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

2015 Geolog archive

5th December

Would you belieVW it?

In my innocence, I thought London’s air pollution problems had disappeared with my childhood. I can vividly remember the smogs we used to get in the capital, in the days when London had its own coal power stations, people were burning coal at home and when there were still factories in the capital, pumping out smoke. The resulting smogs, particularly at this time of year, were thick enough that you couldn’t see the pavement in front of you as you walked.

So, I was shocked this week to hear that one in four schoolchildren in London are being forced to breathe air so filthy that it breaches EU legal limits. Modern air pollution in London is an invisible killer. Occasionally, there is a haze in the sky but, mostly, the harmful gases float in the air, undetected by the human eye. One of the biggest pollutants is nitogen dioxide which, it was revealed, affects 328,000 pupils in the capital. The worst affected boroughs are those closest to the city centre, like Westminster, Tower Hamlets and Southwark.

The main source of nitrogen dioxide is diesel fumes and, of course, there are more vehicles closer to central London. Ten years ago, we were told that diesel engines were better for the environment than petrol engines and, consequently, there was an increase in the number of diesel vehicles. I know people who made a principled decision to switch to a diesel car on the grounds that it was more environmentally-friendly. That was before we knew about the impacts of nitrogen dioxide and particulates on human health. The death toll from filthy air in London has now been officially put at more than 9,000 a year.

Of course, it might not have been quite so bad if Volkswagen vehicles were only emitting what the company told us they were. Who knows how many of those 9,000 deaths could be put down to corporate irresponsbility? And, you can’t help but suspect that VW were not the only car company that may have been pulling the wool over our eyes. At least with an old-fashioned smog everybody knew the air was bad for you and they stayed indoors.


19th November

A tale of two cities

After the carnage in Paris last week, people are naturally concerned about a terrorist attack in London. One school cancelled their visit to east London this week as a result of parental concerns. That’s the first time this has happened. Were they right to be concerned? Of course. Can London be compared to Paris? Not really. They may be only two hundred miles apart but, geographically and socially, they are much further apart.

I’m not qualified to talk about the relative levels of security in the UK and France, nor the difference that living in a secular society in France makes to the views of the Muslim minority. But, I have visited the banlieues, or suburbs, in Paris and was disturbed by their physical and psychological separation from the rest of the city. It was in St Denis, a banlieue to the north of the city, that police stormed an apartment block yesterday, killing and arresting its occupants. The terrorists that killed the journalists at Charlie Hebdo earlier in the year, likewise, had been brought up in a banlieue.

We don’t have banlieue in London or, at least, not yet. But, of course, we do have terrorism. Interestingly, the bombers in the 7/7 attack in 2005 did not come from London. They came, among other places, from Yorkshire. I suppose you could regard the north of England as the equivalent of London’s banlieues. That is where young people are most likely to be out of work and disaffected, physically and psychologically detached from the affluent south-east. If there is one part of London where young people are most likely to be disaffected and drawn to radical Islam, it is here in east London. But, even here, there is not the physical isolation you might experience in a Parisian banlieue.

However, the geography of London is changing. Many inner city communities previously dominated by ethnic minorities, such as the Bangladeshi community in Whitechapel or the black community in Brixton are being pushed out by rising property prices. London’s inner city areas are becoming a preserve of the rich. Where are these people being driven to? I don’t know, but it is further from the centre of London and, therefore, further removed from the city of which they have become a part.

London may be right to feel that it is less under immediate threat from terrorism than Paris. There are fewer guns available and it has the advantage of being protected by the English Channel rather than porous borders. But, there is no place for complacency and, if London really wants to retain its reputation as a tolerant, multicultural city, it needs to work harder to prevent the disintegration of stable, established communities that have built up over many decades.


24th June

Crossrail is coming

The news this month that the Crossrail tunnel is now complete under London is a reminder that, burrowing away below ground, is the largest engineering project the city has ever seen (or not seen yet). The budget is bigger than the Olympics and, now the tunnel has emerged east and west of the city, evidence of the scale of the project is beginning to appear on the ground. We have worked with a couple of schools this month who wanted to investigate the potential impact of Crossrail on communities across London.

We visited four stations in quite contrasting areas to collect data in order to answer the question, “Which communities will benefit most from Crossrail?”. First, we went to Tottenham Court Road in the city centre then, moving east, to Whitechapel, Canary Wharf and Custom House. At Tottenham Court Road the disruption over the past couple of years has been immense, and it is not over yet. Denmark Street, renowned for its music shops and venues, has suffered the most. Half the street is due for demolition to make way for the new station piazza and the other half expects business to die off.

Further east, in Whitechapel, there is little sign of disruption on the main Whitechapel Road but, go behind the old station and a huge chunk of land has been taken over for Crossrail contstruction. They have even built a new car park for Sainbury’s to replace the old car park which is now a ventilation shaft for the tunnel. Whitechapel will be an important location on the line. This is where Crossrail splits into a northern branch towards Stratford and beyond, while the southern branch heads to Canary Wharf and south of the Thames.

