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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To build its emerging “megaregions”, the USA should turn to trains

Under construction: high speed rail in California. Image: Getty.

An extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, out now from Island Press.

A regional transportation system does not become balanced until all its parts are operating effectively. Highways, arterial streets, and local streets are essential, and every megaregion has them, although there is often a big backlog of needed repairs, especially for bridges. Airports for long-distance travel are also recognized as essential, and there are major airports in all the evolving megaregions. Both highways and airports are overloaded at peak periods in the megaregions because of gaps in the rest of the transportation system. Predictions for 2040, when the megaregions will be far more developed than they are today, show that there will be much worse traffic congestion and more airport delays.

What is needed to create a better balance? Passenger rail service that is fast enough to be competitive with driving and with some short airplane trips, commuter rail to major employment centers to take some travelers off highways, and improved local transit systems, especially those that make use of exclusive transit rights-of-way, again to reduce the number of cars on highways and arterial roads. Bicycle paths, sidewalks, and pedestrian paths are also important for reducing car trips in neighborhoods and business centers.

Implementing “fast enough” passenger rail

Long-distance Amtrak trains and commuter rail on conventional, unelectrified tracks are powered by diesel locomotives that can attain a maximum permitted speed of 79 miles per hour, which works out to average operating speeds of 30 to 50 miles per hour. At these speeds, trains are not competitive with driving or even short airline flights.

Trains that can attain 110 miles per hour and can operate at average speeds of 70 miles per hour are fast enough to help balance transportation in megaregions. A trip that takes two to three hours by rail can be competitive with a one-hour flight because of the need to allow an hour and a half or more to get to the boarding area through security, plus the time needed to pick up checked baggage. A two-to-three-hour train trip can be competitive with driving when the distance between destinations is more than two hundred miles – particularly for business travelers who want to sit and work on the train. Of course, the trains also have to be frequent enough, and the traveler’s destination needs to be easily reachable from a train station.

An important factor in reaching higher railway speeds is the recent federal law requiring all trains to have a positive train control safety system, where automated devices manage train separation to avoid collisions, as well as to prevent excessive speeds and deal with track repairs and other temporary situations. What are called high-speed trains in the United States, averaging 70 miles per hour, need gate controls at grade crossings, upgraded tracks, and trains with tilt technology – as on the Acela trains – to permit faster speeds around curves. The Virgin Trains in Florida have diesel-electric locomotives with an electrical generator on board that drives the train but is powered by a diesel engine. 

The faster the train needs to operate, the larger, and heavier, these diesel-electric locomotives have to be, setting an effective speed limit on this technology. The faster speeds possible on the portion of Amtrak’s Acela service north of New Haven, Connecticut, came after the entire line was electrified, as engines that get their power from lines along the track can be smaller and much lighter, and thus go faster. Catenary or third-rail electric trains, like Amtrak’s Acela, can attain speeds of 150 miles per hour, but only a few portions of the tracks now permit this, and average operating speeds are much lower.

Possible alternatives to fast enough trains

True electric high-speed rail can attain maximum operating speeds of 150 to 220 miles per hour, with average operating speeds from 120 to 200 miles per hour. These trains need their own grade-separated track structure, which means new alignments, which are expensive to build. In some places the property-acquisition problem may make a new alignment impossible, unless tunnels are used. True high speeds may be attained by the proposed Texas Central train from Dallas to Houston, and on some portions of the California High-Speed Rail line, should it ever be completed. All of the California line is to be electrified, but some sections will be conventional tracks so that average operating speeds will be lower.


Maglev technology is sometimes mentioned as the ultimate solution to attaining high-speed rail travel. A maglev train travels just above a guideway using magnetic levitation and is propelled by electromagnetic energy. There is an operating maglev train connecting the center of Shanghai to its Pudong International Airport. It can reach a top speed of 267 miles per hour, although its average speed is much lower, as the distance is short and most of the trip is spent getting up to speed or decelerating. The Chinese government has not, so far, used this technology in any other application while building a national system of long-distance, high-speed electric trains. However, there has been a recent announcement of a proposed Chinese maglev train that can attain speeds of 375 miles per hour.

The Hyperloop is a proposed technology that would, in theory, permit passenger trains to travel through large tubes from which all air has been evacuated, and would be even faster than today’s highest-speed trains. Elon Musk has formed a company to develop this virtually frictionless mode of travel, which would have speeds to make it competitive with medium- and even long-distance airplane travel. However, the Hyperloop technology is not yet ready to be applied to real travel situations, and the infrastructure to support it, whether an elevated system or a tunnel, will have all the problems of building conventional high-speed rail on separate guideways, and will also be even more expensive, as a tube has to be constructed as well as the train.

Megaregions need fast enough trains now

Even if new technology someday creates long-distance passenger trains with travel times competitive with airplanes, passenger traffic will still benefit from upgrading rail service to fast-enough trains for many of the trips within a megaregion, now and in the future. States already have the responsibility of financing passenger trains in megaregion rail corridors. Section 209 of the federal Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 requires states to pay 85 percent of operating costs for all Amtrak routes of less than 750 miles (the legislation exempts the Northeast Corridor) as well as capital maintenance costs of the Amtrak equipment they use, plus support costs for such programs as safety and marketing. 

California’s Caltrans and Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority, Connecticut, Indiana, Illinois, Maine’s Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin all have agreements with Amtrak to operate their state corridor services. Amtrak has agreements with the freight railroads that own the tracks, and by law, its operations have priority over freight trains.

At present it appears that upgrading these corridor services to fast-enough trains will also be primarily the responsibility of the states, although they may be able to receive federal grants and loans. The track improvements being financed by the State of Michigan are an example of the way a state can take control over rail service. These tracks will eventually be part of 110-mile-per-hour service between Chicago and Detroit, with commitments from not just Michigan but also Illinois and Indiana. Fast-enough service between Chicago and Detroit could become a major organizer in an evolving megaregion, with stops at key cities along the way, including Kalamazoo, Battle Creek, and Ann Arbor. 

Cooperation among states for faster train service requires formal agreements, in this case, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Compact. The participants are Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, and Wisconsin. There is also an advocacy organization to support the objectives of the compact, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Commission.

States could, in future, reach operating agreements with a private company such as Virgin Trains USA, but the private company would have to negotiate its own agreement with the freight railroads, and also negotiate its own dispatching priorities. Virgin Trains says in its prospectus that it can finance track improvements itself. If the Virgin Trains service in Florida proves to be profitable, it could lead to other private investments in fast-enough trains.

Jonathan Barnett is an emeritus Professor of Practice in City and Regional Planning, and former director of the Urban Design Program, at the University of Pennsylvania. 

This is an extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, published now by Island Press. You can find out more here.