The age of enlightenment, among many benefits, brought to importance the question of urban drainage. Until the early 19th century, London’s River Thames, like many urban rivers in the world, contained relatively clean water.

Some 200 years earlier, renowned British architect Sir Christopher Wren (1632–1723) realised that drainage and sewage disposal would sooner or later become a major problem.

Stormwater drainage is a serious issue for many cities, and sustainability often isn’t top-of-mind in design consideration

Cholera epidemics raged in cities around the world during the 1800’s. In one of the last of these outbreaks, John Snow (1813–58), a British doctor and leader in the adoption of medical hygiene, demonstrated epidemiologically that the disease was contracted from contaminated drinking water.

Open sewers had been culverted but, frequently augmented by stormwater, still drained into the tidal Thames. In consequence, London got its own back twice a day! In July 1858, the UK Parliament, unhappy that nothing was being done, concluded that the smell from the Thames at Westminster rendered the premises unusable. This “Great Stink” gave Benjamin Disraeli (1804–81), the future Prime Minister, a valuable lever to persuade Parliament to allocate £3.5 million to improve London’s sewerage.

Cities around the world are currently reaching a point where ageing stormwater infrastructure needs to be reconstructed

With three key objectives, and well ahead of his time, the Chief Engineer to the Metropolitan Board of Works, Joseph Bazalgette (1819–91) designed and supervised the building of a revolutionary project for London’s sewage disposal. His triple objectives were (i) waste disposal, (ii) land drainage, and (iii) introduction of a safe water supply. This huge system was inaugurated at the Crossness pumping station by HRH the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII) (1841–1910) on April 4th, 1865.

Thames pollution has been a constantly recurring crisis issue, along with London’s atmospheric pollution. In the 1940’s Britain was preoccupied with winning the war, and the river acquired stinking heavy industrial contamination. Marine life was suffocated almost to extinction. Successful initiatives both major and minor brought life back to the river, including environmentally sensitive salmon.

Years of past neglect and industrial waste have polluted countless urban rivers

Two basic, undeniable, and irreversible trends make the recent £4.2 billion Thames Super Sewer, currently under construction, a vital necessity for the City of London, despite controversy over its cost versus benefits. First, London’s population is growing rapidly and the current system may be unable to handle such capacity in the coming years. Second, upward lifestyle expectations are straining existing supply and disposal facilities.

This ‘macro’ history is being repeated and is extremely relevant, on a much smaller scale, to the regeneration of city and other urban environments. Success and added value depend on a determined insistence on the creation of below street level micro-environments. It is now sufficiently and officially recognised for planning authorities to make it mandatory.

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