An Important Conversation About Urban Waterways
Share this post
Working at Kickstarter means that exciting trends within the ecosystem of the site are easier to spot. So when we noticed that Chris Romer-Lee, Matt Bamford-Bowes, and James Lowe had launched a project to create swimmable portions along the river Thames in London, we immediately thought about the +POOL, an equally ambitious project based here in New York, that will clean the waterways even as people swim in them.
We thought it would be a good idea to get on the phone with Romer-Lee, Bamford-Bowes, and Archie Lee Coates of +POOL to talk about how they got where they are now, and how, when they're completed, their projects just might change the way we look at some of the biggest cities in the world.
Chris: [Thames Baths Lido] started when I was on holiday in Zurich, and I was swimming in the lake there. The lake runs right up to the edge of the city. There’s something particularly magical about being able to immerse oneself in nature. They also have amazing swimming facilities all around the lake. So you had these incredible manicured lawns and changing facilities, all built in the 1930s, and yet when you get to the edge of the lake, it becomes all green and slimy like a lake should be. While I was there, I got a tweet from the architecture foundation at the Royal Academy saying they'd launched a competition and would Studio Octopi be interested in entering it? The competition was to come up with future ideas for the Thames, and I thought, well, if the Swiss are prepared to jump into nature as willingly as this, then Londoners are prepared to launch themselves into the brown murky depths of the Thames. Our practice is built around completing projects. We enter maybe two or three competitions a year. Not many really. Our projects are built, we don't sit around theorizing for hours over how we're going to build floating houses or rockets to the moon. It's about getting on with it. To be honest, I never really questioned whether it was feasible or not. I just convinced myself that it was. And it would be. When we drew up the proposals for it, it was like, Well yeah that could actually happen.
Archie: We're two practices. Playlab and Family. We kind of approached it from two different backgrounds. Our practice, Playlab, is structured around branding and identity and then a little bit of architecture, and then Family's is based in architectural practice. We launched a pie shop in Alabama called Pie Lab as this strange initiative to see how we could get people together at the same table talking about things that mattered in some sort of fun weird way. For us that was pie. We spent a good amount of time living in this city that was so different than New York and realized the power of us as designers to be able to propose things that we wanted to see happen in a community or in the world and just make it happen. That was so much fun that we came back to New York and started talking to Dong [-Ping Wong of Family]. Dong had a goal of being able to swim in the river. We both came from this sentiment of, I grew up on water my entire life, either a river or an ocean, surfing, water skiing... It was just such a central part of my life. Dong grew up surfing in San Diego. It's a strange thing to cross this bridge from Brooklyn to Manhattan every day and never once think about swimming in the river because it's known as a thing that you're not able to access.
To be honest, we didn't really look at water quality or the history of the river or how governments play into these situations. We stayed at a very surface level the first month of the project, which was a year before we ever even went to Kickstarter. That year was spent building up a narrative of excitement around the possibility. That was five years ago that we launched +POOL. With +POOL we learned the hard way what a project like this entails. Especially because, as Chris knows big time, there's not a model for this specific type of project, this water filtering floating pool. There are floating pools and there is water filtration. Coming from designers, there aren't a ton of precedents at that level. every step of the way, we would ask one group of people or person we were advised to talk to a question, and they would tell us to go to ten more people and it just became exponential. Now looking back at the past five years, we're a nonprofit organization and we have a full time staff dedicated to this project, and we're dedicated to this project now. The system makes a lot more sense, and we've had to create an ecosystem around it, and also look at it as designers and challenge the way that we do this type of project, and not just do it the way that somebody else is advising us to.
Chris: I don't think I've ever talked to so many people on a project ever. we've come very far, very quickly in two years. My wife this evening just reminded me that two years ago we were swimming in the lake in Zurich. It's quite astonishing, but that's only happened through an enormous amount of conversations with people who have told us, "you can't do it," "you'll never do it," and how absolutely amazing it would be, how it's got to happen. Those conversations led to more conversations. You don't usually do that, because usually you work on projects that entail you talking to the client and the consultant. This has larger implications on London or New York as a whole. The response is always, "it sounds great but you'll never be able to do it."
It's harder to get them to agree to doing it than to actually do it.
Matt: I think one of the key things that has led me to believe... first of all we've had massive support from people on the street, friends, family and all that stuff. I think I remember a really early conversation that Chris had with the guys from +POOL. They said you really need to make sure you are chasing up friends and family and kind of pushing on them to help you and support you to get this thing done. I think also, we've had lots of press, which has been great, but there are certain sections of London society who haven't been 100% supportive of it. Now that we've got this backing in London, and around the world they'll hopefully turn the corner and become a lot more supportive in terms of what we're trying to do.
