Sunday is ‘World Rivers Day’ which offers a timely opportunity to take a look at Derry’s greatest natural asset.
The River Foyle has provided the stage for many key moments in Derry’s history since St. Columba first sailed up it 1,500 years ago. It was on the Foyle that the 1689 Siege was ended by the breaking of the boom. It was via the river that thousands of emigrants left Ireland bound for the New World in centuries past and the Foyle was also the location for the surrender of Germany’s Atlantic U-Boat fleet at the end of the Second World War.
So how have we been treating our city’s most important natural asset in recent decades?
On a positive note - new riverside paths and greenways have been created along stretches of the river, which is to be applauded. And the Peace Bridge has given local people both a new way to traverse the Foyle and a new icon for our city.
On the downside, our picturesque river has been set in an ugly frame at its most central locations. Two sections of riverside are directly accessible from the city centre. The first is the stretch between the Peace Bridge and Craigavon Bridge, where the river frontage amounts to little more than a path bordering a busy and polluted expressway. The second section is Queen’s Quay - stretching from the City Hotel to the Council Offices on Strand Road. This area has huge potential, as witnessed by the thousands who thronged there for the Clipper Race and Maritime Festival. Those events only happen every two years, however, so for the rest of the time Queen’s Quay remains a busy road lined with car parks on one side and unattractive buildings on the other.
A brief look at what other cities do with their riversides shows that Queen’s Quay could contribute so much more to Derry’s vitality. We need to make the area a destination in its own right - a place for people to spend time (and money) all year round and not just during major events. In short, it would serve Derry better if the full length of Queen’s Quay was converted into a pedestrianised area with a distinct new purpose and identity.
There are numerous options for what that new role could be. The quickest and easiest option would be to turn it into a vibrant food district for the city, taking advantage of the fact that a number of restaurants are already located there. More food outlets could be encouraged to open, with the roadway and car parks turned into family friendly al-fresco drinking and dining areas.
‘Box Park’-style containers could be added as a low cost and imaginative way to provide new street food outlets and to add to the dynamism of the area.
At the other end of the scale, the space could be the subject of far grander ambitions instead. Inspiration could be taken from London’s famous ‘South Bank’ district to reshape Queen’s Quay into a major cultural destination for the city. It could provide a location for the high profile art museum that Derry has sought ever since our City of Culture year. And the reclaimed road and car parks could be redesigned imaginatively as riverside ampitheatres, performance spaces and art installations.
Alternatively, Derry’s historical status as a major emigration port offers a considerable tourism opportunity. For the thousands of people who left for the New World via Derry, our quays were the last bit of Ireland they ever set foot on. That should make it hallowed ground for the 35 million Americans who claim Irish descent. Yet, despite Ireland’s history, there is currently no serious emigration museum located anywhere on the island. So, step forward Queen’s Quay as a potential new destination for one and for anyone looking to trace their Irish ancestry and learn about the emigrant experience.
Regardless of what Queen’s Quay became, three elements would be central to unlocking its potential. The first would be to end three decades of it serving as a busy through-road by re-diverting the traffic back onto Strand Road. Any minor delay in vehicular journey times that resulted would be a small price to pay for boosting the local economy and reconnecting people with the Foyle in a meaningful way.
The second essential element would be to enable people to interact with the Foyle. It is essentially a ghost river, devoid of significant human interaction throughout the city centre. Re-purposing Queen’s Quay as a genuinely attractive destination would enable this to change. Departure points for boat tours could be incorporated into the design, for either current or future use. Or how about a floating swimming pool there? Vienna has one on the Danube - essentially a large boat with a 30m pool at one end and a two-storey bar and restaurant at the other.
There is a lot that could be done to increase activity both on and around the River Foyle and a complete re-design of Queen’s Quay would be the perfect catalyst to start doing it.
The third essential element to unlocking the area’s potential is Quayside Shopping Centre. That building dominates a substantial stretch of the quay with what amounts to little more than a red bricked box. It is undoubtedly one of Derry’s least attractive properties - made worse by its prime river-front location and worse still by having its back turned on the Foyle. A riverside walk that should be one of the most beautiful promenades in central Derry instead starts with a view onto the bowels of this unappealing structure.
The River Foyle is Derry’s greatest natural asset and our city’s proverbial oil painting. Yet for years we’ve framed it with busy roads, ignored its potential and failed to embrace it. The time has come to truly reconnect Derry with the Foyle again by creating a high quality city centre quayside destination. One that will make our people proud, our economy stronger and our city an even better place to live and visit. It’s the very least that our majestic river deserves.
Steve Bradley is a native of Derry who works as a regeneration consultant in England. He can be followed on Twitter at @bradley_steve