Greening our cities by restoring urban rivers

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River Leven, DumbartonScotland’s urban spaces have a long and intimate relationship with water. We depend on our rivers to supply water and transport waste, to provide recreational and breathing space within our communities and to beautify our urban areas and provide habitat for the plants and animals that live alongside us.

For many years we have constrained and hidden our rivers from view in our towns and cities; using them as an energy source to fuel the industrial revolution and as a conduit for the removal of our waste. As a direct consequence of this, they have lost much of the natural processes and behaviour they once had.

SEPA’s Water Environment Fund (WEF) promotes and funds improvements to rivers across Scotland. In doing so we are seeking to restore as many of those natural processes as we possibly can so our rivers provide the economic, environmental and social benefits to the communities they flow through.

But improving how our rivers serve our urban spaces can be complex and must be carefully managed. Rivers are directly linked to the spaces around them and in order to truly improve their natural processes we must pay attention to those surrounding areas. In this way green infrastructure and rivers corridors are inextricably linked.

We must combine improvements to the physical condition of our rivers with improvements that complement and enhance the surrounding green infrastructure. Improvements such as increased resilience to flood events by increasing the capacity of rivers to handle large rainfall events, improved amenity and utilisation of surrounding spaces to improve the health and wellbeing of residents and improving the ecology of an area by increasing the quantity and diversity of surrounding habitats. This is not an exhaustive list of the potential benefits and it is limited only by the scope and ambition of the project.

Building in these multiple benefits to urban river projects is at the heart of WEF’s approach.

WEF is currently working with partners on two such projects where this approach has been taken – Tollcross Burn in Glasgow’s East End and the Lyne Burn in Dunfermline.

  • Like many of the rivers in Glasgow the Tollcross Burn has been straightened, buried in concrete pipes and forgotten for much of its length.

    2015-06-24 Tollcros Burn WEF project

    Vision of a restored Sandyhills Park, Tollcross Burn, Glasgow

    Working with Glasgow City Council, WEF have funded works to look at restoring a length of the river as it flows through Sandyhills Park. This involves removing the river from the concrete pipe, creating a more natural river channel, and linking the river to the surrounding green areas.This re-establishment of a natural river channel brings with it the multiple benefits for communities and environment mentioned above. For example, Glasgow City Council and WEF have proposals in place to rejuvenate the parkland alongside the river and incorporate many green infrastructure aims, including increased capacity to handle run off from high rainfall events, sustainable urban drainage and increasing the access and amenity value of the park for local residents.

  • Working in partnership with Fife Council and Lothian & Fife Green Network Partnership, the WEF team have developed a project that utilised the existing green network plans that the council has produced, and has evolved them to include improvements to a 1.5km stretch of river within the Rex Park area of the town.

    2015-06-24 Lyne Burn WEF project

    Outline of Lyne Burn corridor in Dunfermline

    Again, this project combines improving the natural processes of the river corridor and the green infrastructure of the surrounding area. We have discussed plans with the council for improving connectivity between the centre of Dunfermline and its outskirts, using the river corridor as a transport link with improved pathways and cycle lanes. We have also discussed the potential for improving flood resilience along the river corridor by directing surface water to the river rather than the sewer and allowing the parkland to flood in times of high rainfall, and improving the natural biodiversity of the plants in the area, while simultaneously reducing the maintenance burden of the park areas.

These are just two examples of how by implementing improvements to the water environment, and linking with partners to incorporate the multiple benefits green infrastructure can provide, we can once again make our river corridors a valued and useful part of our urban environment.

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