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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