The station at Canary Wharf is already complete though no trains will arrive until 2018. An enormous ark-like structure emerges from the dock, rising three storeys above the water, with the platform at a similar depth below the surface. On the top level is a tropical roof garden, now open to the public, and used by Canary Wharf workers during their lunch break. At ground level are new shops and restaurants, an addition to the extensive provision for those with money to spend in the financial district.

The contrast with the next station on the line – Custom House – could not be greater. This is where the tunnel emerges for the first time heading east, before disappearing again to go under the Thames. Custom House is one of the poorest neighbourhoods in Newham, itself one of the most deprived boroughs in London. It is a place that time (and investors!) seem to have forgotten, even though it is just a stone’s throw from the Excel exhibition centre on the other side of the railway track.

Cynically, the students thought that Crossrail might be stopping here for the benefit of Excel rather than Custom House. But, in answer to the question for their investigation, some thought that Custom House might be the community that benefitted most from Crossrail.


27th April

Roll up, roll up – cheap tickets!

Amidst all the election promises being made at the moment, another promise may have escaped your notice. West Ham, the new tenants at the Olympic stadium for the 2016-17 football season, have promised to cut ticket prices for their fans. A new season ticket will cost ‘just’ £289 – still a lot of money, but now the cheapest in the Premier League. Of course, other teams may be forced to compete in a new price war, and that can’t be a bad thing for fans who have been paying over the odds for twenty years.

I have been predicting such a move since West Ham won the bid to become tenants at the stadium though, looking back through our blog, I notice I wasn’t brave enough to go public with these thoughts. It makes sense. How else would West Ham – who struggle to fill their 40,000-seater stadium at Upton Park every week – manage to fill the new stadium with 54,000 seats? By putting prices down, they can claim the moral highground as being the fans’ friend and, at the same time, put their rivals on the back foot and force them into reducing their prices too.

The announcement follow the £5 billion deal earlier this year between Premiership and the broadcasters, Sky and BT Sport. This puts even more money in the hands of clubs which, in this case, West Ham have chosen to pass onto the fans. However, West Ham are in an even better position. The stadium they will move into next season has been paid for by the taxpayer. The original cost of £500 million has been further augmented by the £200 million it has cost to adapt an athletics stadium for football.

But, before getting too indignant that West Ham have taken the taxpayer for a ride, it is worth considering that low ticket prices in the Bundesliga in Germany are a consequence of public funding of stadia, that are used by clubs like Bayern Munich or Hertha Berlin. Football fans in Germany are the envy of those in England, who can pay ten times as much to watch their team play. So, roll on public subsidy and roll up for cheaper tickets.


30th March

Election campaign kicks off in East London

The 2015 election campaign began today, but the first punches were thrown last week in east London when Conservative Mayor, Boris Johnson, rejected Labour Newham Council’s planning permission for the expansion of London City Airport. It’s hard not to conclude that the decision was political, though the reasons given were dressed up in environmental clothes. The Mayor’s spokesman said the scheme would have led to an “unacceptable increase in noise for East Londoners”. There may also be an element of sour grapes in the decision. Last year, the Mayor had his own, much larger, proposal for a new airport hub in the Thames Estuary rejected.

The plan for a £220 million expansion of City Airport, which lies between two of the former Royal Docks, was given the go-ahead by Newham Council in February, subject to the Mayor’s approval. It would have created a further 1,500 jobs and, according to the airport, would have attracted a further £750 million to London’s economy. Planning permission included conditions to limit noise disturbance by imposing flight restrictions, erecting sound barriers and paying for residents to sound-proof their homes. However, we have been here before. Thirty years ago, when City Airport first opened, assurances were given that no jets would be allowed in order to limit noise disturbance. That promise only last a couple of years!

Newham Council, under the leadership of Sir Robin Wales, is held up as a flagship Labour council and it is not difficult to see why Boris Johnson might want to upset them. However, the Council does have the support of London City Airport. It’s chief exective officer, Declan Collier, said, “This goes against everything the Mayor supports and promotes. It’s ironic that Boris Johnson, whose platform has always been one of advantage for business in London, is denying the capital the business opportunity presented by growth at London City Airport.” A Conservative mayor being portrayed as the enemy of business, while a Labour council, its friend. Are there any parallels here with the national election debate, I wonder?


2nd March

Stratford : A tale of two shopping centres?

When Stratford City Shopping Centre (generally known as Westfield Stratford) opened to a fanfare in October 2011 many “prophets of doom” suggested that the old Stratford Centre across the road would decline and then close. This has not been the case and the unique case of two centres, old and new (Europe’s largest urban shopping mall), separated only by a road, continues.

