UGEL logo and strapline
Aerial view of Stratford, East London and the Olympic Park area

2014 Geolog archive

26th December

In praise of planning

The Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) has just produced a report, ‘Success and Innovation in Planning’, in which it praises a number of recent UK planning projects. The Olympic Park was the stand out winner with the expert panel among the nominated projects. The report points out that the London Olympics could be seen as something of a unique set of circumstances – the delivery of a mega-project (budget of £9.3 billion!) to a tight, but absolute, deadline. Seven years from winning the bid in 2005 until the opening of the Games in July 2012 was a remarkably short time for the transformation of a 200-hectare site.

However, the RTPI note that the Lea Valley had been subject to planning attention for some years before its designation as the Olympic Park. It was framed as part of Thames Gateway regeneration within the wider London Plan and the statutory planning system was fundamental to its delivery. Plans for the site were approved in 2004, even before submission of London’s bid to host the Games. Extensive compulsory purchase orders were used and, whilst much of the land was vacant or readily given up, several businesses and residents opposed the compulsory purchase.

One of the notable successes in planning the Olympic Park was the creation of what the RTPI called a ‘special purpose vehicle’ – the Olympic Delivery Authority (ODA) – to plan the site across four local authorities – Newham, Hackney, Waltham Forest and Tower Hamlets. This approach to multi-agency co-operation, is one they expect to see repeated in future regeneration projects. The ODA’s job was complete once the Games had happened and responsibility for planning the next phase of the Olympic Park was handed over to the London Legacy Development Corporation. They are now the main planning authority for the area in and around the Park.

The most innovative part of the planning process for London 2012 was, from the outset, to have the legacy of the Games as a goal on a par with the delivery of the Games themselves. In contrast to many previous Olympics, there was a clear vision of what should be left behind once the Games were over. Many venues in the Park were designed to be temporary or have elements reconfigured following the Games. The key venues that were retained – the stadium, velodrome and aquatic cente – are now open for public use or, in the case of the stadium, soon will be. Initial indications are that they will be well used by a wide range of people. The Athletes Village has also been reconfigured into residential units and rebranded as East Village. It is well on the way to becoming a successful new residential neighbourhood in east London.

Praise indeed from the Royal Town Planning Institute!


3rd December

The arts are coming!

There must be an election around the corner. There is more money coming to east London. This time it’s for a new cultural quarter in Stratford, previously announced by the Mayor and labelled ‘Olympicopolis’ (see my geolog on 5th December 2013). It feels like east London has been in the bus queue for a long time and then two come along one after the other – the Olympic Games and a new cultural quarter. The latest scheme will be cheap compared to the Olympics, but will still cost the government £141 million, presumably with more money coming from the private sector.

A few thoughts spring to mind. If we are talking culture, greater investment in the cultural assets we already have would not go amiss. Libraries in east London are underfunded and could do with better staffing and more books. A few years ago Newham used to have a wonderful archive library which was an absolute treasure for local historians. The current archive is a pale shadow of the old one and that is no reflection on the good people who now staff it on a part-time basis – presumbably while doing other jobs too.

It has probably also escaped the notice of Boris Johnson and George Osborne, that Stratford already has a ‘cultural quarter’. It consists of the Theatre Royal which has been in Stratford since the 19th century, the Picturehouse cinema that opened about fifteen years ago and, more recently, Stratford Circus, an all-purpose arts venue which hosts theatre, dance, music and comedy. In addition, the National Theatre are going to create a new temporary venue immediately opposite the Theatre Royal, due to open in 2015 with a ten-year life expectancy. It will double the number of shows available to the public in east London. Perhaps, Boris and George didn’t realise people in east London already go to the theatre?

Or, perhaps, the new cultural quarter in Stratford is not aimed at people in east London at all? It might be a way of changing the image of an area more associated with a Cockney knees-up rather than a night at the opera. After all, if you want to gentrify an area and attract newcomers paying the high rents and house prices being charged, you have to offer the sort of cultural experience they would expect. A new V&A museum and Sadler’s Wells dance theatre are among the proposals, together with two new university campuses for University College and the University of the Arts. And what do local people think? Well, while no one is complaining, a cultural quarter might not have been top of their list of priorities for investment in east London.


19th November

Inactive Newham

Shocking news last week revealed that Newham – host borough for the 2012 Olympics – is the least active place in England. The organisation UKActive found that almost four in every ten adults in Newham fail to do as little as thirty minutes of moderate-intensity excercise per week. Newham came bottom of the list of shame of ten local authorities around the country, mostly working class areas, including some of the usual suspects like Tameside, Stoke-on-Trent, Hartlepool and Knowsley. At the other end of the scale, the ten most active local authorities included obvious candidates like Richmond upon Thames, Wokingham and Surrey, but also a few surprises like Leeds and Lambeth.

