Safe Waters: Transforming Water Safety Through Youth Empowerment for Canal & River Trust

Our input

  • Behaviour change
  • Co-design
  • Creative Development

The Canal & River Trust preside over 2,000 miles of canal and riverways across England and Wales, and millions of us will enjoy these environments every year. But warm weather can lure young people into taking risks by the water that may lead to injury and even death.

We partnered with Canal & River Trust to research what goes on when young people head to the canals, rivers and reservoirs, what risks they take and why, and what might influence them towards safer decisions.

To do this we spent time with Trust staff on the ground who witness what young people are doing, and we spoke to safety experts, reviewed sector reports and literature around adolescent risk and reward. We then spent time with young people in our pilot area of Wigan, specifically around Lock 73, thanks to the support of Wigan Youth Zone.

We learned first and foremost that it was time to stop saying stop. For landlocked young people, rivers and canals are their beaches, and to expect them to give them up is unrealistic. Rather, how can we shape behaviours when they reach the water to reduce harm?

We learned that a peer-to-peer approach offered an opportunity. Authority figures don’t always play well with young people and might even be counterproductive amidst a point scoring friendship culture fuelled by willingness to cross boundaries and demonstrate bravery.

But we also found that even the most flagrant young risk takers were still aware of their upper limits. And we saw they would always look out for mates, and that they would be willing to step in when they sensed trouble. Our job was to enable these peer-to-peer interventions and empower young people to trust their own innate judgement.

We co-developed and tested creative and messaging ideas with the Wigan teenagers, supported by Canal & River Trust leaders, and developed a pilot campaign approach called Have You Got Their Back? – a question that leans into their bonds of friendship.

We’ve created language and visual guidance housed in a toolkit that the Trust are starting to use on the ground. The Trust team have been energised by what is a marked shift in direction for their safety comms, demonstrating a willingness for a new approach to communicating with young people that meets them where they are.