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Londoners love the Thames; there's no doubt about that

Back to the River community consultation report released

July 30, 2015

Londoners love the Thames; there’s no doubt about that. For the month of June Londoners came from near and far to express their love for our river at the Back to the River community consultation meetings supported by TD Friends of the Environment and the London Public Library.

The back to the River partners, London Community Foundation, Upper Thames River Conservation Authority and the City of London engaged Londoners in focus groups to hear their input on the Thames River revitalization project. The five shortlisted firms (Brook McIlroy, Civitas + Stantec, Janet Rosenberg & Studio, PWL Partnership Landscape Architects Inc., Stoss + Dillon) will receive the full report to incorporate Londoners’ visions in their designs.

Last week the partners released the results of the consultation sessions in a report compiled by the Kovacks Group. The report is based on data from focus groups and online surveys in which citizens were asked a series of questions to gather their insights and ideas for the Thames River. Approximately 160 people participated in the focus groups and 37 print surveys and 72 online surveys were completed.

The report outlines the culmination of ideas shared by the community regarding the river and its revitalization. Central themes that emerged from the focus groups include:

•           Water

•           Social Connection

•           Recreation

•           Entertainment

•           Nature

•           Health, Wellbeing, and Spirituality

•           Urban Development and Planning

•           Education

•           Economy

•           Heritage

•           Design

A wide range of opinions were expressed, but if there was only one takeaway it would be that all Londoners care deeply about the Thames! Though we may have neglected it in recent years, it is evident that Londoners care about its future. In fact, many participants expressed that they feel as though they don’t engage with the river as much as they would like to. Furthermore, many residents had ideas of what would bring them back to the river; such as, entertainment, art, food, more trails, paths and recreational space.

As expected, there were mixed messages surrounding the fate of the Springbank Dam. Although it is not included in the study area, it will impact water levels. That said, this will challenge proponents to ensure they create a flexible design to accommodate this.

Also contentious was the issue of urban development along the river. Some respondents believe the area around the river should remain as natural as possible. Others suggest the 100m within the riverbank should be protected, whereas some felt that there is a need for greater development. This will be another challenge for the proponents as the partners have charged proponents to strike a balance between environmental sustainability, community/recreational space and economic development.  

Interestingly, water quality was highlighted as a common concern among Londoners especially issues of pollution, contamination, e-coli, water treatment facility overflows, and high levels of bacteria. Many Londoners expressed a desire to swim in the river if water quality was improved.  The theme of water was reoccurring as participants referenced “the river itself” as a source of life, environmental asset and a heritage site.

Central to the overall goal of community mobilization, social connectedness, recreation, and entertainment were cited as elements Londoners value about the river and would like to see enhanced for the future. The river is seen as a place for people to come together and is a source of community connectedness. The river belongs to the community and is something everyone can enjoy. Providing residents with a space to gather, engage in recreational activities, arts, culture and entertainment will be top of mind for the future.

So what does this all mean for back to the river?

Since the five shortlisted firms span geographically across North America and many had never seen London or the Thames River until last week, citizen input will be integral to how they plan their designs. Back to the River is about mobilizing the community and giving Londoners something they can all take pride in. This initiative is for the community and we want Londoners to be a part of it every step of the way. Getting feedback from Londoners is essential to the planning process and will put the project into context for the proponents.

It doesn’t end here, though. The next phase of the design competition requires the proponents to put concrete ideas down on paper including detailed development strategies for two key areas: The Forks and SoHo. RFP submissions are due October 2 followed by a public presentation of designs to the community on October 22, 2015. The successful proponent will be announced to the public early November.

Hearing the bold visions of Londoners is very exciting! Putting these ideas into action will demonstrate community pride, celebrating our history, heritage and future. We look forward to seeing the visionary designs from proponents that will help London re-imagine our relationship to the river. 

 

Sheila Simpson
Sheila is a program manager at Ontario Trillium Foundation and is a member of the Back to the River steering committee.