviews can have a great impact on the way in which decisions are made as well as how communities might live with the environment around them. For many around the world, the question might not be so much one of ‘how do we look after the environment’, but rather how do we look after ourselves as a community (recognising the environment as a part of that question, because it is not seen as separate).