Tides and pools

Friday, January 31st. The Thames Tidal Barrier.

Since the time of London’s founding by the Romans, flooding has been a key element in the environmental history of the city. There is an account of London flooding as early as 1099 in the Anglo Saxon Chronicle, and in 1236 people were paddling boats through Westminster. In the 18th and 19th centuries London began building up the embankments that channel the river through the city (one underground station is even called Embankment), which mitigated flood risk but did not eliminate floods. Even as the city grew into its current size and stature in the 20th century, periodic flooding remained a fact of life for the first two-thirds of the 1900s. The worst flood of the century in London was in 1928, though the devastating 1953 North Sea storm flood that killed more than 1,000 people in the Netherlands also hit the areas around the Thames estuary hard. One outcome of the 1953 flood was a determination on the part of the British government that London needed to be protected from extreme tidal surges that, when combined with unusually high precipitation or snow melt upriver, could overwhelm the embankments in central London and flood large sections of the city.

The Thames Barrier Flood Protection Act of 1972 authorized the funding for the impressive work of civil engineering we visited on Friday, the Thames Tidal Barrier. After 8 years of construction an some $800 million ($2.2 billion in today’s money), the barrier opened in 1982. Since then, it has been closed some 186 times, likely saving the parts of the city upstream at least that much from flood damage (thought the barrier itself is only one part of an extensive flood control system along the Thames in London and its suburbs). You can see how the barrier actually works:

One of the most striking things about the barrier is its appearance, as you can see in the photos below. The designers took care to create a structure that had an aesthetic that would transcend the mechanical workings of the barrier. The interior of each of the barrier control stations was modeled on the vaulted ceiling of a Gothic church, and the exteriors were clad in stainless steel.

In any case it is a fascinating example of humans’ ongoing (and ultimately futile) effort to control water, which is not to say that the effort is not worth making in many cases. But it does have unintended consequences (as we see with the levee system along the Mississippi in the U.S., for example). The Thames Estuary 2100 plan is an attempt to anticipate the combined challenges of maintaining and expanding the existing flood control system and the climate emergency. But it is clear that as with so many low-lying cities in the world, London will struggle to prevent flooding that may eventually make parts of the current city uninhabitable, as the story and animations in this reporting show.

Come along on a trip to the Tooting Leisure Center. First a note of clarification is in order, a “leisure center” is actually quite similar to a YMCA. These are gyms, partially subsidized by local governments, and designed to be accessible to everyone. Isaiah thinks it incredibly ironic that they are called “leisure centers” because they are not places to relax. They do vary in quality and affordability according to the neighborhood, so after doing some asking around, we decided to join the Tooting neighborhood center. The other closest one is the Wimbledon Leisure Center where tennis whites and snooty conversation seemed the order of the day. The TLC is much more our style. You are as likely to find running on the treadmill next to you a teenager wearing a hijab as a retired Jamaican gentleman who looks like he must have been an Olympic sprinter. The steam room is a favorite hangout for people from many parts of the world where it is perpetually hot and this is the only place in England where you can find such warmth. I can rarely even identify what language people are speaking. I thought I would take you on a photo journey to this place that is a frequent destination.

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