How Liverpool's Docks Can Keep Us Alive, If Only We Let Them

The docks are being strangled and filled in, at a time when we're enjoying the outdoors like never before. Is it time for a radical look at how we're using water?

by David Lloyd

Imagine we had, on tap, a resource to help tackle anxiety, combat loneliness, improve mental health, lower blood pressure, create a deeper sense of community and fight obesity. 

Imagine if it was free - and handed down to us by our forefathers. And then imagine if we looked the other way while it was taken from us. 

A quarter of a millennium ago, our city created something so unique and rich with potential that, suddenly, we find ourselves with a resource that other cities would kill for. 

After half a century of us seeing our ex-World Heritage docks as negative spaces and no-go zones, it might just be that the tide is turning. And maybe, just maybe, they hold the key to our future as a healthier, happier, more emotionally intelligent city. Imagine that. 

That’s, of course, if we don’t fill them in. Which we are. Fourteen of them so far and counting; with legal threats and stealthy maneuvers by developers to infil Waterloo Dock, and Canada Dock recently filled with sand - ready for Norton’s to fill with crap. And then there’s the small matter of Bramley Moore Dock.

Chris Romer-Lee, from London’s Octopi architects, knows about the positive power water can bring to cities. He’s spearheading the Thames Baths campaign to reintroduce swimming in the River Thames, with a series of floating fixed pools.

“You’re so lucky to have your dock system,” Chris says. “Filling in a dock is like building over a park. It’s bonkers. Your docks are your largest public space, as the Thames is in London”.

Making water inaccessible, off-limits or the site of dispersal zones runs contrary to everything we hold dear.  Little wonder the result is kids diving into Mann Island’s canal, or residents forming campaign groups to save their precious waterfront from greedy developers. Privately run wakeboard parks and obstacle courses are great, but access to the water in this city is something we just know is our birthright. 

We didn’t build the docks. The docks built us. 

Other cities get it. Chris had his waterborne revelation swimming in the river Limmat that flows through Zurich, and swims every morning in Hyde Park’s Serpentine lake. “Living and working in a city is relentless. The traffic noise, grit and dirt. Suddenly, when you’re in the water, silence falls, and you can be transported somewhere else entirely”. 

Not everyone sees our docks as negative spaces waiting to be filled in with identikit apartments. Chris is in talks with a developer in Bootle to create a floating urban swimming pool for the city. Similar - though smaller in scale- to his Thames Baths concept. 

“We’re at the very early stages. We’ve had a warm response from the council, but really this is just a stepping stone,” Chris says, explaining the bigger picture - about what can be done to improve access to our entire canals and dock system - is something that’ll take more than a floating pontoon or inflatable obstacle course to solve. 

“If you have no engagement with the water, people end up scared of it, or abusing it.  These urban waterways should be accessible, and not through private enterprises charging £20. It should be safe to put your feet in there. More people die on the roads than in the water, so why do we legislate for our kids to stay away?”  

“We will always be drawn to water,” Chris says, “as a social space, a leisure opportunity and a place to recharge our senses. Why would you not see that as a huge plus for a city? You’re lucky, in Liverpool, to have this incredible resource”.

We tend to think of ourselves as special. Unique. Scouse not English. In reality, we’re a city that’s going through the same machinations of other waterfront, post-heyday cities. 

On the other side of the Atlantic, Baltimore is another former maritime giant. It too has seen disinvestment, depopulation and the resultant existential angst about its place in the world. 

“Baltimore had its heyday as a working waterfront in the first half of the twentieth century,” says Baltimore-based landscape architect Jonathan Ceci. “It was a busy port and a growing industrial city”.

But growth came at a price. Baltimore’s waterways became a heavily polluted no-man’s land when the city hit the skids in the 70s. Sound familiar? 

“The city redeveloped its waterfront as the Inner Harbor, a boating and entertainment district catering to office workers and tourists,” Ceci says of the city's attempt to pivot from a post-industrial economy to a leisure and tourism-based one. 

“It was quite successful in the 1980s and 90s and was regarded as an urban design model for the post-industrial waterfront conversion,” Casey tells us. “But it was predicated on the demolition of two centuries of waterfront construction. There was a loss of rich urban fabric and further deterioration in our water quality,” Ceci says. 

So far, so uncannily similar to our own recent history. 

The scheme didn’t age well. Citizens were frustrated at the lack of joined-up connection with the waterway, and the increasing privatisation of its amenities. Water became a commodity. A ring-fenced luxury for day-trippers and cruise passengers and water’s edge loft types. Definitely not something to actually dip your feet into. 

