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

2020 Geolog archive

6th November

London is still moving east!

For years I have been telling students that ‘London is moving east’. Of course, I am half joking, but there is a serious side to my comment. Ever since the London Docklands Development Corporation was set up by Mrs Thatcher’s government in 1981 and Michael Heseltine instigated the Thames Gateway project, there has been recognition of the potential for growth, east of the capital. Only this week, two major announcements were made, bringing further evidence of the eastwards shift in London. On Tuesday it was announced that the Greater London Authority will be moving from their current home near Tower Bridge to the Royal Docks in Newham. Then on Wednesday it was announced that a large US property developer is to build a new Hollywood-style film production complex in Dagenham, creating 1,200 new jobs in the film industry.

The GLA move has been flagged for some time, but was finally confirmed this week by London’s mayor, Sadiq Khan. He claims that the move has been driven by government under-funding for the GLA, forcing him to find savings. City Hall, a snail-shaped glass structure, which was designed by Sir Norman Foster, has been the official home of the GLA since it was opened by the Queen in 2002 on the south bank of the Thames. It is currently leased from a Kuwaiti-owned property group at a cost of more than £11million a year. The lease comes to an end in 2021, but the landlords are unwilling to reduce the rent.

The building to which the GLA will move is the Crystal, opened in 2012 by the electronics company Seimens as a model of sustainable design at the edge of Royal Victoria Dock. Over the past few years we have brought many school groups to the Crystal to view a very impressive, interactive exhibition on sustainable cities. Sadly, that facililty will no longer be open to us, but our loss will be the GLA’s gain. This will be where meetings of the London Assembly will take place when it becomes the new City Hall. The Crystal sits beneath the Emirates Airline, London’s underused cross-river cable car, opened in time for the 2012 Olympics by Boris Johnson, when he was Mayor of London. It is also close the Excel Centre, City Airport, the University of East London campus and the new Crossrail station at Custom House, now due to open in 2022.

City Hall’s move to east London is not without its critics. The GLA Conservative’s leader, Susan Hall, said she was disappointed and that the plan was “flawed”. Perhaps she was thinking of the longer commute to work to east London (I’m assuming she doesn’t actually live here!), or was she thinking of east London’s reputation as the city’s least desirable quarter? Whichever, she might be forgetting that post-Olympic regeneration of east London was once a priority of none other than Boris Johnson himself. Rather than merely talking about regeneration, by moving to the Royal Docks, the GLA could be part of the process by which it happens.


8th October

Barking Riverside – end of the line

Not meeting so many schools to do fieldwork these days has given me time to explore some of the furthest flung corners of east London. One of these is Barking Riverside, a new residential development on the north bank of the River Thames. The first phase of development here began twenty five years ago but ground to a halt due to the lack of adequate transport links. The original plan for an extension to the Dockland Light Railway into the area was cancelled and has since been replaced by plans to extend the London Overground line from Barking to Barking Riverside. Development in the area is gathering pace once again, with the new station due to open at the end of next year.

Walking from Barking Town Centre south towards Barking Riverside, you could be forgiven for thinking you have taken a wrong turn. First, you have to cross one of the busiest, ugliest roads in the country, the A13, connecting London with the industrial hinterland of south Essex and the M25 Dartford Crossing. Continuing the walk along River Road, you pass a concoction of recycling facilities, distribution depots and cash and carry outlets – in short, the side of a city that is essential but no one wants to see.

The road leads you to Creekmouth, at the confluence of the River Roding and the Thames. The confluence is marked by Barking Barrier, a tall concrete structure that could act as flood protection for the Roding valley in the event of a high tide. At this point you are downstream of the Thames Barrier, so the only flood protection for Barking Riverside comes from the raised embankments along the river. That, and the way that the development is designed to work with flooding rather than against it. A reminder of the destruction that flooding can bring is provided by Creekmouth itself, which, until it was badly flooded in 1953 had been a small residential neighbourhood. It was subsequently demolished and the community rehoused more safely.

It is only when you turn left at Creekmouth (as you have to) that you reach Barking Riverside. The new station is currently being built and beside it, a new secondary school, Riverside Academy. At the moment the school stands in splendid isolation and students are bussed in because most of them live in other parts of Barking. When I walked past there was also a quarter-mile row of parked cars outside the school – presumably many parents are not happy to let their children use public transport in a pandemic. However, the eventual plan is to built over 10,000 new homes housing 26,000 people, making Barking Riverside one of the largest new developments in London – in one of the most unlikely locations.