Have you ever been in the river to test out how gross it is?
Chris: I've never swum in the Thames before last summer
Archie: No. Dong and I surf out at Rockaway where the water is pretty good, but we didn't jump into the East River until last summer when we saw the filtration system in Hudson, and we swam into the river first and then into the testing pool. It was a pretty awesome feeling. I don't know the specifics of water quality in the Thames, I imagine it's a sewage situation quite similar to ours, but the situation in the Hudson and the East River are both quite different. The East River is a tidal body of water, so the water comes in and out multiple times a day. At the same time, it's not that bad unless it's within 48 hours of a major rainstorm. Typically in the summer it's totally swimmable. It's really in these peak times, and you can't really monitor them because it takes 24 hours to cure bacteria and there's no good system for that. These sewer outfalls just dump raw sewage into the river is something like 76 million gallons of sewage on average a day—which is basically human shit. It's an insane thing.
I think for us, the pool isn't really meant to clean the river as much as it is to change the way that nine million people think about the river. If they're able to A) know why you cant swim in it and B) actually get in it in a clean and safe way, it can begin to shift the mentality of it. If there's a lot of excitement around it—there was in the very beginning. You mentioned this thing of, is it really going to happen? It's a double edge sword kind of question because people like Matt and Chris and I all think it's going to happen. Of course it's going to happen, why else would we be doing it? But, we can easily put that excitement into it. Whether it's the public, your mom, your sister, the mayor, another waterfront organization...no matter what, they all have the same question and it call comes with that sharpness of a double edged sword. As the project progresses, you have to have a different answer, or the answer continues to grow because you're learning new things at every stage, and it's up to you to deploy what the answer is at every stage. That's the kind of main job of the project on that level, besides just solving the engineering and architectural concerns of the project. We find ourselves answering that question even now to funders—whether it's 25 dollars or 50 thousand dollars—we have to answer the same question at the same level every time. It doesn't get old. It's fun to share.
Chris: Archie, do you find that you're potentially not being told the full story about how clean the river is? Is there an active body who are perhaps not telling you its clean in between sewer dumps?
Archie: No, it's funny. The city doesn't have a lot of roles in that narrative. It's really down to the waterfront organizations that are already incredibly active in the city. In New York it's Riverkeeper, Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance, Waterkeeper on some levels—and they do an incredible amount of citizen science and it's all really to support a small community of people that are kayaking in the river, that are doing whatever they can to be out on the water, not necessarily in the water. Anywhere from like 200 to 1000 swimmers a year jump into the river and actually swim in open water conditions for—there's a big swim meet in New York every year. NYC Swim does it in the summer, but that's it. Nobody else has a view on what's happening and I don't know that they will. We have a board member for Friends of +POOL—the nonprofit we started for the project—who didn't know that our project filtered the river until years in to supporting us. For him it was just because he was really excited about swimming in the river so it wasn't even a thing. I thought that was a strange observation about people in general, that it isn't our job always to educate, but I think it's a strong component mission of projects like this. At the end of the day, the goals of the project are to provide a pretty insane and seamless experience to get into the water and that's where our number one goal lies. If we can do that really well, and then at the same time educate the public and students and everyone in between and especially governments then we win. But getting in the water is the biggest thing.
Could it be that the concept of pollution in water is sort of abstract?
Archie: There are two ways to think about it. Chemical and bacterial. Even that's too heavy for some people. I think in America, it's like 18 of the 20 biggest cities are on waterfronts that they cant swim in. That's because of sewage, not because of chemicals. As you get out into some Asian countries in the east, there are major chemical issues on these bodies of water, but here it's really just a question of growth in these major cities, and as they grow the sewer systems are not outfitted for that growth and the sewage becomes exponential and goes into the river as it used to. I grew up surfing in winter and I would just piss in my wet suit. That's what we did to keep warm. You just pee in your wetsuit. My wife thinks that's kinda gross but a surfer doesn't think that's gross. In the ocean, you're swimming in countless organisms and all sorts of things floating around in there that are relatively harmless. It's just the pollutants of the city, which really are sewage. There's this vagueness around what pollution is.
Chris: In London, I think they've resolved the chemical issue of pollution, we've just got real shit dumped into the river. As little as two millimeters of rain can make the aging Bazalgette sewers overflow into the Thames and it is raw sewage. You see it floating straight down the river. But they're building this enormous super sewer, if your one sewer gets too small, the solution is to build another one. The complex thing in London is that the rainwater and the sewage systems are combined, so a city that's grown from four million when the sewers were built, to a city of eight million—that combined with excessive paving over a lot of the landscaping in the city, means that water runoff is much quicker, goes straight into the drains and the combination of increased population and high surface runoff just means that two millimeters of rain tips the sewage into the river. It's an extraordinarily crude situation, and although there are solutions out there, no one seems to be tackling the issue, which is very scary really.