The study says that it is not about the performance of individual local authorities in dealing with the problem. Newham, for example, has one of the country’s biggest investments in tackling inactivity, pledging £2.1 million in 2014-15. More than 70% of councils have raised their budget on physical activity as part of the government’s aim to get more people active as a legacy of the 2012 Games. Nor, in the case of Newham, can we blame the lack of facilities. As we take groups of students around the Olympic Park, those from other areas can only gaze in envy at the sports facilities now available to people in east London – an Aquatic Centre where adults can swim for £3.50 a session, a Velopark where you can cycle for as little as £6 for as long as you can manage, the Copper Box for all types of indoor sports and, of course the park, where you can run, walk or cycle for free.

But, old habits die hard. Even in Stratford, next to the Olympic Park, we find that only a small proportion of people have actually used any of the facilities. In some of the furthest flung corners of Newham, like Manor Park, North Woolwich or Silvertown, it is a bus or train ride to reach the Olympic Park or, heaven forbid, you have to walk or cycle to get there. The cynics may like to point at Newham and say, “I told you so”, as if you can’t change peoples’ ways. I think things will take longer to change. It is not as simple as giving people a swimming pool and expecting them to jump in. For a start, they may have to learn to swim first (the pool at the Aquatic Centre is deep!). I am more optimistic and think the change will happen slowly and we are not looking for instant results. If anything, UKActive’s survey shows that they chose exactly the right place for the 2012 Olympics.


11th November

We’re all Qataris now!

Every time I take a group of students around East Village – the former Athletes Village next to the Olympic Park – I explain that half of the village is now owned by QDD, a Quatari-owned development group. No one bats an eyelid. It’s as if we all expect an oil-rich state in the Middle East to be the owner of a bit of real estate in east London. Not any old real estate, of course. We are talking about the UK’S largest new residential development in London’s newest postcode, though I doubt if anyone in the Qatari royal family could tell you where E20 actually is, if asked.

Last week we learned that the Qataris attempted to buy Canary Wharf, to add to a string of trophy assets they already own in London. However, the current owners of the Docklands estate, including the iconic tower at 1 Canada Square, rejected the bid of £2.2 billion. Two weeks ago a Qatari group reportedly bought HSBCs global HQ in Canary Wharf for £1.1 billion, making it London’s most expensive office building. Among the other London landmarks owned by Qataris are the Shard, Harrods, Chelsea Barracks and, perhaps most unlikely of all, a 20% share in Camden Market.

Where will it all end? This week, walking around East Village with some GCSE students, we bumped into a young mother with baby in pushchair coming out of her ground-floor apartment. We took the opportunity to stop and ask her about life in the village. She was a tenant of QDD (known locally as ‘GetLivingLondon’). Having moved from another part of London, she loved it here. The best thing she said was the transport system and the fact they didn’t need to use a car. However, the rent was expensive and they were going to have to move out because they could not afford it.

It probably makes little difference to this woman who she pays her rent to. I’m sure British landlords no more have their tenants’ interest at heart than Qatari ones. However, it would be nice to be able to put a face to the name of your landlord and, who knows, pop round to their country mansion to complain about the rent they charge. There is a great deal of fuss at the moment about the number of immigrants coming into the country, most of whom come to do an honest day’s work and fill the jobs that none of us want to do. So far, I have heard few questions about why a foreign country is buying up our capital city.


1st October

Focus E15

One of the photos in the montage on our home page shows the Carpenters Estate, E15 – a Newham Council housing estate in the shadow of the Olympic Park. Whilst all the attention over the past couple of year has been on neighbouring E20 – the newest post code in London, including the Olympic Park and Westfield shopping centre – E15, the old post code for Stratford, has been rather overlooked. There are about 600 empty homes on the Carpenters estate, which consists of three twenty-storey tower blocks and a few streets of low-rise housing.

Last year a deal between University College London and Newham Council to redevelop the estate fell through and, at the time, I predicted we might hear more about the area. Last week the Carpenters Estate burst into the news again when a few of the homes were occupied by Focus E15 Mums, a group of young mothers who a year ago were living in a Newham hostel until they received notice of its closure and were evicted. They are currently occupying the homes to draw attention to the dearth of social housing in east London and the problem of finding affordable accommodation. “Why should we be pushed out of the area because it’s become all gentrified and trendy?”, one of them asked. Tomorrow they go to court to argue their case with Newham Council who want the occupation to end.

From the council’s point of view, the Carpenters Estate must be a bit of a nightmare. They decided about fifteen years ago that the tower blocks were not fit for human habitation but too costly to repair. They have been slowly decanting residents ever since. During the Olympics, the top floors on one of the blocks served as temporary news studios for the BBC. There are currently 67 flats still occupied out of a total of 434. Walking around the estate the other day, I noticed there are now a number of boarded-up low rise homes too and I wasn’t aware that these were unfit for human habitation.

