Healthy rivers, healthy cities? The case of Sheffield and its rivers

24 January 2018

Jon Morris - Research Associate, Sheffield University Management School

The UK Government’s new 25-year environmental plan shows the need to increase biodiversity and resilience of our waterways. This has implications far beyond the immediate health of the river system itself

Theresa May’s declaration on January 11th to deliver a ‘Green Brexit’ as part of a new 25-year environmental plan emphasises the Government’s commitment to delivering cleaner water, improve biodiversity, and develop resilience against extreme events. As a common property resource, rivers are prone to the tragedy of the commons and the 25-year environmental plan is a welcome addition towards the continued rehabilitation of Britain’s watercourses and to support existing work carried out by community groups enhancing their river systems. Following heavy polluting since the Industrial Revolution, actions over the past 30 years to clean up waterways has seen Britain’s rivers become the cleanest they have been for over 200 years. This has been achieved through a combination of deindustrialisation, policy action at local and European level and a strong voluntary sector which has restored many urban rivers to high standards of cleanliness and habitability.

No river epitomises this greater than Sheffield’s River Don which has reinvented itself from one of the most polluted rivers in Europe to one which now supports wildlife from kingfishers and otters and that ultimately will see salmon return to the city centre in Sheffield. However despite these actions 4 out of 5 rivers in the UK are still at ‘poor’ standard, and failing to achieve the ‘good’ status set out in the European Union’s water framework directive and the case of the Don reveals a wider tension of urban planning in Northern England.

The Drought Risk and You project has sought to understand people’s understandings and perceptions of drought risk and reconnect citizens to their local water courses. The experiences we have heard during the project from residents of Sheffield suggests a river system which is missing opportunities for leisure spaces and water management solutions, and one that is showing signs of neglect and local indifference despite the huge efforts of Yorkshire Water and local organisations such as the Don Catchment Rivers Trust and the River Stewardship Company towards restoring the water systems and cleaning up waterways all over the city.

Sheffield’s particular topography (its 7 hills and 5 rivers) gave it the water power to support a huge steel industry and a world famous cutlery industry. Without its river system, Sheffield arguably would not have grown to the city it is today but it’s industrial past continues to scar its water systems. The rivers became polluted by industrial waste, modified by engineers to maximise the utility for mill and factory owners, and the life began to sap away, replaced by a system that was essential to the economy but useless to society. The process of hiding the rivers from the population led to culverting, covering, and diverting and has distanced local residents from their natural resources. This is a sad situation where the residents of Sheffield are either unaware of their rivers, or do not utilise them due to inaccessibility and the past reputation of the rivers. It also has implications for communicating water hazards, most vividly in flooding events, but also droughts as the disconnect between drinking water and the natural water system is exacerbated and makes the process of communicating drought risk and the need for water efficiency and conservation more difficult.

The hiding of Sheffield’s rivers also impacts on its local economy. A healthy urban canal and river system can add benefits to a city’s economy through increased house prices and tourism, improve health and well-being through additional leisure spaces, and support environmental management through improved drainage. Our research revealed that the overlooking of river development has been a missed opportunity for a joined up regeneration strategy in the city. Perhaps the most telling remark from one of our workshops is the statement from a Sheffield resident that: “I don’t know the word for it, this image that the city can’t be healthy until the river is healthy, it’s like this mythical or magical way of thinking that the river is a metaphor for everything else and obviously the river is affected by everything that we do and we’re affected by the quality of the river so there’s a scientific basis as well.”.

The health of the city was questioned by piecemeal and incomplete developments. For every shiny new Kelham Island apartment block there remains a discarded, derelict former factory in Neepsend and Victoria Quays remains under-utilised. The unfinished 1990s regeneration of the canal basin leaves Sheffield lagging behind similar developments in Leeds, Manchester and Birmingham, and the once grand River Sheaf (which gives the city its name and powered the first mills that sparked Sheffield’s development) continues to be impounded, trickling slowly under the train station.

If a river is a metaphor for a city then Sheffield is on the way back, showing signs of potential but with a need for a bit more direction. A 25-year national environmental plan is a step in the right direction and is welcome in the current political climate. However, the need for developing a holistic urban plan that incorporates river systems which would enable some of our former industrial northern cities like Sheffield to utilise and capitalise on their natural environments alongside their industrial heritage to develop a rich and healthy economy that benefits society and the local ecology. A strategy that tackles the health of the rivers alongside the health of the economy would very much be welcomed.

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