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

2019 Geolog archive

24th November

Healthiest global city? Fat chance!

London boroughs and the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, have set out plans to make London the ‘world’s healthiest global city’. According to the Centre for London think tank, the London Olympics in 2012 failed to tackle the health divide between east and west London. East London continues to have higher rates of childhood obesity and lower life expectancy. This, despite the promise in 2005, when London won the bid to host the 2012 Olympics, to reduce health inequalities in the city. This promise has failed to materialise.

Newham, one of the host boroughs for the Olympics, and neighbouring borough, Barking and Dagenham, have some of the lowest levels of physical activity, with levels declining rather than rising year on year. The proportion of secondary school children classed as overwieght or obese was 45% in Barking and Dagenham and 44% in Newham, double the rate in Richmond and Kingston. Smoking remains the main cause of shortened life expectancy in the London boroughs, but obesity has risen from fourth to second place amongst the other causes. It is no surprise that average life expectancy at stations along the Jubilee line falls by one year for each station, heading east from central London to Newham.

The findings of the study are borne out by our experience of working with students from schools from different areas. Invariably, it is the students from state schools in east London and its hinterland in Essex that are least comfortable with walking long distances when they are doing fieldwork. Generally, the students from independent schools, where a half day on Saturdays may be given over to physical exercise and sport, appear much fitter and are far less likely to complain about walking. So it was last week, when we worked with 120 students from an independent school, investigating changes in land use and quality of life moving away from the CBD in London towards the suburbs. We walked four kilometres from Aldgate to Bow along the main road out of London doing the fieldwork. Then, just for fun, we walked a further three kilometres up the River Lea and across the Olympic Park. Nobody in my group complained, but it’s not something I’d recommend doing with every school we work with!


24th July

London – a National Park City

Last week I took some students out of school as part of an annual off-timetable day at the end of the summer term. Our mission was to explore the local environment which, in our case, includes a small segment of Epping Forest. I wasn’t surprised that, although it is on their doorsteps, less than half the group had ever visited the forest. The site we visited was within half a mile of the school, yet only one person had been there. Admittedly, most of the students travel quite a long way to school by bus but, even so, just one was disappointing. We accomplished our mission, hugging a 400 year-old tree, riding a zip-wire and climbing the highest point to glimpse the view of central London, miles to the west.

The news this week that London has just become a National Park City seems quite relevant. When I first heard the idea a few years ago at the Geographical Association, I admit I was sceptical. After all, London lacks the beautiful landscapes we associate with a real national park. But then, I wasn’t around in 1952 when the first UK national parks were designated. There was probably general scepticism then too – why did an area need to be declared a national park when it is manifestly so beautiful? Surely people could work it out for themselves. The problem was that millions didn’t. Only with national park designation have visitor numbers grown to the levels we see today. It has opened up parts of the our country to many more visitors than would have otherwise enjoyed them.

So it could be with London. It’s designation as the first National Park City might inspire millions of us who live here to explore more of our city, particularly the natural areas on our own doorstep. Who knows, London could be the first of many national park cities in the UK. A few facts and figures help to put London’s green credentials into perspective;

  • 1,522km2 – London’s total area
  • 47% – of total area that is green space
  • 3.8million – the number of gardens
  • 8.6 million – London’s population
  • 8.3 million – trees in London
  • 30,000 – allotments in London
  • 13,000 – wildlife species in London
  • 142 – nature reserves
  • 37 – sites of special scientific interest

As the summer holiday is now upon us and the weather hots up, what better than to get out into London’s open spaces, relax among the trees, breathe in the (almost) fresh air and be grateful that we are not lying, sweltering on a crowded beach on the Costa del Sol.


30th June

Sphere for the future

Last year I blogged about a new entertainment venue planned for Stratford, which I dubbed the ‘Pie in the Sky’ (4th February 2018). They obviously didn’t like my name and, instead, it is to be known as the MSG Sphere. Personally, I think my name is catchier. The Sphere is to be built by the Madison Square Garden Company (hence MSG, not to be confused with monosodium glutamate!) and is a huge dome on stilts that could come to dominate the Stratford skyline – a skyline that already has many other eye-catching structures vying for attention. It will have a capacity of over 20,000 spectators, equivalent to the O2 Arena in Greenwich and almost four times the Royal Albert Hall in west London.

The proposal for the Sphere has now been submitted to the London Legacy Development Corporation and the opportunity for local people to have their say on the plans ended on Friday. More than 900 people signed a petition against the 90 metre-high structure, including 20 Newham councillors from the London borough in which it is to be built. Despite the extra money that the venue would bring into the local economy, they are concerned about the noise, light and air pollution that it would bring into the area. Newham’s Mayor, Rokhsana Fiaz, shares some of their concerns and said that it was right for councillors to have an opinion on such a major development.