Clearly, the council would like to be rid of the problem and are surely looking for a developer to buy the site from them. UCL appeared to offer the best solution, with their plan for a new east London campus and student accommodation, but either the cost of the deal, the bad publicity from residents’ protests, or possibly a combination of the two, put them off. Carpenters Estate, with its proximity to the Olympic Park, will continue to be an embarassment until it is redeveloped and, even then, the amount of affordable housing provided for local people will still be an important issue.


22nd September

Invictus Games : Another triumph for the Olympic Park

Sunday 14th September saw the closing ceremony of the Invictus Games after four days of thrilling disability sport. The opening and closing events were “sell-outs” in a temporary arena in the South Park with music from stars such as Ellie Goulding and Foo Fighters. The games were opened on the previous Wednesday by Prince Harry who was the driving force behind the whole concept and planned the organisation of the Games. He read out a message from Queen Elizabeth with a key quote from her, “the success of these Games can be measured not by the medals won but by the renewed sense of purpose and confidence in your abilities that you have gained”.

More than 65,000 spectators crammed into the former Olympic venues to appreciate the exploits of some 400 wounded or injured, serving and ex-military, people who competed in 13 national teams in many adaptive sports which included wheelchair basketball, sitting volleyball, wheelchair rugby, archery, swimming, cycling, indoor rowing and athletics.

The Great Britain team gained 72 gold medals which was more than any other team, including the USA. The three televised finals were in the Copperbox arena but millions tuned in to the daily broadcasts.

My family attended the sitting volleyball final on Sunday afternoon with a great contest between Great Britain and USA which Great Britain won. The £12.80 tickets were cheap at the price, the atmosphere was electric, while the wall of noise was deafening for both teams. There was great entertainment during the time out sessions with music, Mexican waves and D.J.s whipping up the crowd to a frenzy. All around the Olympic Park were volunteers with their distinctive T-shirts, “I am a volunteer”, with many of them collecting for charities such as Help the Heroes. All this is a tremendous part of the Olympic Legacy and the success of Invictus will help ensure future events will continue.


15th September

London divides the UK

This week Scotland votes on independence. It could mark the beginning of the break up of the UK, or it might be a wake up call to look again at the way this country is governed. One of the main gripes for the Scots is being ruled from London, a city not only 400 miles away from Glasgow, but also a world away in terms of its wealth, its politics and its priorities. For the past thirty years, since the days of Margaret Thatcher, Scotland has hardly voted for a Tory MP, yet has found itself being ruled by a succession of right-leaning governments (either Conservative or New Labour) from Westminster.

An article titled ‘The London problem’ in the New Statesman last week by Oxford geography professor, Danny Dorling, argues that the referendum on Scottish independence is, at heart, not a vote about Scotland – it’s a vote about London. It is a vote about the inequalities that exist in the UK, highlighted by the gulf in wealth between the capital and the rest of the country. With 13% of the UK’s population, London creates 22% of the country’s GDP, a difference in GDP per capita of its capital city greater than any other major country than Russia. In the UK, this differential is often characterised as being a ‘problem of the north’. But Dorling points out that there can be no plan to solve the problem of ‘the north’ until we devise a plan for London. Among his solutions would be to allow expansion of the city into the greenbelt while building more high-density, affordable housing, moving key institutions, including parliament, out of London and reducing inequalities within the capital.

What is often forgotten in any discussion of London’s dominance of the UK ecomony, is that inequality within London is as great as that in the UK as a whole. Most of the wealth in London flows in to the pockets of the richest residents. The average Londoner is not much better off than the average UK citizen, and east London boroughs have some of the most deprived communities in the country.

So, while my heart has some sympathy with the Scots who want to leave the UK, as a Londoner living in one of the poorer parts of the city, my head thinks that we would be much ‘better together’, fighting for a more just and equitable society, with greater powers devolved to regions and cities to decide their own priorities. My fear is, if Scotlands leaves, that fight becomes more difficult for the rest of us.


25th August

Bike revolution

There is something of a bike revolution going on in east London and it is all focussed on the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. It started with the opening of the Lee Valley VeloPark earlier in the year, which happened without much fanfare before the opening of the rest of the Park. Just so you know, the VeloPark includes not only the the Olympic Velodrome – now known as the Lee Valley Velodrome – but also a modified version of the Olympic BMX track, as well as a one-mile road cycle track to replace the Eastway Cycle circuit that once existed in the area and a new mountain biking track that loops around the whole site for eight and a half kilometres. Recently, we have seen the Tour de France come through east London on its three-day detour in Britain and, just a couple of weeks ago, RideLondon begain its soggy journey through the capital at the Olympic Park. We have not been short of cycling opportunities this year!