10th September

What a difference a day (or year) makes

Like the song but a little bit longer. Last week I took a walk around Spitalfields market on the eastern edge of the ‘City of London’, the world’s financial capital. For years, we at UGEL have been running fieldtrips there for all age groups. Students are in awe of the vibrant atmosphere, the street art and the historic changes due to waves of immigration, as we walk a transect eastwards to Brick Lane.

However, last week the area was like a deserted ghost town. Hardly anyone was in the antiques market in Spitalfields at noon, and only a handful were in the shrunken street food market. Lots of permanent closures were in evidence, like coffee shops (including Starbucks) and even the large bike shop overlooking the market. The largest building there belongs to the magic circle law firm, Allen and Overy, which employed well over a thousand people a year ago. I saw only one or two employees coming in and out, compared to the former lunchtime bustle. Around the corner, in Artillery Passage, the famous Ottolenghi restaurant looked permanently closed.

My walk continued into the City, past an empty Threadneedle Street, the headquarters of the four main banks, and into Leadenhall Market. There was an open Burberry shop with no customers and the Lamb pub, normally packed but today with only one solitary drinker. I never thought I would miss the spivs and Essex futures traders wearing their West Ham scarves, but even they were missing. By the time I had returned to Liverpool Street station I had counted five Pret a Manger closures, along with other eateries like Pizza Express.

A few weeks ago, Professor Tony Travers commented on TV that the centre of London would bounce back, as it has done before in the face of adversity. But, this time the changes seem to be different or, to use a much overused word – unprecedented.

The whole experience contrasted with a visit to suburban Wanstead in east London a few days later. The monthly Sunday market was packed, as were the cafes, with not enough street furniture for all the customers. There were queues to get into the Wetherspoons pub and Otto’s Turkish restaurant. Will commuters in Wanstead ever return to the City centre in anything like pre-lockdown numbers, or have things changed forever? With people saving money on commuting costs, less stress, time to go for a jog or bike ride and better productivity working from home, it’s hard to imagine them going back to their former life. That’s if they are lucky enough not to have been made unemployed.


15th July

Black Lives Matter

The Black Lives Matter movement has forced organisations and institutions to look again at their practices to see whether or not they are racist. At least, that’s what we hope it has done. In schools, as elsewhere, the spotlight has been on history and what is taught or, more to the point, what is not taught about the history of black civilisations, slavery and colonialism.

Geography is not exempt from this self-examination. It would be too easy to assume that, because our subject is concerned with global issues, it necessarily encourages diversity and inclusion. Perhaps we are forgetting that geography in Britain, from its earliest days, was very much about exploration and colonial appropriation of land and that mapping originally had a military function. This image of geography has not entirely gone.

Danny Dorling, Professor of Geography at Oxford University, caused controversy last year when he characterised geography as the ‘core subject of imperial domination’, often chosen by ‘posh but dim’ students at university who might find other subjects too challenging. He pointed out that a high proportion of geography graduates come from middle and upper class backgrounds. He cited Prince William and Theresa May as two celebrity geography graduates to make his point.

In defence of the subject, the Royal Geographical Society (with its own origins in the days of British overseas exploration) responded that 40% of 16 year-olds now study geography, compared to 27% in 2010. They claim ‘the increase has come predominantly from black and ethnic minority pupils’. I’m not sure how they know the ethnicity of GCSE geography students and, even if true, what the numbers prove if they are not reflected in those who go on to study the subject at university level.

Here in east London it would be easy to gloss over racism in geography. We proudly tell students that Newham, with its 70% black and ethnic minority population, has the most diverse community in the country. Yet, five out of six of us teaching at Urban Geography East London are white (and male!). How did that happen? Something for us to ponder before we pontificate too much!


2nd May

Re-imagining London

A few short months ago there was still a heated debate about the need for a new third runway at Heathrow Airport. Environmentalists were arguing that to allow a third runway to go ahead would be a complete contradiction of the government’s stated aim to reduce our carbon emissions. That was before Covid-19. I can’t imagine anyone seriously suggesting we need a third runway now. I’m not sure we’ll need even one runway! A pandemic seems to have achieved in weeks what campaigners have failed to achieve in years. Right now, I’m enjoying the birdsong in London in a way that was always hard to appreciate with planes flying overhead – and I live in east London, miles from Heathrow to the west. Passenger flights have ground to a halt with little prospect of returning to pre-Covid levels for years.

That is just one aspect of London life that seems certain to change when we come out of the pandemic. Another one will be shopping. During the lockdown high streets around the country have been ghostly quiet. But, probably nowhere has become quieter than Westfield in Stratford. Full of shops which sell things that none of us truly need, no one goes there anymore. The only justification for keeping the doors open (and thus allowing curious observers like me to see how quiet it has become) seems to be one branch of Waitrose, selling food. Even the banks have closed and suggest customers go to find another branch in the high street. I think it might take a long time to entice people back to indoor shopping malls, a haven for viruses with their enclosed air recycling systems. Think cruise liners without the outdoor decks.

