A City on a River

A river can be a city’s greatest asset, it can help define a place.

Indeed, most cities located on a river are there as it provided access and energy.

Derby fits this description perfectly.

Located on a low crossing point of the Derwent which itself became a source of power for the Silk Mill and the wider industrial revolution.

The river Derwent made Derby but, like many cities, Derby turned its back on the river.

Over the past hundred years or so, our City fathers littered the riverside with a parade of functional buildings – a power station, two courts, police station, bus station and municipal headquarters.

I have no idea as to whether their strategy was to cut the river off from the people but that has been the result. Frankly, it angers me that a perfectly good Morledge Market – of which I just about have a distant memory - was replaced by an unsightly Crown Court. 

Today, we inherit an unholy mishmash and Derby’s riverside really should be our crowing glory and not an area many wish to avoid.

This situation is not unique to Derby – many other cities can tell a similar tale – but my fear is that, whilst over the past ten years the city centre has seen significant investment and improvement, this has not yet spread to the riverside.

Next time you are in town stand on Derwent Bridge and take a look south at what should be our city’s crown jewel. The river widens, providing a stunning broad vista and potential almost unique in such a central city location.

When people visit Derby, the riverside should be on the top of their to-do list. Our tourist pitch could be ‘come and experience one of the most beautiful city centre riversides in the country’.

Sadly, we are a very long way from that; a dead zone where it is not even possible to buy an ice cream in the summer.

So, what is to be done?

My take is this. We have become used to parceling up the regeneration of the city centre into neighbourhoods and this seems to work.

The intu Derby centre attracts 23million people each year. The Cathedral Quarter has won recognition as Britain’s Best High Street. The next investment wave will be focused on the heart of the city – St Peters Quarter – including the new Performance Venue and Becket Well.

I think it’s time to start thinking now about a new Quarter – Riverside - in particular, the stretch that runs from the Silk Mill to the Bass Recreation Ground.

North of this is the Derwent Valley World Heritage Corridor and south is Pride Park. The section I’m talking about is located right in the city centre, a short hop from the Market Place.

Other cities have managed to turn their river from a negative to positive force.

I once visited San Antonio in Texas where a dangerous and dirty river has been transformed into its tourist hub, with more visitors than the Alamo.

Currently Dundee is turning its waterfront into an attractive destination, having secured the V&A as its anchor.

Nearer to home, Leicester has been using CPO powers to bring forward its ambitious £80m Waterside project.

Derby can do this but we need to focus our attention and efforts, without which it simply won’t happen.

There is some hope, to be found in a strategy called Our City - Our River (OCOR).

There is a possibility – a 1 in a 100 annual chance apparently – that the river Derwent could flood parts of central Derby. Were this to happen, the consequences would be pretty dire and our economy, possibly even lives, would be threatened.

OCOR is meant to put in alleviation measures to prevent this. Its cost is a chunky £95m. The OCOR vision - to create a river corridor for recreation and development – is easy to support.

Its delivery though seems painfully slow. It’s now seven years since the strategy was launched and the only work so far has been on the stretch between Darley Abbey and Silk Mill.

I took a walk there last weekend and - whilst reluctant to comment on a work still in progress - I have to say it seems a pretty brutal mix of walls and sterile areas that appear to push the city back from the river. The scheme appears to disconnect city and river.

If the second phase, which will run from the Silk Mill to the Bass’s Rec, is anything like the first – in pace or design - then I fear the consequences.

To date, OCOR has not had the profile and associated examination that it clearly requires before it impacts the city centre.  

Yes, we must prevent flooding, but this must be done in a way that helps the city embrace the river to become the key asset it surely should be.

Done right, this has the potential to unite Derbeians behind a project that genuinely connects our city with our river.