I don’t have any figures for the use of the VeloPark facitilities, but my strong impression is that they are growing. Each time I visit the Velodrome (and I have been there about ten times now), whether mid-week or at week-ends, there are people cycling. Many of them are doing the obligatory induction programme and, I would assume, as the number of cyclists who have done the induction grows, so too will the overall demand. I’m not one of those who have yet taken the plunge but it looks really thrilling – not to say petrifying – to be whizzing round the track at breakneck speed, taking the bends at what appears to be a 45 degree angle.

My preference is to cycle outdoors, so my first experience at the VeloPark was on the road cycle track. I’m long enough in east London to have once cycled on the old Eastway Cycle circuit, before it was demolished to make way for the Olympics. I’ve got to say the new track is a more than adequate replacement. Sweeping around the Velodrome itself, the road circuit is exactly one-mile in length (as measured by my bike milometer), including two bridge crossings of the River Lea, a long straight followed by a 180 degree bend and an incline up to the Velodrome, then a sequence of dips, rises and bends to the river again. All for the princely sum of £6 to cycle for as long as you want. Who could complain about that?

On the day I chose to cycle I thought I had the whole circuit to myself. After three laps, a large bunch of lycra-clad teenagers appeared trackside with their rather super-duper racing bikes. Who did they think they were impressing? As they caught me up and then sped past, I responded by moving into their slipstream and tagging along behind. On my rather heavy touring bike, complete with panniers, I realised I wasn’t going to actually beat them in a race, but I thought I could at least give them a run for their money. No chance! After a couple of laps toying with me, they put the burners on and accelerated out of sight. Over the next forty laps, I was probably lapped three or four times. Only at the end did I discover that I’d been cycling with the GB under-16 development team of boys and girls! And, yes, they did impress me. I was quite excited to have been cycling with the Laura Trotts’ and Bradley Wiggins’ of the future. It’s all part of the bike revolution in east London.


20th July

The height of bad manors

There are now 2,500 people living in East Village – the former Athletes Village – about 40% of the number eventually expected to live there. Even with that number, the village still has something of the atmosphere of a ghost town. The same might be said of any residential area where people are at work during the day but, in East Village the local shops and services are not due to open until September, by when there will be more people (and potential customers) living there.

Despite the relatively high density of the development – eleven blocks of eight to ten storeys, each built around a central quadrangle – the village has a spacious feel. There are sixty-seven acres of public open space, including a central park, childrens’ play areas, an orchard and over twenty acres of ponds and reedbeds which filter water draining from the village, before recycling it for use as irrigation and toilet water.

However, the amount of space in the village could turn out to be an illusion. There are plans to built another 2,000 homes in towers rising up to thirty storeys on about half a dozen still-vacant sites. The large 3D model of the village in GetLivingLondon marketing suite for would-be tenants has recently added two tall translucent plastic towers among the mid-rise wooden blocks that represent the existing buildings. These are the first two 30-storey blocks for which planning permission is being considered next week. Unhappy tenants complain they were not aware of the plans when they moved into the village. Some will be overlooking a building site for a year, only to have their view of the Olympic Park and London skyline blocked and live in permanent shadow.

I’m not sure at what point these high-rise blocks were added to the plans for East Village. They were not included in any of the pre-Olympic plans, though I do remember seeing them in the earlier model on display at the marketing suite. Then, they mysteriously disappeared for six months, just at the time when prospective tenants would have been registering their interest in the development. Was this deliberate deception or just a case of bad timing? Ultimately, I suppose if they don’t like their new high-rise neighbours, tenants can choose to move out. As no one in East Village owns their own home, they will not lose financially if their property devalues, but it is hard to see the present high-quality environment being maintained if the proposed plans go ahead. It would be a shame to spoil what has the potential to be one of the most desirable new neighbourhoods in London for the sake of cramming more homes into what is already a high-density development.


10th July

A curricululm for London

Yesterday, a new school curriculum for London was launched by the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson. He wants children in the capital to understand London and its history “beyond their own postcode”. Teachers will be given lesson plans on how to turn the city into a living classroom for subjects including English, art, music, history and geography. The curriculum, designed for pupils aged 11 to 14 will run alongside the National Curriculum. Teachers are not obliged to follow it (nor the National Curriculum if they are an academy or free school), but can sign up for lesson plans in the five subjects.

