Peter Heath: 'Planners are learning to see waterfronts as an asset, not an obstacle'

From a speech by the principal public realm specialist of Atkins, to the Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland

A few years ago, walking across Hungerford Bridge to the South Bank was like running a gauntlet between beggars, muggers and tramps: Not desirable and not attractive. London was failing to recognise the potential in its waterfront and how making it into a "destination" could deliver real social, economic and regeneration goals. England's capital city was not alone.

Many of the great cities of the world have evolved on rivers and estuaries - and for good reasons. For defence, to support trade and communications, for power, water supply and waste disposal, and even for ancient spiritual reasons. Rarely, however, have city founders considered how the waterfront could enhance their leisure activities and the enjoyment of their city - and certainly not considered it a priority.

Too often, environmental abuse of watercourses has added to the negative impression. Mistreatment and neglect have been more common than valuing the waterfront as a unique city asset. This problem has occurred world-wide, not just in the UK, but arguably one of the best historical examples is the River Thames and the famous "London Stink" of 1858. This itself was responsible for the introduction of managed sewage disposal and the Embankment civic improvements of 1869-70.

Increasingly, however, architects, urban planners and the business and political communities are appreciating the potential of their waterfronts. By investing in more attractive, better connected and more integrated waterfront development, cities like Bristol, Glasgow, London and Newcastle are starting to re-focus around their waterfronts, seeing them as an asset not an obstacle. Consider, for example, the "Paris Plage" and its success.

A waterfront is frequently a city's raison d'être, but seldom its best loved or cared for feature. These new and exciting projects to open up waterfronts, attract people into new areas and re-align cities are starting to bear fruit - making places that people want to visit and use, linking existing squares and public spaces back to the waterfront. In architecture and urban design, going back to the roots is often the best way to realise the future.