Swimming in the Thames was banned by a bylaw about three years ago. You now have to seek permission from the Port of London authority, who own the riverbed to do that. One of our big lines has always been about reclaiming the river for Londoners. There's enough people walking by it and crossing over it, we actually want to get in it. There are people canoeing in it, and sailing on it, but they have to jump through many hoops and obstacles. What we're trying to do is catch people's imaginations and say, "actually no, we can get closer to this river and we can swim in it safely." The stop gap is to filter the water, but when it's finished, we will actually be able to swim in the river again.
I've always enjoyed the comparison between +POOL and Thames Bath. As +POOL in our eyes is very American. It's very graphic. It's very in your face. Where Thames Bath is very British and shy and hidden behind reeds and rushes and rather polite in the corner by the river. Ultimately we're trying to do very similar things but the difference is the shy one and the big brash one.
So does the success of your projects mean that we'll start seeing more of this type of thing?
Chris: Definitely. We've already had inquiries from other UK cities. We've got endless other post-industrial waterways, which are lost in undergrowth. The system which we're developing is so simple that it could be dropped into any waterway, and completely transform the way the city interacts with its own waterways.
Will this change the way people inhabit major cities?
Chris: It has the potential for dramatic change. It breaks down these walls we have in London, which are these built-out embankments. Although they provided a nice pathway along the edge of the river, it took away the riverbank. It took away a whole swath of nature, the natural environment where it met the city. You don't see anything growing. You can't get down to the waters edge in so many places in central London. It's almost like we're floating back the foreshore on top of the river and reintroducing planting. People are always bemused when you say planting. They go, "why wont it grow? Presumably you've kept it separate from the river water." It's like, well no actually, it's filtering the river water, and if it's not filtering the river water, it's feeding off the river water because the river water is healthy.
Archie: That's awesome. I'm trying to think about it like on a super high level...the city, or at least a lot of people I talk to and have met in the past few years, think that wherever they're at in their time in New York is where New York is going to be. They don't really know where it's going. Lets say you can open up the waterfront, which seems like such an impossibility, then things start to seem a little bit more possible on a general level. I'm thinking of it in terms of—Dong and our firm, we won this competition in 2011 to redesign street tents for New York City with the New Museum, and the department of transportation sponsored it, and so, in our first meeting with the department of transportation they were talking about how their system operates and they're saying that, look, there are hundreds and hundreds of public spaces that we can't keep our eye on every day because we only have the resources for X amount of people in this office and we can't tend to the needs of everybody. We rely on people coming to us with what they want from the city in a public space perspective. This is on a small scale perspective, so like closing down a street or something.
They gave us an example of this one family in Bushwick, Brooklyn that came to the department of transportation and said, "hey look, we have this party, it's a family party, we just want to close down the block for two hours on a Sunday." The city said sure, and the Department of Transportation issued them a small permit and said, "we'll provide the cones. Have your party and be out by noon." So they did that, and the next year they showed them photos and said, "it was successful and there were no problems, can we close it off for the whole day?" the Department of Transportation said "Sure." It just kept happening, and after—I dont know what it was—like six or eight years of continuing to go back to the city and ask for a bigger permit, the street is now permanently closed. These residents and these families, they've permanently closed this street in partnership with the city, because the city didn't know that they wanted to close that street and that it would be more beneficial for them to make that space a green space, a public space to eat and to play and whatever.
I think, you know, not in every department of the city, but in a lot of the people that we've talked to—and that ranged from City Planning to the Department of Parks to Health, Environmental Conservation, Army Corp, coastguard... all the people that we're working with and have for the past four years—they're all incredibly excited and their desire is to push things forward. I think we, as naive designers in 2010, didn't think there would be interest, that there would be even more blockades for no reason, but you find that a lot of these people really want things to move forward. They rely on people like the Thames Bath and +POOL coming to them with an idea and saying, "what about this and what do you think about it?" not, "hey this is the thing take it or leave it." But what do you think about it? How can it change? How can we iterate on it? How could it be better for the city? More cost effective? Whatever it might be, while still staying in the hands of the designers so that the integrity of design pushes the city forward. I think that's what will change the city. Up until now, when we created an organization, we haven't gotten paid for any of this work, and it's incredibly exhausting. It takes a lot of time away from your practice and your family and all these things, but you do it because you're like, man this is really fun. This will actually do something.
Chris: It's fun, but it's also worthy.
Archie: Exactly. I think just seeing that you can do something—We told this to Chris when we first met him...in like 2012?