I’ve yet to see the details, but it sounds like one of the Mayor’s better ideas. I’ve long been an advocate of students learning more about the geography of the UK and Mr Gove has recently obliged by including a large element of UK geography in the new criteria for GCSE geography, to be introduced in 2016. I think a similar case could be put for learning more about the region in which students live, whether that be London or elsewhere. As Boris himself puts it, “The London Curriculum will have an impact on our core academic subjects by making the capital a giant classroom and strengthening youngsters’ knowledge of the people, places and events that not only shaped our city but also had an impact on the world stage.”

I don’t know if the Mayor is aware of Urban Geography East London and the work we do, but he should be. For five years now, we have been using east London as a living classroom, bringing geography to life. Many of the schools we work with – probably about a third – are London schools, and it always amazes me how little students know about their own city. To be fair, most of them have visited the Westfield shopping centre, but I have even met students who have shopped there without knowing it was in east London. The name, ‘Westfield’, led them to believe they were in west London! So, yes Boris, I support your plan.


19th June

Cutting edge controlled assessment!

The past couple of weeks have seen us working with two east London schools, doing GCSE geography controlled assessment about sustainable urban communities. This was one of the WJEC board’s controlled assessment titles for 2014. One school brought a hundred and twenty students over three days so we were pushed to the limit. The focus of our study was the newly-created community of East Village and I was concerned we may not find enough residents for students to carry out their questionnaires. In the event it was not a problem – the weather was kind, people were out and about, and the population of East Village is growing fast.

I estimate there are now at least two thousand people living in the village. It could be even more than that. However, there is still a long way to go before it is fully occupied. About four of the eleven apartment blocks appear to be full but about the same number are still unoccupied. None of the local shops, bars and cafes have opened yet, presumably waiting for a higher threshold population before they start business, so it is still difficult to gauge who the community really are. However, many of the residents students spoke to had moved from other parts of east London. The village seems to be fulfilling its promise to provide housing for local people.

Many of these people said they were delighted with their new home, as well they might be. East Village stands in complete contrast with anywhere else I know in east London – indeed the rest of the UK for that matter. It is more like a swanky new development in the south of France (and on a warm, sunny day you’d think that’s where you were). Although first impressions might be of a high density urban development, there are some delightful areas of open space within the village, including Victory Park in the middle, and Waterglades on the edge, which doubles as a wildlife haven and a natural water recycling facility. Unfortunately, there is another phase of development yet to come. This is likely to prove pretty disruptive for residents and the development planned includes much higher buildings than the eight to ten storey blocks already there.

There is going to be a lot of interest in what happens in East Village in the coming years, not least because of the £1 billion of public money that was spent on it. The students we worked with may be the first of many to assess whether is really does live up the promises that were made. I pointed out to them that their investigations for controlled assessment were at the cutting edge of geographical research. There may be many more people interested in their findings than just the WJEC examiner!


21st May

Tourists in east London

It seems strange to say it, but tourists are now coming to east London. I know this because last week we ran our first fieldwork programme on tourism in east London since the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park opened. The students surveyed people they met in the Park and, from a quick sharing of data, about 40% of visitors were from London, a further 40% from other parts of the UK and the other 20% from overseas. The school we were working with had themselves travelled about three hours to get to east London, so they too represented part of the growing interest in the area.

All the top ten visitor attractions in the UK are in London, including the British Museum, National Gallery and the London Eye. The nearest that visitors get to east London is Greenwich, which comes in at number 11 on the list of top UK visitor attractions. Greenwich, of course, has a lot going for it, with oodles of heritage in the form of the Cutty Sark, the Observatory and the National Maritime Museaum. Then there is Greenwich Park, venue for the 2012 equestrian events, which boasts probably the best view in the capital, looking down on the River Thames with the towers of Canary Wharf glittering on the other side of the river and the growing skyline of central London in the background.

Greenwich is well established as a tourist destination, but the Olympic Park is hoping to attract 9 million visitors a year by 2016 from a standing start. Is this going to be possible? As memories of the 2012 Games begin to fade, will people still come to east London to relive that memorable summer of sport? I suppose it depends how you define visitors. If you include people coming to swim in the Aquatic Centre, or ride in the Velopark and, above all, to watch a football match, athletics event or concert at the stadium, then 9 million visitors does sound possible. If you were to include shoppers coming to Westfield, nextdoor to the Park, it might even be an underestimate. However, if you are talking about visitors coming just to enjoy the beautiful surroundings of the Park or climb to the viewing gallery in the Orbit tower, the 9 million figure seems unlikely.

People pour into Greenwich day after day, year after year, come rain, come shine. There is plenty to do, even in the rain or a cold winter’s day. So far, on a sunny bank holiday the Olympic Park has been heaving with people, but on a windy afternoon in May we were hard-pushed to find enough tourists for the students to talk to.


22nd April

Is Stratford City Westfield a tax dodger?

