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The charity making life better by water

Making sure communities benefit from our waterways

Successful planning policies and decisions can help to improve people's access to and enjoyment of our waterways. Our waterways provide vital access to green and blue spaces, and can provide significant social, economic and environmental wellbeing benefits for local communities.

Grand Union 2011

How our waterways contribute to wellbeing

Effective planning policy and decisions can help to encourage use of our waterways, which can result in improved wellbeing outcomes for local communities.

Social wellbeing

Waterways have a role to play in improving wellbeing, inclusion and the prospects of communities and individuals.

Having lunch next to the canal

Our spaces can provide areas for social interaction, and can enable and support healthy lifestyles through providing access for walking, cycling and waterbourne sports. They also provide direct public access to green and blue infrastructure networks.

Waterways have a significant role to play in promoting health and social inclusion, particularly in tackling physical inactivity, obesity and in reducing stress. This is especially true for the many disadvantaged communities who have waterways on their doorstep.

Our waterways provide tranquil spaces, which can also provide areas for personal reflection and stress relief.

Economic wellbeing

Providing spaces for regeneration and economic growth.

Variety of boats moored in front of buildings in London Docklands

Waterways can offer a platform to provide conditions for economic growth and can provide a physical environment that can foster regeneration. Waterways can also help provide attractive working environments.

Environmental wellbeing

Our waterways provide strategic green infrastructure, can enhance urban cooling and air quality, and can offer the opportunity to support sustainable energy generation and sustainable freight.

The site at Brotherton weir, during construction (Displayed with consent from Barn Energy)

To attract people to our network and to reap the benefits above, it is vital that planning policy and decisions incorporate approaches to make out spaces safe, accessible and attractive.

Research findings

The Trust are developing a framework to measure the benefits of our waterways, to show the breadth of our impact at both local and national level across a range of cross-cutting themes.

Existing research shows that spending time by the waterways can make people happier and improve life satisfaction, with an equivalent estimated national social wellbeing value of £3.8bn a year.

How planning can help councils realise the wellbeing benefits of our waterways

National policy sets out objectives to promote wellbeing, and we believe this should follow into local policy and decision marking.

Planning policy and decisions can help to ensure that our network can meet its potential in addressing some of the aims set out by National Planning Policy. Examples are provided below:

  • Paragraph 91 of the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) seeks to make sure planning policies and decisions aim to achieve healthy, inclusive and safe places. Effective planning policies and decisions can be used to ensure that canalside spaces can be fully realised to provide for such spaces, which can bring significant benefits to local communities
  • Paragraph 80 of the NPPF states that weight should be given towards the need to support economic growth and the wider opportunities for development. Canalside locations can form attractive spaces, which can attract investment and help foster economic regeneration
  • Paragraph 149 notes how plans should take a proactive approach towards mitigating and adapting to climate change, while paragraph 151 promotes the use and supply of renewable and low carbon energy. Our network can help to reduce urban heating, and can have uses in managing water runoff and supplying renewable energy

Local planning authorities and developers may wish to take account of the following issues which could help to realise the above aims of the NPPF.

Waterside development design principles

Each waterside location is unique, and no single design approach is appropriate in all locations. However, we believe that the following guiding principles should be used as a starting point for the consideration of development policy and the design of development:

  • The development of a public realm that integrates with the waterway, towpath and opens up access to water
  • Improvements to pedestrian access to, along and from the waterway
  • The orientation and design of development to optimise views and natural surveillance of the waterway
Leigh Masterplan Waterside
The above image shows an example of a residential layout that promotes views and natural surveilance of the waterway, and integrates the canal with the public realm of the development.

You can find more detailed discussion about the role of design on our Creating Successful Waterside Spaces page.

We promote the incorporation of design policies that specifically address waterside spaces, which should address the above principles. This would provide improved clarity for both developers and decision-makers as to how the principles of good design would apply to waterside spaces. Such policy could be addressed through:

  • The expansion of design policies within local plans to include explanatory text about the expectations of waterside spaces
  • The inclusion of design principles for the development of allocated sites next to waterways
  • The development of supplementary design documents for significant development sites next to the waterway

Approaches towards designing out crime

The Trust has published general design guidelines, which seek to combine good waterside design practices and crime prevention measures based on a clear understanding of the issues involved.

The Trust work with the police locally to make sure new developments are secure. We work with local Canalwatch schemes to make our canals safe and secure.

Brentford Grant Union Arm Image
The formation of active surveillance and absence of blank frontages at towpath level, as in the image above, is one approach that can help make our canalside spaces more attractive, and helps to reduce crime, and the fear of crime.

Green infrastructure and cycling/walking provision

We welcome approaches that would help to improve signage and pathfinding towards our network. This could help provide opportunities for local communities to discover our waterway spaces, and the advantages they would bring.

Approaches towards the promotion of walking and cycling, including the formation of strategic policy, could consider the value of our towpath network, which can provide safe, traffic-free routes for people to travel and exercise.

You can find out more on green infrastructure provision, including policy examples and case studies.

Access to towpath
In the above photo, linking up the site frontage with the existing towpath helps to encourage pedestrian and cycle use of the canal corridor as a sustainable transport route. The housing layout actively surveys the canal, and makes the canal a safer, more attractive environment.

Opportunities to promote environmental wellbeing

Waterways have a role to play in building energy and environmental resilience, and supporting transition to a low carbon economy. See more information on how policies and decisions could take this into account.

View of Hepworth Gallery across weir

Effective policy wording, that recognises the benefits and promotes positive development next to our network would allow planners and developers to identify the positive role our network can play for local communities, which can then positively influence detailed proposals in proximity to our network.

Should effective policy be in place, then planning decisions should result in positive outcomes and will maximise the wellbeing benefits of our network for the nation.


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Last Edited: 19 November 2020

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