The 211 hectares of Walthamstow Reservoirs has recently been upgraded to encourage wildlife and provide access for visitors. Relaunched as Walthamstow Wetlands, the project opens up a unique area of industrial London to the public and in doing so creates Europe’s largest urban wetland reserve. This latest addition to London’s growing catalogue of wildlife reserves promises a bright future for the reintegration of nature into Western Europe’s biggest conurbation.

The new reserve is a joint venture between Waltham Forest Council, London Wildlife Trust, Thames Water and the Heritage Lottery Fund. It follows the opening in 2016 of LWT’s Woodberry Wetlands in Manor House as a result of a similar proposal by the trust to enhance the reservoir for wildlife and create access to a high-quality natural space in a densely built environment.

An urban nature renaissance

The renaissance of the accessible natural environment within London and other cities in the UK is part of an ongoing process of regeneration that has transformed Britain’s post-industrial cities and landscapes over several decades. Previously regeneration has been focused on the creation of jobs and the re-building of communities, often around civic improvements. More recently this concept has been influenced by the growing popularity of ecological regeneration and rewilding.

Rewilding is an emerging movement that seeks to move away from traditional conservation which separates nature from ‘civilisation’, towards a vision of geography that is once more wild and unconstrained by human influence. This is often centered around the reintroduction of ‘keystone’ species, for example, the lynx or wolf and promotes the landscapes which support and are supported by these species.

The benefits of urban rewilding

While no-one is (currently) promoting the re-introduction of the wolf into north London, Walthamstow Wetlands’ popularity appears to signify evidence of the growing uptake of urban greening or rewilding in the city. These interventions are often cited as beneficial to city dwellers’ physical and mental health, and in particular as a valuable educational resource. In Wandsworth and Merton in south London, progress has been made to clean up the River Wandle, in a process the group Rewilding Britain hopes will “rewild children as well as the natural world”. Meanwhile, in Lambeth, the Lost Effra initiative is using rewilding techniques to create rain gardens to alleviate flooding by planting a 30m corridor of the culverted Effra River within the Cressingham Gardens estate; a project that will empower communities to benefit from habitat-rich green roofs and wildlife spaces.

The result of these hard-won projects is that an increasing number of Londoners find themselves within reach of the type of environment previously only accessed beyond the M25. Meanwhile, Waltham Forest and other outer boroughs are key components in the Mayor’s drive to increase housing supply across London. Alongside newly ‘rewilded’ areas, London’s much loved existing open spaces could provide new residents with attractive amenity space and a rekindling of their relationship with nature. One such landscape is Leyton Marshes, adjacent to Walthamstow Wetlands, and currently under threat of development to enable Waltham Forest to meet its housing targets. It remains to be seen then whether the Mayor’s pledge to house Londoners while promoting and protecting their cherished open spaces can be fulfilled.

Image: EM Kintzel, I Van Stokkum