“We’re denser than Manhattan!” The Isle of Dogs responds to claims of NIMBYism

Canary Wharf, the Isle of Dogs. Image: Getty.

The Conservative councillor for Canary Wharf Ward, Tower Hamlets, responds to criticism that his ward is fully of NIMBYs.

The Isle of Dogs was accused last week of being full of NIMBYs who perhaps deserve imprisonment for objecting to new homes. Actually, they deserve a reward for coping with the delivery of more new homes and office space than anywhere else in the UK – and suffering from construction related disruption, noise and dust in the meantime.

The accusation was made after we objected to 2,000 new homes on the ASDA Crossharbour supermarket site, on the grounds that it would lead to the loss of a local petrol station and overshadowing of the fantastic Mudchute City Farm. It was suggested we should roll over and let it be built, London has a housing crisis and nothing should stop new homes, and anyway who needs cars when you have Crossrail coming? 

The housing crisis is not our fault: on the Isle of Dogs, we have been building more new homes than anywhere else in London. We will have the tallest and densest residential buildings in the UK: buildings like the The Spire, also the tallest in western Europe at 241 meters (791 feet), with 861 apartments; the 75-storey, 239 meter high, 984 apartment Landmark Pinnacle, built on the site of a former pub; or the 68 storey 220 meter high South Quay Plaza with 1,284 apartments in three towers.

At the end of 2016 we had over 60 tall buildings – those over 20 storeys in height – with planning permission. The housing crisis has occurred because the rest of London has not delivered at the same pace as we have.

But we cannot continue this rate of growth without a major investment in infrastructure – and even then, is it sustainable to be building a place denser then Manhattan while most of the rest of London goes undeveloped and remains low density? How do we ensure that the best place to live in London remains so, and that we build rather than destroy a community through poor planning?

We have two great problems. The first is the lack of awareness about the scale of development happening here: the GLA and Tower Hamlets Council almost seem embarrassed about what is happening. One forecast suggests a population of 150,000 people in the future, compared to about 56,000 today and 12,500 in the early 1980s.

Under construction right now we have residential buildings of 75, 68, 67, 60, 55, 56 and 53 storeys in height – plus many more between 40 and 50 storeys (the tallest residential building in the UK right now is the 50 storey St Georges Wharf tower). Three minutes walk from ASDA is the recently completed 45 storey Baltimore Wharf tower. Next to that will be the UK’s largest co-living site, with 706 apartments with shared facilities.

We have 19,500 homes with planning permission, and counting all sites where there is development activity underway we get to a total of around 36,000 new homes. The GLA would also like to add office space for another 110,000 workers at Canary Wharf adding to the 120,000 there today: surprisingly few live locally.


The densest small place in the UK according to the Office for National Statistics is Millharbour, in the middle of the island, with a population density equivalent to 90,000 people per km2 as of 2014. By the end of 2017, when two new developments complete construction on Millharbour the density will be around 120,000 people. The Upper East Side of Manhattan has 44,000 people. The next densest place in the UK has 57,000 people per km2.

This is all happening within 25 minutes’ walk of the ASDA site. We are also an island – and a floodplain – with rivers on three sides, and motorways and docks on our northern boundary. We only have two road exits, on either side of the island: our beautiful docks limit transport connectivity.

You would expect this level of growth to attract record levels of infrastructure investment: Canary Wharf is the third most important economic centre in the UK, and half of the UKs internet traffic goes through data centres in Blackwall. But this is our second big problem: a lack of new infrastructure to support that growth. Money earnt on the Isle of Dogs to fund new local infrastructure has historically been spent elsewhere in Tower Hamlets: we are the local cash cow.

In fact, rather than gaining new services and infrastructure we are losing them.

For example, last year we had four petrol stations in the E14 post code area. Two have been knocked down for redevelopment, ASDA is due to go and the last one Texaco on Cotton Street is in a physically small site which is often inaccessible due to traffic jams waiting to enter the Blackwall Tunnel. Yet the E14 postcode is the fastest growing place in the UK: including Poplar, we may well achieve a population of 250,000 people. That’s one fuel station for a place bigger than Brighton, York or Hull.

Something will get developed at the ASDA site: developers already have planning permission for 850 homes up to 23 storeys, yet had wanted to replace it with 2,000 up to 38 storeys. But we should not sacrifice quality of life by allowing anything to be built just because there is a crisis: that just stores up different problems.

London usually rates poorly on quality of life in international surveys and we need to do more to remedy this. Rather than building homes which are poorly thought out, which are not beautiful, which worsen the provision of infrastructure and which reduce the quality of life of existing and future residents we need to build the best homes possible: BIMBY (Beauty in my Backyard), not NIMBY.

It is also why we set up the Isle of Dogs Neighbourhood Planning Forum to ensure development is sustainable. Such a unique place requires unique solutions.

And if you do not believe any of the above I am happy to give you a personal tour of the area.

Andrew Wood is a Conservative councillor for Canary Wharf ward on Tower Hamlets council.

 
 
 
 

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.