Everyone is up for sharing the waterways, and in particular the towpath, right? We certainly are, and sharing is a common mantra of the Canal and River Trust (CRT), and organisations such as the Inland Waterways Association (IWA), when they introduce new policies or propose changes in towpath usage. Given this, you would think that sharing the towpath would be an area of common ground. But when you compare what we mean by sharing and what they mean, it becomes clear that it never can be.
As boaters in general, and itinerants in particular, we have the established right to moor on the towpath for up to two weeks and then move on to another place for up to another two weeks and so on. We use the towpath as our home and then move, leaving that space free for someone else.
While we are moored up, other people -walkers, cyclists – are still free to use the towpath; and still others -anglers, duck feeders, canoeists launching their boats etc – are free to use unoccupied towpath to pursue these activities. The space is being shared in a common way by a myriad of people. Sometimes – OK, quite often in London – we aren’t able to moor in the particular place or area that we may want to; and so it goes for the anglers, duck feeders and canoeists. In other words, we have a common (if often atomized) experience of what is a shared, common space.
But that isn’t what CRT and its friends at the IWA think the future of sharing should be. To them, sharing the towpath shouldn’t be a common, shared experience, but rather an individuated one; and to this end we are seeing more and more partitioning of the towpath. Whether it be the London Mooring Strategy’s dedicated pop up mooring spaces, prohibited mooring in watersports zones, increased permanent business moorings and further developed winter moorings, or the IWA’s Vision for London’s mooring free spaces to improve the visual experience and increased limited stay visitor moorings, the language of sharing predicates a partitioning of what should be a common space.
In this version, sharing is done at the expense of a group of users (normally itinerant boaters). With each guarantee for a particular group to use a space, at least one other group is denied the ability to use it.
So the next time CRT and its friends start talking about “sharing” and “fairness”, just think about who is going to lose out in the sharing newspeak equation.