The architecture of reconnection:
Places that make life better by design
For 150 years, a space three times the size of Disneyland has sat, seemingly desolate, in the heart of London. Generally considered as 'off-limits' by locals, the Walthamstow reservoirs instilled a ‘keep out’ culture through their defensive exterior of high fencing and cautionary signage.
That was until Walthamstow Wetlands opened to the public in October 2017. Located in north-east London between Blackhorse Road and Tottenham Hale, its design is the product of a £10.6 million project and is formed of 10 operational reservoirs and spans an area of over 200 hectares.
What’s now often hailed as ‘Europe’s largest urban nature reserve’ was a collaboration between the London Wildlife Trust, Thames Water and Waltham Forest Council, who partnered with Kinnear Landscape Architects (KLA) and Witherford Watson Mann Architects.
Today, the Wetlands run hundreds of programmes throughout the year and remains a fully operational Thames Water reservoir site, supplying 3.5 million people with clean drinking water every day. The space is also a haven for wildlife with particular ecological importance. It is a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) as well as a RAMSAR site, it is home to both regular and rare wildlife.
The ultimate focus of the project was a place that would truly work for the people - and wildlife - using it. For Lynn Kinnear, lead architect at KLA, the aim was simple: “How do you make people feel that they can use the space in the way that they want to use it? We didn’t want to put up barriers to anyone. We wanted it to feel like it was for them.”
Having brought together experts as well as local community stakeholders in the planning process, Walthamstow Wetlands is a place that fosters a special sense of community and is improving the health and wellbeing of those that have discovered its treasures.
Natalie & Ragnar
“Coming here is about growth for him and self-nurture for me.”
Every Monday, Natalie brings her four-and-a-half year old son Ragnar to Under 5s Forest School at Walthamstow Wetlands. As part of the informal family learning programme, Ragnar spends two hours with other children exploring the outdoors, which can involve anything from building dens to arts and crafts with wood. And while Ragnar is occupied, Natalie finds time to practise her mindfulness.
“It’s such a nice little oasis. I have my own time, just something that’s for me. I’ve had depression in the past, and it always makes me feel better to be immersed in nature. It’s a really good antidote to the daily life of London, I just feel calmer.”
This is an environment that allows people to connect to it in a way that works for them. For Ragnar, it's about being surrounded by rich and intriguing wildlife. He can identify robins and kingfishers, and is beginning to understand nature in terms of his own humanity.
“When he plays I can hear the influences of the natural environment” says Natalie. “Ragnar has a gentle approach. If he sees insects he won’t squash them, he’ll think about them having a family and their own lifecycle.”
Thanks to regular visits to the wetlands, Ragnar is learning the value of respecting and protecting the natural world from a young age. Natalie feels as though it’s incredibly “important [for him] to have a space to understand nature,” especially growing up in a city, and contemplates the long-lasting impact of this experience.
“I hope he’ll always have the memory of this space, and keep that wherever he goes. Hopefully it'll encourage him to keep telling his friends why nature is important.”
Ragnar’s freedom of exploration in the Wetlands is actually incredibly carefully planned and designed. The process, led by KLA, combined surveys of the site with studies of the wider Lea Valley and its protected habitats, providing crucial information about how to protect, improve and strengthen wildlife habitats. The need to balance a surge in visitor numbers with the surrounding habitat resulted in the architects’ creation of the ‘green core’. The Forest School and all programmes run by the centre are based in this 'core', absorbing the 415,000 visitors per year, and minimising disturbance on the outlying reservoirs with more sensitive wildlife.
Like Ragnar, Dan can spot robins and kingfishers. He can also identify a reed warbler from its birdsong, accurately guess the number of moulting tufted ducks there are in the Wetlands, and expertly tag a goose on first attempt.
“Birdwatching has always been a passion. As a child I was really into nature. For birthday presents I would ask for trees to be planted in the garden instead of toys to play with.”
He is also one of the lucky few who knew about permitted access to the Wetlands before they opened to the public. Prior to 2017, the Wetlands was a collection of 10 Victorian reservoirs in the Lea Valley, built towards the end of the 19th century to meet London’s growing demand for clean water. Understandably, it was always viewed as an operational site, and to many locals was considered a wasteland. Only a handful of avid birdwatchers and keen anglers knew that you could buy a permit to enter the site for £1.
Dan lives on the borders of the Wetlands, having grown up in Walthamstow. He’s been coming to the space for over six years, and now works part time for the London Wildlife Trust having just finished a degree in ecology and wildlife conservation.
“Every day is in some ways new. A new person who hasn’t heard of or seen something before, or a new species that turns up. That’s the great thing about working in nature, everything is new - although it's a cycle there are always slight changes to that cycle.”