An interesting article appeared in the Daily Mirror newspaper on 21st April 2014 which claimed that the above shopping mall made a profit of £39.7 million in the Olympic year of 2012 but paid only £211,000 in corporation tax. The article stated that the accounts of Westfield Stratford are controlled by a complex web of firms that built, own and manage the shopping centre. Stratford City is jointly owned by Westfield and two foreign pension funds from Canada and Holland. A total of 28 subsidiaries registered in Australia, the UK, Jersey, Guernsey and the USA form the ownership, management and development of Stratford City, but only one has employees. In the article a spokeswoman for Westfield is alledged to have said ” Westfield works closely with HMRC to ensure its 100% compliant. Rental income of overseas investors in U.K. property is subject to U.K. tax under long-standing provisions”.

The Olympic Development Agency also spent £200 million of taxpayers cash on roads and other infrastructure work that benefitted the shopping centre. Whether the article has any substance or not, the issue of tax avoidance is of real concern for the people of East London as their area strives for regeneration in the context of fairness and transparency.


16th April

London City Airport ‘should close’

I read an interesting idea this week from the radical think tank, New Economics Foundation (NEF). They suggest that London City Airport, located at the Royal Docks in Newham, should close and the site used to build much-needed new homes and businesses. Coincidentally, I was at the airport just the week before with a local school looking at job opportunities in east London. The airport employs about 500 staff with a total of 2,000 jobs at the airport, including airlines and other companies based there. That’s not a lot compared to a large airport, but it is still a significant contribution to employment in east London.

Close to the airport is Tate & Lyle’s factory, the last sugar refinery in the country, employing 800 people, but struggling to keep going in the face of competition from European sugar. It represents the traditional manufacturing industry which was once the backbone of east London’s economy. On the other side of Royal Albert Dock from City Airport is the proposed site of the new ‘Asian business port’, a £1 billion investment by Chinese banks in London’s third financial district (after the City and Canary Wharf). This will create 20,000 new jobs. It represents the new economy of east London.

Ironically, the proximity of London City Airport was probably one of the factors that pursuaded the Chinese investors this might be a good site for their venture. But NEF point out that the airport accounts for just 2.4% of flights into and out of London with most passengers using Heathrow, Gatwick or Stansted. Instead, they argue, the airport is using up valuable land that could be better used to meet the dire shortage of homes in London. And, it does not generate as much wealth for east London as other businesses using equivalent space. Even Tate & Lyle, struggling though it may be, does better.

London City Airport claims to be the ‘only airport in London that provides a direct route to the capital’s business, financial and political centre’. That claim may become less convincing with the arrival of Crossrail in 2018. It will reduce journey times from east London to Heathrow from about 90 minutes at present to just 40 minutes. Who will continue to use City Airport when Heathrow is within such easy reach and offers a much wider range of destinations? The New Economics Foundation might have a point. I have not heard any response from either the Mayor of London or the Mayor of Newham. They may be considering the options.


4th April

No Ordinary Park

It’s been a long time in the making but tomorrow, nineteen months after the 2012 Games came to an end, the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park finally opens. It will be “the biggest new park in Europe for 150 years”, equivalent in size to Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens combined. That is hard to believe at ground level, where much of the park seems to be a tangle of waterways and railway lines, not to mention a busy road running through the middle. But, take a walk up one of the artificially created mounds in the park and the full extent of the green area, stretching for a mile or so, either side of the River Lea, becomes apparent.

The northern end of the park opened last July and is a mixture of forests and wetlands, lawns and meadows, crowned by the sweeping roof of the Velodrome (also opened to the public for the first time this week). In the sunshine on Tuesday, for the very first time since the Olympics, I saw crowds of children playing and got the sense of what the park might be like in a year or so, by which time they expect nine million visitors a year to come.

Tomorrow, it is the southern end of the park that opens, around the helter-skelter sculpture called the ArcelorMittal Orbit that doubles as a viewing gallery. It will cost £15 to go up which seems a bit steep for a view of the park and, when the polluted air in the capital clears, of the central London skyline. In the shadow of the Orbit are carousels, a life-size helter-skelter (rather than an overgrown sculpture) and all the fun of the fair. The idea is to create a place for performance and play, with markets and festivals, circuses and events. It is in contrast with the more natural environment in the north of the park.

This is just the start. The aim is to create “a new piece of city” in the heart of east London, rather than a museum in memory of the Games. So, over the next fifteen years, five new neighbourhoods will be built around the park, each with a different character and style, to create another 6,000 homes, on top of the 2,800 already built in East Village. In addition a massive £2 billion commercial development – The International Quarter – will be built to the east of the park, obliterating the view of Westfield, which some may think is not such a bad thing. There will be another 20,000 jobs here, in addition to 10,000 at Westfield and 4,500 planned at iCity in the former Broadcasting Centre in the park. As parks go, Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park will be no ordinary park.


