Historical Background Of Docklands

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The decline and regeneration of urban areas presents several challenges for those tasked with the planning and provision of modern urban infrastructure (Church, 1990). London is a city that is ever-changing, with its infrastructure network constantly under development. There are a number of major developments in London which have made headlines: the development of King’s Cross, the creation of the Channel Tunnel terminal, the redevelopment of the area surrounding St Paul’s Cathedral. None however, have received the scale of coverage – or created the most controversy – as the redevelopment of London’s docklands (Coupland, 1992). London Docklands, in the east-end of London, is an area that has undergone significant changes over its lifetime – from being the largest enclosed dock system in the world (Church, 1988) to now emerging as today’s global financial centre (Brown, 2016). It is not a complete success story however, with some people believing that the needs and wishes of the original inhabitants of the area have been ignored by the development and rapid change of the surrounding infrastructure (Leeson, 2018), not to mention the additional adverse effects on the wellbeing of workers in London and the wider community. Furthermore, concepts such as splintering urbanism and disruption can be realised in the example of the London Docklands. This essay aims to first explore the changing infrastructure of the area, and why it was necessary, through a socio-economic lens and subsequently demonstrate the extent of the challenges presented when adapting urban infrastructure in a changing world.

Prior to the dock-building boom of the 1800s, the river Thames, on which the docklands are situated, connected London to Empire and its economic might, with the Docklands providing the force behind much of London’s global supremacy. However, between 1967 and 1981, the docks that were once the area’s key source of employment shut down one by one (Brown, 2016). This was due to a number of factors; most notably containerisation, whereby the methods of handling cargo were radically modified from smaller crates to much larger containers (Hayut, 1981). This made the process of docking much less labour-intensive, as cranes were subsequently required to move goods to and from boats rather than a labour force. Furthermore, the increase in demand for foreign goods in London, and around the world, as well as breakthroughs in technology meant the size of ships increased dramatically, rendering countless older ports such as London’s docklands unusable (Hayut, 1981), instead preferring deeper-water ports with better main road and rail access such as Tilbury and Felixstowe (Brown, 2016). Additionally, Britain’s economy was changing – deindustrialisation had hit the London docks hard. Over the span of one hundred years, the UK’s share of manufacturing output had fallen from 22.9 percent in the 1870s to 4.9 percent in the 1970s (Gat, 2008). International competition, the welfare state, trade unionism, loss of Empire, and a deficiency of innovation have all been put forward as explanations for the industrial deterioration (Laybourn, 1999). Much to the demise of the London dock workers, the industrial activity that was left in Britain was being moved away from big cities, a point encapsulated by David Keeble in his 1984 paper The Urban Rural Manufacturing Shift;

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“There is now abundant evidence that since the 1960s the most powerful single trend in manufacturing location in the United Kingdom has been a marked relative shift of manufacturing activity and employment from the conurbations and big cities to small towns and rural areas.”

While areas such as Scotland’s Highlands and rural Northumberland were among the principal manufacturing growth areas in the UK during the 1970s, Greater London was amongst the three fastest declining counties (Keeble, 1984). East London in particular lost 24,000 manufacturing jobs between 1965 and 1975, with male unemployment soaring to over 20 percent in 1981 (Marriott, 2011; Hillman, 1998). Furthermore, by 1980, 60 percent of the docks’ land area was derelict or vacant (Brown, 2016), leaving the area without a purpose. Deindustrialisation and the changing modern world had completely destroyed a once-great area, and had stranded a whole community, with many locals lacking the funds to move elsewhere (Heseltine, 2008). The London Docklands area had become a vast brownfield site, defined as a previously developed area that has fallen into disrepair and is not currently in use. This catastrophic decline prompted the government in 1979 to configure plans for Urban Development Corporations (UDCs) for London’s Docklands, as well as Liverpool’s Merseyside (Brown, 2016), aimed to redevelop brownfield sites.