The city set up a Waterfront Partnership, with dozens of meetings between citizens, businesses, stakeholders and a broad cross-section of Baltimore’s communities. 

The result? A promise to give Baltimore’s waterfront back to its people. “This time it’s a genuine urban renaissance with new attractions, better physical connections to the city’s waterfront neighborhoods and an overlay of green infrastructure to make this a healthier and more humane urban environment,” Ceci says. “It’s about creating a lasting transformation of the harbour; one that addresses ecology as well as economics,” he adds. 

His practice is proposing the creation of the Harbor Swim Spot (above), a publicly accessible new attraction for city residents and tourists alike. 

“Most people think of the harbour as a dirty urban waterway, but the reality is that the quality is good and it meets standards for recreational swimming,” Ceci says.  

He’s tapping into something universal: we’re taking to the water like never before. It’s not just the dry-robed chilly dippers in Leasowe and Crosby, it’s a phenomenon that’s happening over there too. 

“Yes, there is growing interest in swimming in urban waterways, and some cities - especially those in Northern Europe (such as Aarhus, above) are much further ahead of the curve than others,” Ceci says. “Waterfront cities should be putting their water at the centre of any regeneration plans.”

Look at this another way. Imagine if we had lost a stretch of waterfront the equivalent of the distance from Bootle to Speke Hall. 

Well, actually, we have. That’s the amazing thing about a dock, and the way it folds in on itself. Their inner harbours give you a lot more waterfront from your coastline. They’re like Liverpool’s fjords, or the shark-toothed coast of western Scotland (well, not quite, but you get our drift).

Take the Albert Dock: in just its 300-metre length of the Mersey, it’s home to over a kilometre of waterfront. Multiply that by the number of lost docks, and you’re looking at a loss of around 14km of waterfront. 

And if you think we’re being sensationalist about all this - what’s the panic, surely we’ve plenty of docks left? - Deborah Aydon from The People’s Pool (and former exec director at the Everyman), has a cautionary tale to share. Because it’s not just the water from our docks we’ve lost. 

“We used to have 11 lidos in Merseyside, some of the biggest and best in the country,” Aydon says. “Now we have none.” A Morrisons car park sits over the site of the largest - New Brighton’s Art Deco beauty, above.

"Local people were gutted when a lido wasn’t delivered along with the Marine Point development. The lido was central to New Brighton and residents feel sad that they haven't got it anymore.”

For Aydon, immersing herself in water helped with her transition to her new life, after steering the Everyman safely to its new Stirling Prize-winning home. 

“When I left, I went back home to Banbury, where there’s a wonderful lido, and fell in love with outdoor swimming.”

Soon after, Aydon was hatching her plan: to build an Olympic sized open air lido in Merseyside. The country’s first newly-built scheme for over 50 years.

The re-energised seaside town of New Brighton remains the frontrunner for the location of Aydon’s new lido. But when Wirral Council offered, then withdrew, crucial seed funding, progress faltered. 

“It’s difficult to go anywhere else without local authority support,” Aydon says. “We need to commission feasibility studies, business models, engage the local community to see what it is they’d want their lido to be.”

“We’re determined to make the pool accessible to everyone, year round,” Aydon says. “It’s as much a gathering space as anything else. A community-owned facility with all profits ploughed right back into it.”

Aydon talks of a sauna, cafe, space for outdoor events, yoga classes and a gym. It’s these add-ons, Aydon believes, that will make lido’s finances stack up. And if you think the coast of the Irish Sea is chilly in winter, Aydon’s not about to disagree...

“I love Weswimrun’s open water swimming events at Princes Dock, but I’m not a huge fan of cold water. Our lido will definitely be heated,” she says. “Like they have in Iceland, where the pool is a real focus for the community, even when it’s minus ten!”

“There are around 140 lidos around the country that are thriving,” Aydon says. “The vast majority take zero subsidies from the local authority, and some return a handsome surplus to the council each year. But more importantly they give so much back to their communities.”

Pells Pool, in Sussex has just started a programme with local GPs prescribing swims in the lido for patients with ailments from arthritis to depression. 

“Swimming outdoors really is medicine,” Deborah says. “When I started this, I remember calling my friends to ask them whether my idea was a mid-life crisis or a project. But the positive response we’ve had so far has been overwhelming.”

We’re good, around here, at losing things, then belligerently saying we never really wanted them anyway. Hey, no labels, right. 

But the sunset paddle boarders and chilly dippers get it. The open water swimmers and the kids diving into the canals get it too. If we lose our intimate connection with the historic lifeblood of our city, we’re sunk.