Rewilding ambitions

After a successful crowdfunding campaign, Kelly Bewers asks what’s next for the East London Waterworks Park project?

The project’s volunteer crew. Credit: East London Waterworks Park

East London Waterworks Park is an ambitious, volunteer-run project to transform a 5.68 hectare former Thames Water depot on Lea Bridge Road into a vibrant, biodiverse community-owned park for wild swimming, with a forest school space, arts and science buildings, as well as varied habitats for wildlife and people to enjoy.

The idea to rescue the old water works site was first discussed in 2019 at a meeting of Save Lea Marshes, a local campaigning group. A public meeting was
convened, in partnership with CPRE (the Campaign to Protect Rural England) to share the vision of rewilding the site and creating public swimming ponds. Over the next two years a committed group of volunteers developed detailed proposals and submitted a business plan to the government in 2022.

After a successful crowdfunding campaign earlier this year, which exceeded the target, raising £540,509 with over 5,000 supporters, I spoke to Abigail Woodman who sits as chair of the East London Waterworks Park Charity and Caroline Day who is co-chair of the project’s communications team, about what’s next for this exciting project.

The website describes the idea for a “brownfield rainforest offering people
the opportunity to immerse themselves in nature.” Caroline explains that the term
rainforest doesn’t mean we’ll have tropical beasts in the Marshes, rather land
that is “teeming with wildlife instead of boarded-up buildings” – as she tells
me it’s “about letting nature lead”.

The plans include cracked concrete, inspired by the amazing resilience of plants growing through pavements; the team wants to work with the existing features of the site to see what emerges.

One of the project’s values is being ‘radically imaginative’, and communities are
asked to dream the park into being. Imagining these cracked concrete slabs with
cornflowers, primrose and cow parsley in abundance, the park could showcase ways for local people to create habitats in their own front gardens or roadsides, working alongside human influences within our cities.

The organising principles of the project feel deeply rooted in the cycles of nature.
Abigail describes a “mycelial network” (mirroring the way fungi connect underground), that enables individuals to believe they can affect change when they collaborate as part of a movement at peace with nature.

In the same way that trees, pond life, grasses, mushrooms, wetland birds and
woodland creatures thrive together in a reciprocal, nurturing environment, so
too does the community that sustains the East London Waterworks Park project.

An illustration showing what the park will look like, Credit: East London Waterworks Park

Volunteers meet in ‘circles’ around themes (like fundraising, design, communications) and decisions are made by consent, creating a democratic organisation where a wide range of views are heard and diverse voices participate.

And, like the wild flowers the park will hopefully one day be home to, the project
wants to grow organically, which means being flexible about how volunteers can
support and encourage “offshoots” (passion projects led by local residents; for
example one Masters student is writing their dissertation on the scheme).

The goal is to turn a lorry depot into a community-owned park with wild swimming spots.

Another core value of the project is ‘courageously inclusive’ and this is where
the need for more volunteers comes in. Abigail and Caroline both acknowledge
that diversity and inclusion is challenging to get right and the team is committed
to stewarding a vision for the park that emerges from community needs; that
the land isn’t something to be “imposed upon” but a space that belongs to people
and nature together.

It’s expected that the government (which currently owns the site) will bring forward a planning application and the team is gearing up to respond to it.

Smiling, Abigail says: “East London Waterworks Park is not going to go away as a
vision, as an organisation. So stick with us!”

You can get involved by joining one of the six volunteer circles

The ELWP’s crowdfunder is still open. You can donate here