After thirty years of Canary Wharf, how has it changed the geography of East London?

Canary Wharf. Image: Getty.

Canary Wharf turned 30 years old this year. Officially signed off for construction on 17 July 1987, the now-famous financial district on the Isle of Dogs in London’s East End has been transformed from a developer’s impossible dream, to a disastrous and bankrupt white elephant, to a familiar and thriving London landmark, all in just three decades.

The development has often been controversial. Protestors famously interrupted an event to announce its impending arrival in 1986 by setting 60 dog-driven sheep and over 150,000 bees loose amongst the gathered dignitaries. Prior to that, a mock funeral procession had marched around the Isle of Dogs, with banners reading, “Kill the Canary, Save the Island”.

Today’s Canary Wharf still divides opinion, among both longstanding locals and new arrivals. But its story is hugely complicated – something illustrated by the fact that the leader of both of the protests outlined above would go on to become Head of Community Affairs for Canary Wharf’s developers. Today, Canary Wharf is 30 years old, employs over 100,000, has plans for major expansion and diversification, and seems here to stay.

This anniversary presents a good opportunity to reflect on the unlikely story of the development, and to take a longer view on the transformation of Docklands and East London in the three decades since modern Canary Wharf was born. In the East End, so much has changed, and yet much has stayed the same.

Canary Wharf’s relatively short history is remarkable in itself. The docks of the East End, which connected the economic power of the City of London to Britain’s global trading empire, once employed at least as many Londoners as modern Canary Wharf. However, the advent of container shipping, a new technology which favoured deeper-water ports with close access to motorways and railways, saw employment on London’s docks rapidly fall. They closed, one by one, between 1967 and 1981. (Today, London’s main port is outside the city at Tilbury, in Essex.)

By the 1980s, the local economy had collapsed. Around 60 percent of the land in Docklands was derelict, and over 200,000 people had left the Docklands boroughs in the preceding 20 years. Whilst it appears an obvious location for an extension to the City of London today, in the 1980s, Docklands was seen as remote and inaccessible, not to mention undesirable. And yet, today, Canary Wharf is thriving.


So what has changed – and what has stayed the same? Nowhere in the UK is the successful transition from an industrial to a ‘post-industrial’ economy more evident than Canary Wharf. Yet while much of today’s trade runs under the sea, as data travelling through transatlantic cables rather than as goods on huge ocean-going ships, it is incredible that the East End has remained a global hub of trade and commerce, despite its otherwise radical transformation.

Canary Wharf now employs around the same number of people that the docks employed beforehand, and while the work differs in its nature, there are curious similarities. The Wharf is still somewhat reliant upon one industry, and employment is dependent upon its fate, with the associated risk of boom and bust. Today’s Canary Wharf has proved surprisingly resilient to the financial crash of 2008, with job numbers continuing to expand regardless.

However, it is always possible that the banks could go the way of the docks, and automation and Brexit lurk menacingly. Attempting to learn the lessons of history, Canary Wharf Group is currently attempting to diversify its tenant base accordingly.

Modern Docklands remains an unequal place. The Trust for London found Canary Wharf’s home borough of Tower Hamlets amongst the worst in the capital for unemployment, poverty, and pay inequality. But the area has always been a place where extreme poverty sat side by side with great wealth creation. More optimistically, the Social Mobility Commission also recently found Tower Hamlets to be one of the best places in the country for social mobility, suggesting a positive change is occurring.

The question of whom Canary Wharf is for is also a perennial one. Modern Canary Wharf’s status as a private estate, with its own security force, has attracted controversy. However, the wharf once sat in a privately owned dock, surrounded by high walls to prevent theft. Its present status sees it accessible to the public for the first time since 1800.

The biggest change has been seen across the wider East End, which has been transformed almost beyond recognition. The development of Docklands, with Canary Wharf as a key catalyst, has been at the heart of East London’s renaissance. The Docklands Light Railway, first built on a small scale and derided as a ‘toy town’ railway but then repeatedly upgraded and extended, was the first of several game-changing transport infrastructure projects. The extension of the Jubilee Line, the Limehouse Link road tunnel – once the most expensive piece of road, pound for mile, in the UK – and London City Airport have all transformed the area’s connectivity to the rest of the capital and the rest of the world. Soon, Crossrail will arrive, cutting journey times to key London destinations further.

The on-going development of the Olympic Park in Stratford; the renaissance of Shoreditch, Hoxton and Old Street; the success of the O2 Arena on the Greenwich peninsular, soon to be surrounded by tall buildings providing 15,000 new homes; and the hundreds of new high-rise towers currently in the pipeline or being built in the London Borough of Tower Hamlets alone, are evidence that East London is now a very different place from that of the 1970s. Historically, the prevailing westerly wind had cut off affluent West London from the industrial dirt and stink of the poorer East. But it can be argued that the direction of this wind has now – at least, metaphorically – changed.

In a press release to announce the signing off of Canary Wharf in July 1987, Reg Ward, the Chief Executive of the London Docklands Development Corporation that drove the regeneration of Docklands in the 1980s and ‘90s, claimed that: “The significance of this scheme to Docklands is immense. Not only does it represent the most significant urban regeneration project in the world, but its impact will bring the development axis in London back eastwards after 100 years of movements westwards.” Whatever your opinion of Canary Wharf, it is hard to argue that Ward has failed.

Jack Brown has just completed a PhD thesis on the early years of the London Docklands Development Corporation and the emergence of Canary Wharf.

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In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 


The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.