The banks of the Upper Lee Valley in East London are to be “re-wilded.” By 2017, a vast stretch of riverbanks beginning just north of the Olympic Park will be restored to flood-mitigating marshland. The Walthamstow Wetlands will deliver the largest urban wetland nature reserve in London, and will incorporate bike paths, waterfowl habitat, an observation tower and a visitors’ center.
The Upper Lee Valley (or Upper Lea, as it is also known) runs through some of London’s most financially challenged areas: “pockets of deprivation” as Mayor Boris Johnson calls them. The wetland restoration project forms part of a much grander urban regeneration plan for the region, known as the Upper Lee Valley Opportunity Area. The valley is also already host to the green lung of Lee Valley Regional Park and the project will link up the broken chain of marshland habitats to form a near-continuous corridor.
The River Lee’s marshes were mostly drained in the 1950s and industry polluted great sections of the waterway. The river’s biodiversity was lost as habitat was destroyed, and while it is still home to fish and bird life, it is hoped that long-absent species will return after the restoration process. The Olympic Park was built over the top of much of the former industrial wasteland and at the time it was promised that restoration projects would follow after the Games. The improved access to nature and leisure activities afforded by the Walthamstow Wetlands is hoped to enhance the health, wellbeing and quality of life of locals. And an increase in visitor numbers is also expected to boost the local economy.
After several years of master planning, including winning Best Conceptual Project at the 2012 London Planning Awards, the Wetlands scheme secured planning permission on 3 June, 2014. The London Wildlife Trust has been appointed Delivery Partner for the project. Restoration work will include planting reed beds and other habitat vegetation species, and new footpaths, bike paths and boardwalks will be constructed. The overall project cost is £8 million ($13.5 million), which includes the cost of capital works and three years of operational funding for project staff and a program of community engagement activities to educate visitors and locals about the site’s natural and built heritage.