5. Building up the river bank

Riverside property has always been a popular place for people to build on. Over the years, much of the natural river bank has been covered by buildings and materials such as concrete and brick. The sides of the river have been changed as well, as people have replaced natural slopes with walls. All of these changes have affects on river wildlife and the movement of the river itself.

A natural river bank does not have a straight edge, often slopes into the river gently, is made of natural materials such as earth or clay and provides a habitat for plants and animals. Only 1% of the river bank in London is natural – the rest has been embanked (built up) and covered with materials such as metal or concrete. The vertical walls that can be seen in central London are the results of encroachment. In some places, the river bank does slope into the river but has been covered in materials such as paving stones or concrete to prevent the bank being eroded.

The shape of the river wall and the material used affects what can still live there. Vertical walls are less wildlife friendly than sloping ones. Sheet piling makes it impossible for plants and animals to exist, and the use of concrete or stone allows little more than a bloom of algae to survive. In places where blocks of stone or concrete are used, plants can establish themselves in the cracks. Sometimes wharves have old wooden piles (big pieces of wood) attached to them – this was to stop the boats banging against the wall. Plants and creatures can live in these, especially if the wood is rotten.

Impacts

* covering natural banks stops plants growing; animals are unable to burrow into the bank * plants cannot establish themselves on vertical sheet piling or smooth concrete * fewer plants mean fewer animals further up the food chain

What we can do?

* some community groups have improved their local river bank, for example by planting reed beds or installing hanging baskets. To find out more about this kind of work, get in touch with the Thames Explorer Trust * the Environment Agency who look after the river encourage any new building on the bank to be “wildlife friendly” by including places that wildlife can live * at the Millennium Dome, some of the wharves were removed and replaced with terraces suitable for a variety of wildlife
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