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Eco-moorings: a just transition or a (tow)path towards eco-gentrification

Klaudija Alasauskaite

MA Sustainable Cities graduate, Department of Geography

23 March 2021

As the nights draw in and the cold sets in, boaters are once more reminded of the environmentally detrimental effects of heating and powering our floating homes.

London is now home to over two-thousand two hundred continuously cruising boats, a number which has seen a large and steady increase over the past decade. Not only is this rise in the number of boats on the network putting pressure on services such as toilet and waste disposal, but elements of boating - such as the burning of coal and running of diesel engines for energy - have garnered greater attention in recent years from land residents, local councils and the Canal & River Trust(CRT). As an attempt to combat some of these issues, the CRT is creating a new ‘eco-mooring zone’ on a small stretch of the Regent’s Canal on either side of the Islington Tunnel.

By encouraging the use of newly installed electric charging points, the scheme aims to reduce itinerant boaters’ reliance on burning solid fuels and using polluting energy sources such as diesel engines and generators. This in the long term will restrict boaters who are unable to electrify their heating and energy systems from mooring there. The eco-moorings are being proposed under a sustainability agenda to reduce air and noise pollution in the local area and although the CRT states that the environmental effects of boat dwellers are minimal, they argue this project is necessary for the sake of all – local land residents, boaters and the environment alike.


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The National Bargee Travellers Association (NBTA), who campaign for the rights of itinerant boaters, say this is ‘social exclusion eco style’ highlighting the cost as a major challenge for boat upgrades, which will leave many boaters unable to use the new eco-moorings. The NBTA argue that the project is more about restricting the ‘type’ of boater who moors in the area, rather than being about environmental issues. As part of my master’s degree in Sustainable Cities at King’s College London, I conducted research on the new scheme,specifically looking at how itinerant boaters may be affected by the changes and how they envision not only environmentally, but also socially sustainable canals in the future. I collected forty-eight online surveys and conducted four in-depth interviews with itinerant boaters.

The findings confirmed that boating technology used on the canals has generally progressed little towards cleaner heating and energy generation, although there have been some promising inroads to renewable energy use from solar power. Much of the respondents still rely on fossil fuels for heating,with 85% of respondents relying on a multi-fuel stove to heat their boat and 51% and 47% using diesel engines and instant gas boilers, respectively, to heat their water. A similar, but more promising picture transpired when it comes to energy generation. 100% of respondents have solar panels installed,with 85% using a diesel engine as an alternative source of power. Even with solar panels’ high seasonal reliance, 76% of respondents used solar panels for 70% or more of the year for their energy generation, topping up their energy needs in the winter with diesel engines and occasionally generators. 7% of respondents used solar power for 100% of their energy needs.

Considering restrictions which will come into force after a two-year trial period of the eco-mooring zone, only 6%of respondents’ boats would be compliant year-round without any changes or modifications, with 50% of respondents only being able to moor there part of the year and 42% not being able to moor there at all. 2% of respondents were unsure how they might be affected.

The findings showed that the biggest challenges for boaters when it comes to electrifying their heating and energy systems would be cost, space, and the reluctance to upgrade all their systems to only use them for a few weeks a year when moored in the eco-mooring zone. 91% of respondents are currently not in a position to be able to upgrade their systems to the level required. A key challenge was retrofitting boats which were originally built to older specifications, with limited space to alter layouts or include additional systems. A boater living on a 32-foot narrow boat explained: 

There is no space, like I have no space. Every space has a thing in it. And it’s not like a frivolous thing like a piano. It’s a thing like a kitchen. It’s too small. I just don’t have any idea where I would put a secondary fuel source if it was electrical’– interviewee

Overwhelmingly, boaters felt like the scheme was unfairly targeting a small minority of the population who were responsible for negligible environmental impacts and not considering the social implications of the displacement of people who are not in an economic position to change their boats.

Boaters expressed how this was ‘simply gentrification’on the waterways which is ‘extremely likely to exclude ordinary boaters’ without the means to upgrade and that it will push poorer boaters further out of Central London ‘to the margins’and ‘to less desirable, less safe areas’. In particular, there was a strong feeling that this scheme was an illustration of the changing demography of the canals, where lower-income boaters were no longer welcome, replaced by newer, wealthier ones who themselves had recently been pushed onto the water by London’s rental and property market: ‘This is gentrification. The wealthy young professionals who are flocking to the canals as a way to get on the “property ladder” will have no issues upgrading to electric heaters whereas boaters who may be less privileged / more vulnerable will be forced out.’

The perceived marginalisation of lower-income boaters does not change the fact that clean air is vital for everyone’s health and wellbeing and many of the boaters who took part in the research sought to highlight that they were not undermining the importance of this. The desire to move away from polluting energy and heat sources was clear and many were quick to point out that other existing services that had environmental impacts were not up to scratch. Until they are, focusing on this scheme was a source of misplaced energy: 

More bins, more composting, more recycling would be a good start - where have the recycling bins all gone? Oil disposal facilities. Contaminated water disposal facilities. Then, once the basics are in place, which they are currently not... I LOVE the idea of electric hook-ups, but these need to be available across the network if it is actually to work in practice’.– interviewee

The Islington eco-mooring scheme is just one example of environmentally driven projects which do not take a holistic view of their social outcomes. Academics have coined the term eco-gentrification as a way to describe the unintended (and indeed sometimes intended) gentrifying consequences of environmentally driven urban development. True sustainability of cities like London cannot be successful without addressing the material realities of all their residents and without acknowledging that design and planning solutions will not solve what are essentially structural problems shaping human behaviour. Only time will tell the true social and environmental effects of the Islington eco-moorings. It is too early to draw final conclusions on the potential displacement the eco-moorings might create for boaters who are not in an economic position to drastically alter their physical circumstances, nor on the intended environmental gains the scheme could yield.

However, it is vital to consider the concerns held by the boating community about the scheme in its present form.By and large, they fear it will not lead to socially just outcomes and many warn that it may even put boaters’ current way of life at risk.


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This piece was originally published in issue two of Fear Naut magazine

This article has been kindly extracted and edited by Klaudija Alasauskaite from her MA dissertation in Sustainable Cities at King’s College London.

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