The old centre was opened in 1974 and it still thrives with its popular indoor street market, a Market Village with a labyrinth of small kiosk shops and other busy retail outlets. New developments there include a Business Lab to promote enterprise and “start ups” for Newham residents and a large Fung Loon Chinese supermarket (larger that anything in Soho) and indicative of the growth of the Chinese community in the area. There is always a good atmosphere for those who visit, compared to the rather sterile vibe over the road in Westfield. The welcome is shown by the fact that the centre management supports student geography fieldwork with opinion surveys, which is not always the case in Westfield.

The design of the old centre is a problem highlighted by the absurd gyratory traffic system to create a dangerous island for pedestrians and cyclists. However interesting ideas are proposed to improve the old centre which will attract even more people. As many as 600 flats could be built as part of a major overhaul. One proposal is that the shoal of fish fronting the centre’s eastern entrance could be removed and be replaced by a line of trees, while 5 floors would be added to the vacant Morgan House (an old government building) to create a mixture of flats and retail units. A 42-storey building, a 25-storey building and a 3-storey podium would provide further shopping and residential use. Communal terraces would be included in all residential blocks with plants, decking and pergolas. A new 1835 square metre public square would lie in the middle if the plans are approved by Newham Council. Green initiatives include “green roofs” to the Great Eastern Tower to absorb rain runoff and increase biodiversity. Long may the regeneration continue.


9th February

8.6 million and rising

This week it was announced that London’s population has grown to 8.6 million, the largest it has ever been. It has overtaken the number it reached in 1939, before the outbreak of the Second World War. This time, however, there is no likelihood of population growth being reversed. Growth is set to continue and London is expected to reach 10 million people by 2030.

The growing population is having many impacts in the capital. Housing is in short supply and prices have gone through the roof. The only long-term solution is to build more homes and, unless green belt regulations are relaxed, the only way is upwards. There are over two hundred high-rise blocks due to be built in London, already with planning permission. The London skyline is set to change. Transport is bursting at the seams. Catching a train during the rush hour is getting more difficult. Often, trains go by before there is room to get on one. I know people who have taken to walking rather than battle to get on a train. And the number cycling has grown too. Schools are also expanding. Here, in Newham, some primary schools have outgrown their premises and they too are building upwards. Gascoigne Primary School in Barking, London’s largest primary, is the first to break the thousand pupil barrier.

The natural assumption might be that the growth in London’s population is due mainly to immigration. After all, there is now a majority of ethnic minorities (an ethnic majority?) in London. But, actually, growth is due mainly to natural increase among the population already living here, rather than net migration. The number of immigrants – mainly young people of working age – only slightly outnumbers the number of outmigrants – mainly older people – leaving the capital for elsewhere in the UK.

Nowhere are London’s population trends more apparent than here in east London, as the centre of gravity in the capital moves east. Newham, where Urban Geography East London is based, is the borough with both the youngest and the most diverse population in the country.


31st January

What’s in a name?

Rebranding is a popular topic in at least one of the current A-Level specifications. It’s always seemed a rather nebulous idea to me. Regeneration is more concrete. At least see what you are talking about. Call me old-fashioned, but rebranding an area that already has a perfectly adequate name strikes me as being pretentious.

I read this week that property developers and Business Improvement Districts (supported by the Mayor of London) want to re-name some old neighbourhoods in London so that they can be marketed more easily. So, for example, the area around Bloomsbury, Holborn and St Giles would become ‘Midtown’ (I thought that was somewhere in the USA), the streets between Paddington and Hyde Park would be known as ‘Tyburnia’ (at least a nod in the direction of history) and King’s Cross would be the ‘Knowledge Quarter’, in an attempt to rid the area of its association with prostitution. I can’t imagine how these names would ever catch on – at least I’m trying not to imagine.

There are some precedents for new names in London. In the City of London, Cornhill, Bread Street and Poultry provide a guide to trades that once existed in medieval London. In the 1930’s the area north of Oxford Street, a no-man’s land between the West End and Euston, was named Fitzrovia after the Fitzroy Tavern on Charlotte Street. It now has rather classy, arty associations. Even in East London, the area where I was raised in Walstamstow has been rebranded Walthamstow Village, thus bumping up property prices by tens of thousands.

However, the most extensive rebranding in London is probably happening around the Olympic Park which, if I’m honest, was sadly lacking in names (or even recognisable places) before 2012. What was the Athlete’s Village during the Olympics is now known as East Village by those who live there, and about five thousand people now do. The Media Centre has gone through two name changes since 2012. For a while it was going to be known as ‘iCity’, but now bears the name ‘HereEast’, whatever that means. Of course, the park itself is now known as Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park (or NoOrdinaryPark if you go to the website) which has a precedent in the other large park in East London – Victoria Park – named after a previous queen. And I shouldn’t forget the postcode, E20, which is the first new postcode in London for many years, if you don’t include EastEnders!

I can accept the rebranding – or, perhaps, branding – of these new areas in East London, which previously lacked any identity. But, I’m afraid I can’t accept new names for parts of London that already have perfectly good names, simply for marketing purposes. I don’t think they will catch on and, if they do, I for one won’t be using them.


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