Chris: It could only have been last year.
Archie: It feels like a long time ago. The importance isn't really money, but it's about community and getting people really excited about everything, and that's when it changes. You realize that you can go on Kickstarter and share a vision. You can get a response from it. You start to feel like you can do a lot of things and that's cool.
Chris: I agree with you. I'm not going to pretend that it hasn't been unbelievably hard work, but I keep returning to the fact that this is something good for us all. We have to pursue it. I really felt today that we were absolutely on the verge of doing something really really special.
Where do you think water development is heading?
Chris: In London it's becoming a big issue. We're suddenly getting an awful lot of interest in this area. We literally just won a competition to rebuild a Lido in Peckham, south east London, and we're trying to institute the same things we're using in Thames Bath—using a lost river, a river that flows underneath—we're going to try and resurface the pipe and use the water from the river to fill the pools. The nature will come right up to the edge of the pool. How that actually flows out into the local community is particularly exciting.
There's an awful lot of conversation going on in London about the docks and floating villages, floating houses, anything floating really. It's just beginning to take off because property prices in London are astronomical. It's incredibly expensive to build in the river, and contingencies are twice what they would be for building on land, which causes a few problems but it's all there to be taken. The conversation is starting.
Archie: It's a strange environment in New York right now for developing on the waterfront. There's developing on water physically, which typically really can't happen and the only reason we're able to is because the Department of Environmental Conservation have restricted building anything on water. We don't want to do that necessarily, and it's largely because of issues serving habitats. If the project is of a water dependent use—which ours is—because it requires water and is doing something productive for the waterways. As Chris is saying, with the banks of the river Thames—in New York we've been completely separated from waterfronts because of warehouses, industry. Like four percent of piers are active that are in use, and a lot of them aren't deemed structurally sound. There's a lot of development of piers on waterfront...these efforts—the Hudson River Park on the West Side that maintains miles of park on the waterfront yet it doesn't have the funding to upkeep all that waterfront. So it relies on developers to offset costs and provide something for them economically that can in turn come back to the city in the form of public space.
It's a very interesting time, and it's the first time in a long time that people have been waiting for the ability to get back to the waterfront. +POOL, Thames Bath, these projects will be catalysts one way or another to opening up that floodgates for that, and I think setting a precedent for that is super important. A responsible one, whatever that means.
Chris: One of the things that has made our project really interesting is meeting Matt about a year ago. Up until that, it was just me really pushing this along with help from my business partner James, and then I met Matt who emailed me out of the blue, just to say I love the idea. It had been in the papers. He emailed me going, "I love the idea, can we meet and I'll see if I can help out?" Matt's in advertising, so nowhere near architecture. What I found fascinating was working with people who I don't really work with to attempt to deliver something really special. It's been very fruitful. We've also set aside ambassadors who've worked with us. We've got a historian who has written about the history of swimming in the Thames, we've got an artist, we've got an urbanist, we've got a swimming journalist, but all those people have fed into the project as much as we have architecturally, and it's been really fascinating. Archie, you're not an architect?
Archie: I'm kind of all. My partner Jeff and I wanted to develop a practice that wasn't really rooted in any specific discipline but called on ideas and disciplines to execute them, whatever they may be. From the first project, Pie Lab in Alabama, we realized the importance of having a wide variety of disciplines and experts involved on a community level with these projects. It was the same with +POOL When we first announced the project the year before the Kickstarter. we made a newspaper and a book and just sent it out to people. some we knew, some we didn't. On the back it just said, we're looking for these types of people. It included architects. landscape architects, urban planners, environmental engineers, lawyers, whatever it may be. Now we have a big team. We have an economic impact strategist, we have a government relations person on staff. We have PR and a full time lawyer. It's like a symphony working together.
We got this call from Barclays. We have never worked with a bank, never really worked with people in finance, and there's this wing of people within Barclays that look after investments for their clients and try to find interesting projects and nonprofits for their clients to get involved in, which is pretty amazing. These two dudes called us up a year ago and were like, "we're going to come over, bring a six pack, we want to hear about the project." So we said, "sure." Every couple months they'd call us and say let's get a beer, we just want to get an update. Last summer we were preparing to throw our first event as a nonprofit. A gala type situation. We tapped them as ambassadors to help raise money for the event, and they said "alright we're going to have a huge party at a bar, kinda near the office." They got like 100 people in full suits out to eat wings and drink beer and give money to +POOL. And the way that they talked about the project was so similar to the way we talk about the project, but with completely different language. It was super exciting and spiritual to see a person that couldn't be more different than me, but because of this project we're on the same exact plane and have the same exact goals and interests and same love and the same everything.