Wandering around London, I am always struck by the rate of growth and the speed of change taking place. With 8.7M people, the capital is now the biggest it has ever been and over the coming few years, predictions show it will only get bigger.
The continued success and growth of London has not been down to chance. What makes London a great place in which to live, visit, invest and work is its ability to connect different people and communities to each other and to services and amenities.
Reliable and efficient infrastructure, in other words, has made London possible. A key part of this is the role of tunnels which are used every day, often unseen, for everything from transport to telecommunications, waste to water.
Tunnelling has been an intrinsic part of London’s development. Sir Marc Brunel’s Thames Tunnel was the first ever to use a tunnel shield to bore under a navigable river, sparking the construction of a subterranean system below the city. Sir Joseph Bazalgette’s sewerage system gave London one of the first major sanitation systems in the world. The London Underground, more than 150 years old, is now used by more than 1.3bn people every year.
Lee tunnel feb3 secondary lining rig
These tunnels have helped drive London’s success, but are frequently taken for granted by the people who use them. Apart from the transport system, tunnels are hidden from public view, working silently beneath us and only ever seen by those that construct and operate them.
That is why the Infrastructure Learning Hub’s new exhibition provides the perfect opportunity to celebrate these incredible structures. Opening last month, the exhibition shows the public how tunnels have transformed the world. It will explain how the first tunnel engineers took their inspiration from nature, using biomimicry to construct the first ever tunnels. It will show how these methods developed into the techniques we use today.
Crucially, it will also look at the future. Tunnelling is now more important than ever, as seen in London where we are continuing to go underground to build the infrastructure we need. Crossrail, the Thames Tideway Tunnel, and the Northern Line Extension are all at various stages of construction and will soon add extra capacity to our transport and wastewater systems.
Proposed schemes like the Silvertown Tunnel, Bakerloo Line Extension and Crossrail 2 are in the planning stages and are seen not only as a way to improve connectivity, but more importantly as solutions to the current housing shortage. The sooner we are able to build these, the more effective we will be in managing London and the South East’s future growth.
Tunnels have never been more important, and with such a fantastic heritage and some exciting projects in the pipeline, it is time we started celebrating them.
● Suzanne Moroney is ICE London regional director