10th March

Future flooding

Not often do these blogs focus on a physical aspect of geography, but flooding has been in the news for most of the winter and east London has not been completely unaffected. A few weeks ago I was in the Olympic Park when the River Lea burst its banks. None of the Olympic venues was touched I hasten to add (they are all elevated a few metres above river level), but cycle and pedestrian paths along the river bank were under water. Downstream, at Three Mills Lock, allegedly built to prevent flooding in the Olympic Park, the river was a noisy torrent of water churning through the open floodgates, designed to release water during fluvial floods but to prevent the incursion of tidal flooding upstream.

Last week it was revealed that the Thames Barrier has closed forty-eight times so far in 2014. That comes to fifty in three months if you include two more occasions in December that it was closed. The recommended annual limit for closing the barrier, set by the Environment Agency, is fifty and, according to the Thames Estuary 2100 project, exceeding this limit could see it ‘failing to unacceptable levels’. Comparable figures for previous decades were 4 during the 1980s, 29 during the 1990s and 80 during the 2000s. The trend is obvious.

The implication is that London’s flood defences might need to be improved sooner rather than later. The conventional wisdom is that the Thames Barrier is good for another seventy-five years before it will need to be replaced. But, with sea levels rising and the number of storms apparently increasing, we may not be able to wait that long. Friends of the Earth estimate over 100,000 homes across east London and Greenwich are at risk from flooding. If that is the case, plans for a new barrier, as well as an increase in the height of the current barrier, may need to be brought forward.

Some schools have shown an interest in studying flooding in the Lea Valley. With the opening of the Olympic Park to the public next month this may become possible. If you include Three Mills Lock and Hackney Marshes, which also flooded in February, you have the makings of an interesting geographical case-study.


27th February

Ray’s the roof at Aquatic Centre!

The Aquatic Centre opens to the public on Saturday, 1st March, one month ahead of schedule. With its ray-like roof, it is one of the iconic venues at the Park and now, stripped of its temporary specatator wings, the glory of Zaha Hadid’s specactular architecture is exposed to full public gaze. I believe the view from inside is even more spectacular but, like the rest of you, I’ve not yet been for a swim. The building is naturally lit through two panoramic, plate-glass walls, stretching the full length of the main 50-metre pool (there is another 50-metre practice pool) and the diving pool.

As promised, the price of a swim will start from £3.50, but don’t expect just to walk in – at least not for the first few weeks. The public are advised to book their session in advance, with the pool open from 6.00 a.m. to 10.00 p.m. weekdays and 8.00 a.m. to 6.00 p.m at weekends. How financially sustainable the Aquatic Centre will be remains to be seen. Greenwich Leisure, who run both the Aquatics Centre and nearby Copper Box, expect to cross-subsidise the former through holding major sporting events at the latter. I suspect that calculation is based on running costs and does not factor in the £269 million cost of the building. I wonder how many £3.50 swims it will take to cover that?

So, who is likely to swim at the Aquatics Centre? Tom Daley has moved to London to train here for the 2016 Rio Olympics. Local schools and swimmers are likely to use it though, to swim in the main pool which is three metres deep along its length, you have to be an experienced swimmer. Local swimmers might also be encouraged by the fact there is no other swimming pool in Stratford. The Atherton Leisure Centre (also run by Greenwich Leisure) closed in 2012 for rebuilding and I’m not aware of any date for it to re-open. Could the Aquatics Centre become a long-term replacement?

The other main users are likely to be the visitors to the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, due to open fully on 5th April. The London Legacy Development Corporation expect nine million annual visitors to the Park by 2016. I’d have thought many of them will fit a swim or a ride at the Velopark into their itinerary. I’m expecting many of the schools that visit to do the same, perhaps combining a geography fieldtrip with a bit of excercise – that’s assuming the students have got any energy left after all the walking they have done!


6th February

A matter of life and death

Over a hundred years ago the philanthropist, Charles Booth, drew a map of poverty in London. Booth was a wealthy shipping magnate who couldn’t believe socialist propaganda that one in four Londoners lived in abject poverty. So, he set out to investigate the East End and mapped what he found, colour-coding his maps from black (the “lowest class” of street sellers, loafers and criminals) to yellow (“upper classes”). He concluded that the figure of 25% living in poverty was actually too low! Of 900,000 East Enders, 314,000 were poor. Large swathes of his map of East London were covered in black and blue, while there were only small patches of red and yellow. Even in West London, there were pockets of poverty in amongst the wealth.

