Civitas Wins London, Ontario “Back to the River” Competition for Engaging Community with Thames River

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Denver urban design and landscape architecture firm Civitas with Stantec Consulting of Canada has been selected to redesign the Thames River waterfront for London, Ontario in Canada. Judges selected the Civitas/Stantec team from a shortlist of five international teams presenting recommendations for reconnecting the community with its centrally located Heritage river.

A cohesive open space plan by Denver urban design and landscape architecture firm Civitas with Stantec Consulting has won London, Ontario’s “Back to the River” competition (image courtesy of Civitas).

“This is a transformational, game-changing, city-building initiative,” says London Mayor Matt Brown.

Denver-based landscape architecture and urban design firm Civitas, in collaboration with Canadian planning, design and engineering firm Stantec Consulting, has been announced winner of London, Ontario’s “Back to the River” design competition. “This is a transformational, game-changing, city-building initiative,” says London Mayor Matt Brown. “It’s about reconnecting to an asset we have at the heart of downtown. Now we can focus on execution and do this right.”

The city presented the competition as an international search for designs that would strike a balance between environmental sustainability, economic development and community/recreational space for a 5-kilometer stretch of the Thames River radiating from central forks at the heart of London. Titled “The Ribbon of the Thames,” the winning design from the Civitas+Stantec team features renewed access with the city’s landmark river, stressing active four-season engagement and revitalized natural habitat.

The Thames is a Heritage river closely tied to the London region’s identity. The river was central to early settlers’ sustenance, transportation and industry, but in recent years the city has moved away from its roots, with most buildings turning their backs on the Thames and community access reduced to a limited number of places.

“The Thames is such a beautiful river; however, you can’t really access it,” says Civitas landscape architect Heath Mizer. “It was clear early in the design process that we need to provide a setting at the river’s edge for people to experience the beauty of the Thames as a priority in phase one of the 20-year river corridor plan.”

The winning Ribbon of the Thames plan improves neighborhood connections for people and bikes to the river, incorporating a series of interconnected “circuits” for movement and, over time, systematically making in-channel, streambank, riparian, wetland and upland improvements to habitats for wildlife health and human enjoyment. The project also adds new bridges at the Forks and the SOHO neighborhood to enable a variety of circuits on which people can walk, jog, bike, ski or snowshoe. And three multi-use nature circuits become destinations where people and kids can play in the water, look for wildlife, insects and birds, and touch nature firsthand in restored places.

“A cohesive open space system establishes the shared meaning and communal experiences that people enjoy and remember,” says Civitas founding principal Mark Johnson. “If each person who comes to the river experiences something of value, they make these firsthand experiences communal via social media. In our hyper-connected world, creating places that matter to people because they mean something personal may be the most powerful force in community-building today.”

The winning plan includes project phases to extend through 2030. In addition to Civitas and Stantec, the design team includes Montgomery Sisam Architects, Blackwell Bowick Engineering, Two Twelve, Mike Baker and Tillet Lighting Design. The team will be awarded a design contract with the City of London for an inaugural project at the Forks of the Thames, revamping an access point and including public terraces, environmental features such as a bio-filter wetland, concrete steps with a sand finish, and a plaza with patio seating. A natural sandbar, dubbed “The Fish Tail,” will be reinforced to create a quiet pool for safe, easy paddle access, and a boathouse and associated restaurant are also proposed. Cost estimates are $5 – 8 million for this initial phase intended to open up the “front” of downtown to the river, with a potential completion date as early as 2018.

“The Forks is the historical birthplace of London, so what better place to reconnect downtown with the Thames and celebrate its heritage? A variety of spatial experiences will accommodate large events and also provide comfortable daily encounters for the people who live and work in London,” explains Civitas’ Mizer. “Our design for the Forks will become a civic destination where Londoners can engage with their river again.”

The Back to the River competition was narrowed to a shortlist of five teams in July, with presentations submitted before a selection panel of judges in October and the Civitas/Stantec team announced as winner on Nov. 2, 2015. His team’s initial winning design is just a first step, stresses Civitas’ Johnson, whose firm is known for creating such successful completed waterfront projects as the Port of San Diego’s North Embarcadero and Calgary, Alberta’s recently opened St. Patrick’s Island. As with all Civitas projects, engaging public feedback is crucial to refining a design that will best suit the community’s needs.

The Thames River project is part of a larger London revitalization program that includes a rapid transit initiative. The Back to the River competition was spearheaded by the London Community Foundation (LCF) in partnership with the City of London and the Upper Thames River Conservation Authority (UTRCA).

About Civitas:
With a core purpose of creating healthier cities, Civitas is an idea-based practice of urban designers, architects and landscape architects engaged in strategic planning for urban change and project design for built works. Having celebrated its 30th anniversary in 2014, the consultancy and design studio advises on a wide range of strategies for re-imagining urban life and places. For more information, visit

Media contact: Anne McGregor Parsons, WordenGroup Public Relations, anne(at)wordenpr(dot)com, 303.777.7667

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