Established in 1981, the London Docklands Development Corporation (LDDC) was granted extensive powers to acquire and service land, build infrastructure and encourage private investment in the Docklands area (Brown, 2016). An Enterprise Zone was also established on the Isle of Dogs (the central area of the Docklands). This was an experimental idea orchestrated by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Geoffrey Howe, that ensured tax incentives and a relaxed planning environment to encourage businesses to relocate to the area in aid of the regeneration efforts (Imrie & Thomas, 1999). The deregulated planning environment allowed the LDDC to get to work immediately. Their earliest developments were of quite a modest scale, with small and medium-sized businesses, low-density housing developments, and light industrial units emerging amongst the remaining docking facilities (Brown, 2016). While some praised the LDDC for its approach, including encouraging a ‘cheerful medley’ of design (Cox, 1995), others saw these early developments as unplanned and incoherent, with one critic describing the Enterprise Zone as an ‘architectural zoo’ (Carmona, 2009). This highlights a key problem of adapting urban infrastructure. Haphazard planning when developing something so permanent can be disastrous, given that it is something that affects thousands of people’s daily lives. UDCs can fall into this trap when tasked with redeveloping an area of brownfield land as they practically have a clean slate to work with and time pressures from local councils and government, who wish solely to report progress (Imrie & Thomas, 1999).

Further developments by the LDDC were no less controversial. When plans to build a business centre in the Docklands at a scale on par with Wall Street, complete with 30-storey buildings, were signed off by the Prime Minister, they were met with hostility. This hostility turned into formal opposition (Brown, 2016). The Greater London Council took the LDDC to High Court over its decision to grant the development of what is now known as Canary Wharf, claiming that the plans had been made unlawfully and contradicted other local plans (Brown, 2016). Further criticism came when it was pointed out that the towers would damage a traditionally historic view across London from the Royal Observatory in Greenwich. This came from the Greenwich Borough Council, the Royal Fine Arts Commission, English Heritage and a number of Greenwich societies (Ward, 1986). Altercations like this highlight another key problem in adapting urban infrastructure. Opinions of what an area should be are often vastly contrasting between groups of people. At the time, the Isle of Dogs was perceived to be a ‘remote and xenophobic place’ (Hebbert, 1992), and so the idea it was being converted into a business hub did not sit well with a lot of people. When adapting infrastructure, especially large development projects, there will always be some disagreement with it for various reasons (Cochrane, 1999), which in this case was due to aesthetic, cultural and historical factors.

After ongoing disagreements over a number of years, the main foundations and plans for Canary Wharf were in place by the early 1990s (Brown, 2016). Over three decades later, Canary Wharf now spans 97 acres, containing around 16.5 million square feet of office and retail space, and employs around 120,000 with an average salary of £100,000 per annum (Macdonald, 2011). The building hasn’t stopped. In 2011, Canary Wharf Group PLC set out aims to double the size of the East London financial hub by 2021 by undertaking demand-led developments (Macdonald, 2011). This highlights the power of infrastructures of consumption, where infrastructure and they ‘everyday’ come together. Given that Britons spent £1.34 trillion between 2005 to 2018 (Statista, 2019) it is important to build retail areas in order to create places of consumption. Canary Wharf boasts 5 malls and over 300 shops, restaurants, bars, services and amenities (Canary Wharf Group PLC, 2019). Canary Wharf can be viewed as the second central business district (CBD) of London, not only providing jobs but also having a range of social activities. It has its own transport links with the Docklands Light Railway (DLR) and London City Airport. This network of transport and areas of consumption creates an integrated, standardised grid across the territory of the Docklands, binding the area into the coherent entity that is Canary Wharf. By these defining factors, the area satisfies the high-modern conventions of the so-called ‘Integrated Ideal’ common in the cultural construction of post-industrial cities. The integrated ideal was historically characterised by Fordism and Keynesianism, which helped described the shift towards both mass production and capitalist modernisation in cities (Graham and Marvin, 2013). Arguably, Canary Wharf, with its coherent network of transport, skyscrapers and places of consumption, fulfils the integrated ideal by creating a mass of city professionals fulfilling urban capitalism.

The DLR is one feature of the Dockland’s networked infrastructure that realises aspects of the integrated ideal, given it connects fractured islands of infrastructure around the Thames and Docklands to create a channel between the City of London and Canary Wharf. The DLR is a form of standardised network that acts as a predictable, consistent service across the metropolis of London. Knowles and Ferbrache, argue that efficient transport infrastructure enhances internal and external connectivity, crucial for improving the competitiveness of post-industrial economies (2016). In particular, they found that investment in light rail systems create positives, such as unlocking areas and triggering growth, stimulating investment and extending the catchment areas of labour markets. However, the challenges associated with the transition that light rail brings revolves around disruption of the housing markets nearby, pricing locals out of their neighbourhoods. According to Song et al. (2019), the DLRs south-eastern branch and Northern branch have experienced higher premiums on residential house prices within 100m proximity to stations of up to 0.35% and 0.093% respectively. Overall, the catchment area of each station can generate between five and eight million pounds in residential value uplift. Looking at transport from a different angle, we can see that the development of London City airport also realises the concept of the integrated ideal. The airport links Greater London to countries around the world, providing an international link that would boost connectivity by a vast amount. This would stimulate more investment in the docklands area, especially from foreign markets. However, the inevitable increase in house prices due to the airport, not to mention the noise created by the planes, would surely not be looked favourably upon by those living nearby.