There are parallels with Booth’s Victorian London today. Inequality is still with us, and in the early 21st century, the gulf between rich and poor is growing again. As it was in the late 19th century, much of the poverty in London is hidden, particularly if you are a tourist or day-tripper in the West End. But, wander around east London and see the number of pound shops, betting shops and growing number of cheap hotels for those who would otherwise be homeless, and you’ll realise the problem. Then, there are the food banks that are becoming a necessity for many, not the lifestyle choice the government would have us believe. In the past year, the number of food banks in Newham has grown fourfold, and people need them.

My friend Bob Digby (occasional writer on this blog) has observed that life expectancy in London decreases by one year for every station on the Jubilee Line from Westminster to Canning Town. The latest report from Professor Sir Michael Marmot on public health in London notes that, if anything, the disparities are even greater. Life expectancy for women in Kensington and Chelsea is 92, but it drops to 76 in Southwark. Of course, these are averages and what they hide is the number of tragic, premature deaths of poorer Londoners.

One of the great aspirations for the Olympic legacy is “convergence” – for life chances (including the chance to live!) in East London to be equal to those across the rest of the capital within twenty years. There is still a long way to go if that is to be achieved.


24th January

Opening date set

April 5th has been set as the date for full opening of Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. Put it in your diary.

Already, we have access to the northern section of the Park, including a stretch of the River Lea, the new Timber Lodge cafe and the Copper Box. The latter is being used for sporting events and school PE. A bit too vigourously it seems!. Last week, the womens’ netball match between GB and New Zealand had to be moved from the Copper Box due to damage to the floor. And, as previously reported, residents have now started to move into East Village. There is limited access to public realm in the village and to the marketing suite with interesting blurb aimed at prospective residents, but also relevant for geography students doing fieldwork!

On April 5th the newly-landscaped southern section of the Park will open, with fountains, water features, children’s play areas and art installations. The 115-metre Arcelor Mittal Orbit will also open that day with admission prices to be announced later. The Aquatic Centre with its two fifty-metre pools and a diving pool will open sooner, on 1st March, with admission prices already promised to be about £4.00 (the average price of a swim in east London). Tom Daley has just moved to London to make the Aquatic Centre his base for training for Rio, 2016. So, a chance to come swimming and spot the celebs!

I’m not sure about the Velodrome and surrounding Velopark. It was meant to be open earlier, but work is still going on around the Velodrome. Cyclists have pointed out that the only cycle access to the north of the Park, where the Velodrome located, is via a footbridge with three flights of steps over which your bike has to be carried. Rather embarassing for the cycle-friendly park following ‘the Greenest Game ever’. But, hopefully, the glitches will be sorted out and, by the summer, we will be enjoying the new, all-singing, all-cycling Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park.

See you there!


12th January

Fieldwork makes an impact

This week a colleague drew my attention to an article in the Guardian Professional from the Higher Education Network. This is not something I normally read myself, being mainly involved in secondary education. The article was by Ayona Datta, a senior lecturer in geography at the University of Leeds. In the article she makes the case for fieldwork and, in this case, not just any fieldwork – but urban fieldwork!

Last year she ran an inaugural six-day fieldtrip to Mumbai in India, a city that she says she loves, both professionally and personally. A city like Mumbai, she asserts, ‘presents a rich laboratory for exploring any of the themes on citizenship, identity, migration, belonging, transnationalism, social justice, bourgeois environmentalism (I’ve not heard of that one!), everyday urban politics and so on…’. Of course, we would all love to explore Mumbai, and any number of other cities come to that. But, we don’t have to leave the UK to explore cities. There are so many fascinating cities here, of which London is just one.

Increasingly, I find myself being drawn beyond the confines of Stratford and the Olympic Park (amazing as they are), to run fieldwork programmes with students elsewhere in London. One of the areas I’m drawn to is Spitalfields, on the edge of the City and the innermost part of east London. Despite being in London, it has very much the feel of South Asia about it (Dhaka rather than Mumbai!), with its predominantly Bangladeshi population. Brick Lane, renowned for its curry houses as well as a book and a movie, runs north to south through the middle of the area. Recently, I have used the area to study population change, migration and conflict and gentrification. You might imagine the conflict from migration arises from the arrival of many Bangladeshi people, but that was yesterday’s story. Today, it is the outward expansion of the city and the arrival of wealthy bankers and celebrity artists (Gilbert and George are local residents) that is pushing up house prices and pushing out the poor. Rich pickings here for urban fieldworkers.

Coming back to the point of the article I read – the impact of fieldwork. I find the thing that lingers longest for students from a day in the city is their encounter with real people. In the same way that what students remember from a day in the stunning landscape of Snowdonia is getting wet in a stream, what they remember from London is not the skyscapers, the stadium or even the cable car across the Thames, it is their encounter with the old lady who wants to tell them her life story!


Footer image of the velodrome in Stratford, east London
Footer image
Footer image of the velodrome in Stratford, east London