Sunday, 16 October 2011

London’s Docklands: the biggest planning disaster in Europe?

London’s Docklands is possibly the biggest planning disaster in Europe. Take the following example: Consider the following series of photos, illustrating the experience of walking from Poplar into Canary Wharf. The sequence of spaces begins here, on Poplar High Street.

Attempting to walk into Canary Wharf, you use a pedestrian bridge, beginning your ascent here.

You use a pedestrian bridge to cross what is basically an arterial road.

This is what greets you on the other side;  not Canary Wharf but a wasteland.

A knowledgeable pedestrian may realise that there are high quality public spaces on the far side of these building but there is no implied route to get there. If you are prepared to wander through the wasteland, you may eventually find your way into Canary Wharf.

Why are these two public realms so disjointed? Part of the answer lies with  the very  busy road separating them, the A1261. Dealing with heavily used transport infrastructure is a problem which occurs again and again in urban design. However, I feel that there is a deliberate strategy here to separate the two areas, keeping the rich and the poor apart. New developments like Canary Wharf, it was argued, were part a regeneration strategy for East London, replacing the defunct docks. Actually it offers little for the indigenous inhabitants of East London. All  urban designers  view the creation of a street as the creation of a place. Is it possible to give the A1261 a sense of place?

Perhaps it would be illuminating to compare this new part of Docklands/East London  with another part of London. On Silvertown Way, near Canning Town Station, several new apartment buildings have been constructed. The building illustrated here, just visible at far right, is probably  not a master-piece of modern architecture. But between this building and Canning Town Station there are a series of fine-grained, walkable public spaces.

 Perhaps the successful urbanistic quality of these this building, as opposed to the previous example,  the spaces between Poplar and Canary Wharf, can be summed up in the following diagram.

Here we have ultimately the reason why so much of London’s Docklands is a failure. There is no attempt to integrate new development i.e. what is usually conceived of as part of Docklands with East London. In fact, I cannot  help feeling there is a deliberate strategy to keep them apart. East London contains some of London’s poorest boroughs. The new docklands developments were intended for the well-off. The strategy seems to be islands of prosperity separated by wastelands from the deprived parts of East London. A pedestrian-hostile city where quality  of life is only available for those who can afford it.

 How can buildings accumulate to form a sense of urban fabric, defining public space instead of the disjointed mess we see here?  The building in Canning Town gives us a small clue. How do you make a place of a street which contains a high volume of fast traffic such as the A1261? There are many strategies which could be adopted. I suggest two examples.

                  The parkway    


                 The green bridge 

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

In some ways what they have done for the Olympics is the complete opposite of what was done at Canary Wharf.
The Olympic site is basically the Lea Valley; this has been described as a “scar” dividing two parts of London - Hackney and Stratford.
The aim of the Olympic project is to heal that scar, making a more pedestrian-friendly city.

In Canary Wharf , on the other hand, the strategy seems to be to deliberately separate two areas of London.

I can warn you now that some of the architecture built for the Olympics is decidedly second-rate.
However, almost any regeneration project for this depressing part of London would have to count as an improvement.