Dan has witnessed the space through the change over the past few years. “The ground layer of habitat was here” he says, the designers have “just added to it and improved it”.
“I don’t think there was any intention to come here and redesign the place, because its beauty and wonder was always here, it just needed a bit of sprucing up.” And that certainly echoes the design team’s specific intention to ‘respond to’ rather than ‘impose’ character on the site.
One way the design has enhanced the landscape is through the planting of new reed beds to encourage breeding birds and alleviate any impact that public access might have on bird numbers. And it seems to be working:
“In the first four months of opening there were five new species of birds.” says Dan. “The reed beds within the first year were full of reed warblers, water rails, reed buntings. So many new birds that haven't been seen here before.”
Things may have changed for the wildlife at the Wetlands, but Dan’s feelings about the space haven’t.
“Even though it’s open to the public, there are still spaces where you can go and feel like you're in the middle of nowhere. It makes me feel relaxed coming here. If it’s pouring down with rain or a beautiful day like today.”
“The wetlands are a real haven for me. Coming here just makes me feel more positive again, even if it’s pouring with rain it feels peaceful."
Like Dan, for Mary the charm of the Wetlands outshines the weather. She feels an affinity with nature and outdoor space having grown up in South Africa. And reconnecting with this part of her childhood has allowed her to begin to overcome some of the physical and mental health conditions that she’s been battling over the past 10 years.
“I just saw a dragonfly and thought about how much time they spend underwater, around seven years, before they emerge and fly. That kind of thing reminds me how things take time. It makes me realise that eventually I’ll emerge.”
After being diagnosed with thyroid cancer towards the end of 2017, Macmillan referred Mary through social prescription to the Waltham Forest Adult Learning Service. This service uses the Wetlands as a space for a host of workshops and activities which take a holistic approach to health and wellbeing.
Mary took part in an arts and crafts programme where they worked with ink, paint, clay and collage. “It was really therapeutic to sit alongside people concentrating. The collaboration [between Walthamstow Wetlands and the adult learning service] that allowed us to do art here was so different from a stuffy classroom. It was liberating. The team were amazing, they helped me through a dark time.”
A large number of workshops and programmes run at the Wetlands take place in the main visitor centre, the old disused Engine House. This historic building was painstakingly renovated by architects Witherford Watson Mann, preserving the industrial aesthetic by using simple materials like timber, concrete and steel. And this continuity of detail is present within both the buildings and the landscape, creating ‘one cohesive experience’ throughout the site.
“I feel like I’m not just visiting, I’m part of it. They’ve managed to create a nice feeling with the pathways - making it feel natural. It’s designed to take you on a journey without you noticing how carefully it’s been curated… it’s beautiful.” Indeed, one single ribbon of concrete connects the whole site, linking the ‘green core’ to the entrances and creating a truly integrated landscape and architecture.
“I think this space is absolutely fundamental to the health of the people around here. You can see the flats coming closer all around but to have this space in the midst of it will, I think, be lifesaving.”
“It’s so special being in the middle of a metropolis and yet you’ve got all this around you. It refreshes you, it’s rewarding.”
Michael’s family is Ghanain, but he grew up in Hull and has lived in Walthamstow for 16 years. He has been watching the development of the area rapidly unfold around him.
The major regeneration of Walthamstow, specifically around St James Street, Blackhorse Lane and Lea Bridge, has been taking place over the past four years. Thousands of new homes have been built with more in the planning stage, Blackhorse Lane has become a ‘creative industries zone’, and there’s a possibility of a new £200 million five-year redevelopment project in the pipeline.
These communities surrounding the Wetlands are amongst London’s most densely populated, with many previously deprived of access to nature. When redesigning the site, the locations of the entrances were specifically chosen to connect areas which would directly address this deprivation. So as more people move in close proximity, the more crucial connecting these urban communities to green space becomes.
The benefits of the Wetlands are not only connecting these communities to green space, but also to each other.
“We live in an integrated society so it’s important for us all to get on,” says Michael. “In the time we’re living in, we have to bring together people from all different communities. A space like this is great to do that - whether humanist, religious, not religious.”
Michael is part of the local Jewish community in Stoke Newington, and recently brought a group of volunteers to help build planters at the Wetlands. “‘Tikkun olam’ [a concept in Judaism] is about repairing the world. A lot of Jews see it as an obligation to try to help the world in a beneficial way - including the natural environment.”
The Wetlands actively reaches out to faith groups to encourage inclusive volunteering groups. Michael sees the Wetlands as a space to connect with the wider community, religious or not. He is the self-proclaimed ‘resident astronomer’, coming solo to the Wetlands with just his telescope, as well as helping to organise events for avid stargazers.
“It refreshes you and it’s also rewarding. It’s always positive. Although I’m often reluctant to leave!”