Splintering urbanism is a term that was first coined by geographers Steven Graham and Simon Marvin to refer to the ways in which infrastructure can break down the experience of a city (2001). While the developments of the new London Docklands had provided for many, there were a distinct group of people that had been left out of the plans – the ones who were originally there. The setting of their local area had been radically changed – much to the distaste of the community (Hebbert, 1992). This led to locals feeling displaced and forgotten about by the LDDC’s plans, not only from a social perspective, but from an economic one too. With the influx of service-driven jobs, the community of dockers did not have the required skills to continue working in their changed home. This is amplified by the fact that the foreign elite’s financial migration to London is changing the geographical form and labour market practices of the area. Sarah Hall identifies a significant geographical footprint of Chinese financial mobility to London in terms of both financial services and residential choices (2018). This presents yet another problem of adapting infrastructure as locals are priced out of the property market. Evidence that docklands residents are unhappy with the changes around them is not hard to come by. Protestors infamously interrupted an event in 1986 to announce the impending arrival of Canary Wharf by letting 60 sheep and over 150,000 bees loose amongst the crowds. Preceding this, a mock funeral processions marched around the Isle of Dogs with signs that read; “Kill the Canary, Save the Island” (Brown, 2016). It does seem, however, that it is not only the locals that have suffered, but interestingly the new workers too.

Concrete urban space has been linked with feelings of discourses and fear. Attempts have been made to understand this phenomenon and produce comprehensive theoretical understandings of these feelings, providing terms such as ‘geographies of fear’ and ‘military urbanism’ (Tulmello, 2016). Geographies of fear are more-often-than-not based on social perceptions of threat. In urban spaces, individuals’ boundaries can be tested and cause unease (Sibley, 1995; Cresswell, 1996). It seems that the infrastructure found at London’s docklands can create feelings detrimental to one’s mental health if the majority of their day is spent their working, with little open space. Shersad claims that “public spaces in international business districts are becoming increasingly devoid” creating excessively formal environments (2017). Moreover, on Wall Street and in London, hyper-ambition is wholly rewarded and workers are often wary of revealing something that could be viewed as a weakness (Cruise, 2019). Constant stress like this can be extremely detrimental to one’s mental health. These two consequences of city working life have adverse effects on those involved. A Mental Health at Work poll questioned over 4,600 employees from a range of industries in 2018, revealing that two thirds of financial service workers have experienced issues with their mental health (Cruise, 2019). Furthermore, a different survey of 70,000 banking employees carried out by Britain’s Banking Standards Board in 2018 revealed that 44 percent of those questioned said that they felt excessive pressure to perform in their work (Cruise, 2019). Evidently, there are consequences of promoting office-work by adapting urban infrastructure to favour such industries.

Looking at the example of the redevelopment of the London Docklands area, it is clear that attempting to adapt urban infrastructure for a changing world presents numerous challenges. Some would label this particular redevelopment effort as a complete success, while others claim it has ruined their livelihoods. However, was the redevelopment of the docklands inevitable in order for London to continue to compete on a global scale?

‘Looking at the skyscrapers, you feel like you’re at the very centre of globalisation, as the docks were before for two centuries’ (Michael Collins quoting Jon Davis, 2009)

Maybe the financial hub that the docklands is today isn’t too dissimilar from the bustling dock it once was. Canary Wharf employs roughly the same number of people that the docks employed in its heyday (Ft.com, 2013), and while the service it offers is different, there are some similarities. The Docklands are still fairly reliant on a single industry and employment is dependent solely upon the fate of that respective industry. To an extent, the Docklands have been a symbol of globalisation throughout its lifetime, once linking London’s trade to the world via ships; now doing the same but via financial markets. I am of the opinion that any form of infrastructural adaptation will produce both positive and negative social, economic, cultural, historical and political impacts to the various parties involved and affected by such a development.


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