The main concern has surely got to be the impact of light pollution from the Sphere, which is to be clad with 190,000 square feet of advertising space, illuminated by LED lights that would be visible from miles away. Advertising on this scale is unprecedented and objectors claim that light pollution levels could be dangerous for nearby residents and passing drivers. That’s not to mention the ethics of turning an area into one huge advertising opportunity. This happened once before, during the 2012 Olympics, when parts of Stratford were obliterated by corporate adverts and I, for one, would not like to repeat that experience.

Another concern is transport. MSG anticipate 6,000 extra car trips per day and an additional 4,000 taxis. Stratford is just recovering from a major road restructuring that has caused chaos for the past two years. The thought of another change, or the alternative of gridlock, is not appealing. Those who don’t come by road will come by train and Stratford station is already struggling to deal with 60,000 passengers a day. On days when an event at the Sphere coincided with a West Ham home game, the ensuing pandemonium does not bear thinking about. Yet, despite this, and the fact that cycling is becoming the best way (some would say the only way) to get around London, there are only 50 bicycle parking places planned for the Sphere.

After a decade during which east London has been transformed by the Olympics and all that has followed it, there is a tendency to regard any new development as inevitable, if not desirable. But, on this occasion, it might be better to pause before going ahead. Is the Sphere going to benefit people in east London? And, if so, do the benefits justify the environmental costs and, if not, why bother? Just a thought.


10th May

Ugly graffiti

There is something of a debate in east London about where graffiti ends and art begins. It is a discussion we frequently have with students who walk around the streets of Hackney Wick and Fish Island, amazed that artists have been allowed to paint every square inch of wall space. It gives the area an edge that appeals particularly to teenagers. The quality of the work ranges from the most banal graffitist tags to high-end art, undoubtedly commissioned by the building owners.

However, no one commissioned the graffiti that appeared this week on the wall of the Forman and Son factory in Fish Island, Britain’s oldest salmon curer. It was a crudely painted 30-foot swastika and seems to have been targeted at the factory owner, Lance Forman, who is Jewish and who recently announced he was standing for Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party in the European Elections on May 23rd. Mr Forman’s father is a Holocaust survivor who fled the Nazis in Poland. He believes the graffiti is an anti-semitic attack.

Rather like Danny Baker’s racist depiction of the new royal baby (who happens to be of mixed parentage) as a chimpanzee, one doubts if a swastika would have been painted if Mr Forman was not Jewish. If Brexit was the main motivation for the graffiti, perhaps a more appropriate symbol to paint would have been the European Union flag. That would have been more in keeping with the sort of graffiti which has become a feature (indeed, even an attraction) of the area. It often has an element of humour, such as the headline ‘Athletes foot’ which appeared at the top of an old building next to the Olympic Park in 2012 or, the more recent sign, ‘Gentrification zone – poor people please leave quietly’.

Painting a swastika is certainly not art, nor even acceptable graffiti. It is a symbol of race hatred, pure and symbol. Police are investigating the incident using CCTV images from the many cameras that survey the neighbourhood. Up to now, the police have seemed to turn a blind eye to the graffiti artists. This incident may make them inclined to come down harder on those who express themselves creatively on walls or want to make legitimate political points. But, let’s hope not.

Why Mr Forman should want to support the Brexit Party is another question altogether!


30th March

Segregated London

London has always been a segregated city. East London has traditionally been the poor relation to west London, though that is slowly changing as London’s centre of gravity shifts eastward, with the regeneration of Docklands and the Olympic Park. On a local scale, there have always been the rich and poor neighbourhoods within each borough. Hackney, with its large local authority housing estates set amidst up and coming, gentrified neighbourhoods, is a borough which is noticeably segregated. But, probably no part of London is more segregated than Tower Hamlets, with the regenerated area of Canary Wharf parachuted into some of the most deprived neighbourhoods in London, including Poplar, Millwall and Bow. No surprise that Tower Hamlets is London’s most unequal borough.

Segregation also happens at an even smaller scale. Most new developments in London are required to provide a proportion of affordable accommodation amongst the, often, unaffordable accommodation. The aspiration of planners is for 30% affordable accommodation, though this is rarely achieved. It is no secret that many developers try to minimise the proportion of affordable accommodation and often segregate the privately owners or tenants from social (council) tenants. There may even be separate entrances – the so-called ‘rich door’ and ‘poor door’ syndrome.

This week came news of segregation being taken to new depths. A developer has been condemned over the segregation of rich and poor children in separate playgrounds on a multi-million-pound housing estate. The developer created a large grassy area for the children living in private homes while the children of social tenants had to make do with a small, bark-lined strip at the back of the block. From their apartment windows, the poor children are able to look down on other children playing on the grass, but are not allowed to join them.

