Overcoming Barriers: in and between Poplar and Canary Wharf

Geographically, Canary Wharf and Poplar lie less than a mile apart. Walking between the two takes 10 minutes but life expectancy between the two differs by four years (HACT). While Canary Wharf is an icon of global finance, Poplar communities are amongst the 10% most deprived in the UK (DCLG).

FoL’s 6 June field trip found us in the East End, exploring both the physical barriers that separate Canary Wharf from Poplar, and the development sites that have shaped the two former docklands into proximate but very different spaces.

Poplar and Canary Wharf, located within a mile of each other (mapbox.com)

Shared history

Up until the 1980s, the areas had much in common. Their dockland location made both targets in the Second World War, with an estimated 2,500 bombs dropped. Rebuilding was slow and coincided with industrial decline. Between the 1960s and 80s the situation steadily worsened. By 1981, widespread containerisation forced a need for bigger ships and deeper water, putting the East’s docklands out of business. 60% of land fell derelict and 200,000 people left over the course of 20 years. In no small part, it was responses to this decline that set the two areas apart.

One Canada Square in context

One Canada Square

At our first stop, Canary Wharf Group‘s Managing Director of Strategy, Howard Dawber, explained that One Canada Square was the brainchild of Michael Von Clemm of Credit Suisse. His vision for the UK’s tallest commercial tower in the heart of a formerly industrial area was radical, and initially met with resistance. With political support from Thatcher and Heseltine, construction started in 1988, six years after the government declared Canary Wharf an Urban Enterprise Zone: a flagship development for the new, service-led economy.

The development sparked controversy. Local residents favoured the return of industry and saw little in the plans that would benefit them. Following protests involving the release of livestock and mock funeral processions, the London Docklands Development Corporation bought the key local activists on board to direct community support (CityMetric). To date, this has included construction skills training and employment, work in schools and £1.6 million worth of contracts with local businesses.

Connecting Canary Wharf

Connectivity was a major concern for Canada Square’s developers, cognisant that substantial infrastructure would be required to entice “London’s financial institutions to decamp to a water-ringed outcrop three miles to the east of the City” (FT). This spurred the arrival of the Docklands Light Railway. Devised to bring workers into the new enterprise zone, the tracks follow former development red-line boundaries, creating a physical barrier between Canary Wharf and surrounding neighbourhoods, compounding existing severance caused by major strategic roads. The Blackwall Tunnel Northern Approach and Aspen Way loom large between Canary Wharf and Poplar, severely limiting east-west and north-south pedestrian movement.

Aspen Way and DLR tracks cause severance between Canary Wharf and Poplar

But between 2001 and 2012 the number of jobs based at Canary Wharf quadrupled, and growth is expected to continue. Crossrail opens imminently, shuttling more commuters in each day, while nearby areas such as the Olympic Park, Lea Valley and Greenwich Peninsula are key Opportunity Areas promising substantial growth. This growth creates a need for better connectivity: Canary Wharf Group plan to leverage capital from new developments to build new footbridges.

Poplar: north of the tracks

For Poplar HARCA, a housing and regeneration community association working on the other side of the tracks, the coming boom presents serious challenges. While Canary Wharf represents one of the most extreme and financially lucrative responses to post-industrial restructuring in Britain, Poplar has ridden several waves of change since the devastation of the war.

Poplar’s strategic links – courtesy Poplar HARCA

Surrounded by major roads and waterways, home to both model estates and periods of pronounced disinvestment, Poplar has seen its share of well-intentioned but divisive regeneration projects. Political plans and demographic churn have layered identities on top of identities, producing a vibrant but challenging space. Poplar HARCA’s Head of Partnerships, Alex Jeremy, observes that today, with the area’s strategic importance and inevitable growth comes the threat that Poplar will be seen as “somewhere close to somewhere else”, becoming overspill/hinterland for the financial district to the south and the Olympic Park to the north.

For Poplar HARCA’s Head of Operations, Blossom Young, building Poplar’s capacity is key. At all scales, Poplar HARCA’s projects are designed to reflect a long-term economic strategy, seeding an independent identity for the area. The field trip took us to a range of commercial projects being developed by Poplar HARCA’s Accents Team, which specialises in socio-economic initiatives.

Opening Poplar

Open Poplar offers underused assets to the community, mapping spaces such as garages, storage units and sheds and providing an online search tool for local people.  Anyone can submit ideas for repurposing spaces via a simple online form. The Accents Team then explore opportunities for  implementation, but the projects are driven and delivered by the applicants themselves, who include new and existing residents, as well as organisations based across Poplar and East London. To date, the initiative has produced London’s first Haitian café, a pub in a disused shop and the conversion of an empty basement in a block of flats into artist studios.

Left: Baring house, before and after conversion to art studios; right: London’s first Hatian cafe, Kafe 1788. Images courtesy Poplar HARCA.

Open Poplar also identified 101 disused garages, which have become central to Fashioning Poplar: a £5.5 million regeneration project, part funded by the GLA, led by Poplar HARCA and bringing in stakeholders from London College of Fashion and the Trampery.

Fashion has been present in Poplar since the rag trade of the 1900s; high levels of skill, ambition and interest in the sector remain. Drawing on this industrial heritage, the garages will be converted into a fashion hub offering training, manufacturing, technology and affordable studio space, complemented by an accessible café, garden and event space.

Fashioning Poplar. Image courtesy Poplar HARCA.

Fashioning Poplar sites lie both sides of the busy A12, a motorway that slices Poplar in two. As the project evolves, the ambition is for this piece of major infrastructure to transform: both physically via planned additional crossings and footbridges, and in the public imagination as the road becomes associated with a high street feel.

Construction begins this summer, but the groundwork is accessible now. Public Works is already occupying space which will become part of the hub with the R-Urban project, exploring how sustainability and community can build resilience. Volunteer-run workshops build skills from DIY to food growing. An anaerobic digestor transforms local food waste into fertiliser, reducing domestic emissions in spite of the A12.

Bridging the gaps

Steel Warriors gym in Langdon Park

Connectivity is vital for new businesses, services and facilities to thrive. As part of the funding bid for the Spotlight Centre – a creative art space for young people, located in the middle of Poplar – Poplar HARCA successfully lobbied for an additional DLR station at Langdon Park, the only one to be granted after network completion. The DLR’s footbridge creates a link between the centre to the East and residents on the West, making the Langdon Park regeneration area widely accessible and increasing usage of the park’s facilities.

It’s not all about the physical space. Local authority or institutional branding can embed connotations as to who a space is for. Though built and managed by Poplar HARCA, the Spotlight Centre flies no flag – the team believe this neutrality has increased local uptake of the offer.

As Canary Wharf and Poplar show, severance can be about more than physical barriers. Connectivity is vital for all spaces to thrive, but it often increases demand and presents new challenges. As London continues to grow, ensuring the areas that have yet to boom are given a chance to do so in a way that reflects their character, creating opportunities for new and existing residents is paramount.