Another change, might be the headlong reach for the sky with all the construction projects in the City of London and Canary Wharf. Now that we’ve proved that office workers can just as effectively work from home, who needs offices? So, why build more? Even the office blocks we’ve already built might be surplus to requirements. I can’t see half a million people (the number working in the finance industry) rushing back to work soon. Not least among their concerns will be sharing a confined space on London transport with millions of others. Social distancing is impossible. And that’s before they even get to the office. It’s just a thought, but looking ahead, why not turn over thousands of square feet of redundant office space to housing? That might be an unforeseen solution to the housing shortage problem in London.

But, some things never change. The virus has highlighted existing inequalities in London. Figures released yesterday showed that death rates around London from Covid-19 are worse in the poorest boroughs. Brent, a poor borough with a large black, working-class population, has a death rate three times higher than Kingston, one of the wealthier boroughs with a predominantly white, middle class popuation. So, while the London which emerges from this crisis may differ in many ways from the London we knew it is hard to imagine that it is going to be a more equal city. Far from it.


1st April

No April Fool

When someone told me today that a huge temporary mortuary was being built half a mile from here on Wanstead Flats (our local open space) I thought for a moment that it was an April Fool joke made in bad taste. But, such are the times we are living in that nothing is off limits and, yes, they really are building a mortuary. I don’t know how much space a mortuary would normally occupy, but this one is two or three hectares in size, based on the area they have fenced off. It brings the crisis very close to home in quite a morbid way. Which people who I know could end up there? Could I be one of them?

On a slightly (but only slightly) more cheerful note, they are quite close to admitting the first patients at the new 4,000-bed Nightingale Hospital at Royal Victoria Dock here in east London. It is only just over a week ago that they made the announcement and began work on converting the Excel Exhibition Centre into what will become the world’s largest hospital. Similar hospitals are being created in Birmingham, Manchester, Glasgow, Belfast and Cardiff, all to deal with the expected rise in the number of Covid-19 victims over the next few weeks.

This takes me back to happier times when Excel was used as one of the venues for the 2012 Olympics. Before the Games we used to take students on a tour of east London to explore some of the proposed venues and to choose which would be the most suitable sport for each venue. Excel was chosen for combat sports partly because of its huge interior dimensions (over one kilometre in length) that enabled it to be conveniently partitioned into separate arenas where boxing, wrestling, judo and the rest, could all take place. In a similar way, to create the hospital, they have partitioned it into separate wards with individual cubicles for each bed. While I think of it, Wanstead Flats was also used to create a temporary building during the Games. In that case it was for a police base for all the extra police who were redeployed in London in 2012.

So, in extremis, east London seems to be the go to place where authorities use to find extra space in the capital. There maybe not be many other similiarities between the joy of 2012 and the fear of 2020, but that might be one. Let’s hope it’s a long time before east London needs to take centre stage again.


21st March

Covid-19 and other crises

Who ever thought it would come to this? Schools closed, restaurants, bars, cinemas and theatres in London shut down, the economy in freefall, over 200 deaths in the UK (a third of them in London) and counting. Thinking back just a couple of months, when news of the virus began to come out of China, the crisis seemed so far away and unlikely to happen here. I, for one, was so complacent or naive that it didn’t even cross my mind that it could happen here. I was forgetting about the all-pervasive impact of globalisation and, although I wasn’t around to witness it, the world has experienced a pandemic before. Spanish flu in 1918 killed over a million people worldwide, even without the aid of international flights, global business and luxury cruises.

Needless to say, all school visits to east London next half-term have been cancelled or postponed. No one is seriously thinking of organising anything before September. Although I’m not given to prophesy and I don’t like making predictions, I imagine that by this time next year all of this will be a bad memory. Yes, sadly, there will be families left bereaved, children with a term-sized gap in their education and some well-known high street brands who will no longer be with us. However, I’d like to think a few lessons will have been learned about how we organise our lives, not least the need for more investment in our National Health Service.

There are other crises that in the longer term will prove to be greater than the virus pandemic. We’ve already had a test-run this year with the fires in Australia and floods in the UK. The threat posed by the climate crisis to our children and grandchildren is much greater than Covid-19 (and not just because young people seem much more resistant to the virus). It won’t be possible to self-isolate from global heating and social distancing just won’t have any effect on floods or droughts. And, I’ve heard, it’s not impossible that the two crises – climate and Covid-19 – are connected by our destruction of the natural world. Burning rainforest, for example, not only adds to global carbon emissions, it also is decimating the wildlife that live there. Those animals harbour viruses that, deprived of their natural host, are looking for new ones. They may have found us!