The development at the Baylis Old School complex is in Lambeth in south London. London’s mayor, Sadiq Khan, said “Segregation has absolutely no place in London”, though perhaps he hasn’t walked around Tower Hamlets or Hackney recently! Lambeth Council gave permission in 2013 for 149 homes to be built on the site, on condition that 60 properties must be reserved for people unable to afford the private flats, which cost up to £615,000. Warwick Estates, which manages the private part of the development, confirmed that social tenants could not use the grassy area. They explained, “This is for a very good reason – their families do not contribute towards the service charges”. Perhaps they should try explaining that to the children looking out of the window at other children having fun.


18th January

Oxbridge – here we come!

A news story yesterday caught my eye. It featured a state school in east London celebrating after 41 of its students – almost all of them from ethnic minority backgrounds – secured offers from either Oxford or Cambridge universities. Then I did a double take. The school was none other than Brampton Manor in Newham, where I began my teaching career almost forty years ago, working there with one of my UGEL colleagues. In those days it was a bog-standard comprehenisve school, but these days it is a high-flying academy. So, the question is, was it academisation that has brought about the transformation, or was it something else?

Brampton Manor is in East Ham, towards the south of Newham, bordering on the busy A13. Back in the late 1970s, this part of the borough was still predominantly white working class, unlike the north of the borough, which was already mainly Asian, with still a fairly large Afro-Caribbean population in those days. The nearby Royal Docks were still open, though on their last legs, and Newham still had manufacturing industries, which have since closed. There was little academic aspiration among the majority of the students I taught. Most of them probably hoped to follow their parents into similar occupations, though the opportunities were shrinking and unemployment rising.

These days the whole of Newham is multi-ethnic, including the southern part of the borough around Brampton Manor. In addition to the communities that were here in the late 1970s, we can now add Africans (including both west and east African countries), eastern (and western) Europeans and refugees from the Middle East, including Iraq, Iran and Syria. The group, noticeably absent from my days of teaching there, are the white working class who have moved out into Essex with the demise of the docks and manufacturing industry.

Many reasons have been put forward for the rising achievement of schools in London compared to the rest of the country. Among them are higher funding for schools in London, the school improvements brought about in the noughties by the London Challenge programme, the creation of academies (of which Brampton Manor is one) and the quality of London teachers. Each of these factors may have played a part but, to my mind, the outstanding reason for the rise in achievement is mainly due to the changing population and the higher aspirations of ethnic minority students, many of whose families came here in the hope of a good education.

The achievement at Brampton Manor is all the more remarkable in that half of the students who have had Oxbridge offers were on free school meals. The reason for the huge change in fortune of the school within the past forty years is best summed up in the words of the students themselves. Rama Rustom, whose family came to the UK as refugees from Syria, said “For me, this offer sets my family on a new path. In my culture, women are traditionally told to not pursue education. I’m trying to prove that girls can do it too.” Victor Idowu will be the first in his family to go to university. He said, “This is something that I have wanted my whole life. It’s made my family really proud”.


10th January

Take flight to Europe!

With 2019 being the year of Brexit and our departure date set for March 29th, taking flight to Europe might sound like sensible advice to some. But it’s actually what more people are doing every year from London City Airport, in the heart of Docklands. The growth in the number of flights means the airport has become cramped and a £480 million expansion project has been started, to increase its capacity. It will be complete by 2022.

For those that don’t know, City Airport is located on a strip of vacant land that lies between King George V and Royal Albert Docks in the Royal Docks that closed in 1980. It is 11km east of the City of London, but much closer to Canary Wharf. Given its location, it has become the airport of choice for business people who want a quick flight to Europe, often returning the same day. It is now London’s fifth airport in terms of passenger numbers, after Heathrow, Gatwick, Stansted and Luton.

The airport first opened in 1987, with just 133,000 passengers that year, mostly business travellers. Over the years, as the runway was extended and jet aircraft introduced, the number of travellers has increased. More people began to use the airport to go on holiday or weekend breaks in Europe. By 2017 the number had grown to 4.5 million, with 50% of them holidaymakers. These days, as well as flights to Amsterdam, Frankfurt and Geneva, there are also flights to Ibiza, Malaga and Skiathos.

The plan for the airport expansion is to build a new deck in King George V Dock, resting on over a thousand steel piles driven into the ground beneath. This will create space for a new taxiway and additional stands for aircraft, meaning that greater use can be made of the existing runway. A new airport terminal will also be built, three times bigger than the existing one. It is expected that the number of passengers will grow by a further 2 million, with 30,000 extra flights a year. Of course, there are objections, primarily from local residents and environmentalists. concerned about noise and the impact of flying on air quality in London.

In terms of the wider plan for transport in London, City Airport lies very close to the Corssrail route (see previous blog) but does not have a station of its own. It seems that Excel, now London’s largest exhibition centre, located on the other side of the Royal Docks, won that contest. Presumably, it would have been too much to have two stations within about a mile of each other. The alternative for air passengers will either be to walk from the Crossrail station at Custom House or to take the Docklands Light Railway, which already serves the airport.


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