11th February

Smile – you’re on camera!

I made a point of not going to Stratford today. It was the first day of the Metropolitan Police using Live Facial Recognition (LFR) in London. They chose Stratford as their location and I didn’t want to be on camera. It’s not that I have anything to hide you understand. It’s just that I disapprove of all Londoners (or should that be east Londoners?) being taken for criminals. It feels like a slippery slope from this to Big Brother knowing what each of us is doing anywhere, any moment of the day.

The argument goes that LFR can help police identify wanted criminals by matching live pictures with digital images. After a camera is installed at specific locations, it starts capturing images of all the people passing in front of it. The live images are then streamed to a live facial recognition system, which compares them to images offenders sought by the police. If a match is found, the system generates an alert for the police officer present on the scene.

The Met have announced that LFR technology has now been fully trialled and is ready to be permanently integrated into everyday policing. Results from the trials at events like football matches and concerts suggest that 70% of the wanted offenders would be recognised. However, the privacy campaigning group, Big Brother Watch claim that live facial recognition technology is highly inaccurate and is a breach of human rights.

But, the question remains, why Stratford? The police justified it by saying, “Stratford transport hub located next to the Westfield Shopping Centre is a footprint where gang violence has been prevalent…..A number of persons, both within Newham and neighbouring boroughs have been identified as being wanted for violent crime”. They might as well say, “if you’re from east London you’re more likely to be a criminal”. Having recently re-introduced ‘stop and search’, this just seems like another way to target black and ethnic minority people. If I was smart enough to avoid Stratford today, I’m sure real criminals would have been even smarter to keep a mile away from police cameras.

In the old days, police used to walk the streets with the idea being to prevent crime from happening in the first place. It helped to make us feel safer. If a criminal was identified, police could go to their home to arrest them. They didn’t use a large vacuum cleaner to suck us all up just so they could grab the criminals. That’s what this feels like – a sledgehammer to crack a nut. When the police trialled LFR in Stratford in 2018, no arrests were made. I wonder how many criminals they caught in Stratford today, while making the rest of us feel like criminals?


20th January

Daffodils in January!

I was astonished, walking through the Olympic Park last week, to see beds of daffodils in full bloom. I don’t know if they planted a special variety of early-blooming daffodils in the park but it was a sign to me that all is not normal with our climate. Indeed, over the past year, the discussion has moved on from talking about ‘climate change’ to talking about a ‘climate emergency’. Pity those poor souls, like Donald Trump and Scott McKenzie (and even more so, those under their leadership), who are still struggling to recognise climate change. Wildfires in the USA and Australia, not to mention melting ice in Antarctica, floods around the planet, protesting schoolchildren and the hitherto measured voice of David Attenborough talking about a ‘crisis’, have all helped to focus minds.

Go back to 2012 and we were talking about the London Olympics being ‘the greenest Games ever’. Eight years on and two Olympics later, unfortunately, we are probably still talking about London being the greenest Games ever! Rio 2016 was far from being a successful Olympics and sustainability did not appear to be so high up the agenda. Certainly, the Olympic venues in Rio have not found their way into everyday post-Olympic usage in the way that venues in London have. The signs are not great for Tokyo 2020 either. I saw the development of the new stadium in progress when I visited Tokyo in 2018 and was surprised to find yet another huge construction project. Whatever happened to the 1964 stadium? Couldn’t that have been re-used? Nor does Tokyo appear to have an Olympic Park where all the key venues are brought together in one location. The stadium, other venues and Athletes Village are scattered around the city, requiring journeys to be made by athletes as well as specators. I’m sure Tokyo’s public transport network will cope, but could it have been better planned to minimise journeys?

Since the 2012 Olympics, we have been running fieldwork programmes around the Olympic Park, investigating London’s claims to be the greenest Games. Much of the focus has been on East Village, the former Athletes Village. The village has many sustainable credentials – high-spec design to minimise energy use, local renewable energy supply, water recycling, great public transport connections, more cycling and fewer cars, 50% affordable accommodation. Unfortunately, in 2020, we are still talking about East Village being a model for sustainble urban living. Where are the new developments in London to emulate it? Good as it is, East Village is far from perfect. What lessons have been learned to apply to future developments? If we are to take the climate emergency seriously, we haven’t got long to think about these questions. Twelve years only gives us three more Olympics!


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