Canary Wharf – still on the up (and up…)

After decades of declining populations, it is once again the inner areas of our major cities which are seeing the fastest growth in residents.  According to the first results of the 2011 census, eight of the ten fastest growing local authorities were inner city areas.  Six are London Boroughs, mostly on the east side of the capital.

This is of course just what the Government wanted.  Regenerating run-down areas of our cities at high densities ticks all the political boxes.  It “makes the best use of urban land”, keeps the residents of leafy areas surrounded by Green Belt off the politicians’ backs, and of course gets a good sustainability score by reducing the need to travel.

But what are these areas actually like as places to live?  After blogging about some of our biggest upcoming residential regeneration areas – Kings Cross, the Olympic Park and Wirral Waters, I decided it was high time I went to see one that was already there.  According to the census, the fastest growing Borough of all was Tower Hamlets, the area immediately east of the City, so where better to go and have a look than its big beast of dockland regeneration – Canary Wharf.

I hadn’t been to Canary Wharf for about 20 years, back when 1 Canada Square was a giant underperforming office block in a sea of low-rise low quality enterprise zone development and 1960’s Council estates.  How times have changed.  Some 90,000 city types work at Canary Wharf today, and the tube station is among the busiest on the network.  And the scale of apartment development in the last few years is nothing short of jaw-dropping.  It is now home to Pan Peninsula, completed in 2009, which brands itself as “London’s tallest apartment block” (the Shard being mixed use I suppose), and boasts a cocktail bar on the 48th (and top) storey.  And 1000 new apartments were built each year around here from 2007 to 2010.

For a suburbanite like me this is more than a little unfamiliar.  But if you’re childless and reasonably solvent, what really are the essentials of life?  I put to one side all my romantic notions about community and human scale and made my own personal list.  This is what was on it:  comfortable living accommodation, a Waitrose, a café with decent coffee, a Fuller’s pub, a tube station and somewhere free of traffic to go for a run after work.  With all that in the locality you should be able to find some like-minded individuals to share it with.   A modicum of research showed me that Canary Wharf would offer me all these – with the Thames path performing the role of running route – so I set off with more enthusiasm than I had expected to see for myself.

On the train I did a twitter search on Canary Wharf.  Here is what I found:

@eastlondonstuff  A stunning 2 bed 2 bath apartment in Discovery Dock!!!!! Only £527 pw

@sarahmaule I don’t know what’s worse, a dude wandering on train track causing delays or the Canary Wharf yahs I’m standing next to while delayed

@alanwgriffiths Wonderful London Review of Books article about Crossrail winners (the City) and losers (the rest).

Yes – I’ll be firmly in envy and aspiration territory today.  £527 pw is above the national median gross income – so it is probably only Canary Wharf yahs who can afford it, and when the Crossrail station opens in a few years’ time prices will probably go up even more.

I exit the Underground, past the underground shopping mall, into a world of silver, glass and Boris Bikes. Yes the office buildings are absolutely enormous, but at street level there is an air of business-like calm.  I quickly realise that this is because there are so few motor vehicles.  Buses are allowed through the heart of Canary Wharf, but cars are apparently not, and the best way to get about is clearly on foot.  I turn my back on Reuters’ constantly updating display of share prices and take the pedestrian bridge over the West India Dock to Marsh Wall and Millharbour, where all the big apartment blocks are going up.

For the last decade this area has been developed according to the local Council’s  “Millenium Quarter” masterplan and the original dockland regeneration is fast disappearing here.  A few two-storey 1980’s buildings with pitched roofs sit on South Quay marooned among giant apartment blocks like Willie Loman’s New York house in the Arthur Miller play Death of a Salesman.  Nearby the Docklands Audi dealership, once a sure sign of yuppie infiltration of the Isle of Dogs, is to be replaced by 2,000 (no I haven’t put too many noughts on there) new apartments.

But strangely the whole experience is rather pleasing, and it is all down to the basic structure of the dock system.  The roofline of towers is broken up by large expanses of water, and the pedestrian only walkways along the docksides create a relaxing way of getting about.  I find a café in a row of shops in Pepper Street, pick up a copy of The Wharf, the local free newspaper, and go in for a coffee.

The view from the café window (reproduced at the top of this blog-post) is the same one that covers the front page of the newspaper.  Only this time local Councillor Peter Golds is there too, above the headline BURSTING POINT.  According to the article, the population of the Isle of Dogs, only 25,000 in 2001, is now 45,000, and could be 70,000 by 2021.  Inside is a list of all the new homes planned.  Within a square mile, centred on Canary Wharf, over 10,000 more could be built, enough to keep up the recent building rate for the next ten years.  That’s more than are planned for the similarly sized Olympic Park – current population zero.  Even the last petrol station on the “Island” will go when the Asda store is replaced by 800 new homes.  Cllr Golds is worried about overdevelopment.

And if you think the picture looks more like Hong Kong or Shanghai than London, you’re not alone.  According to the same newspaper around half of all buyers at Ability Place (the building with the beige and terra-cotta accents in the picture) are Chinese – apparently Canary Wharf reminds them of home.  But as I sit and drink my coffee I have to admit I reckon I could happily live here, as long as I had a balcony overlooking the water.  And of course that comes at a price.  Those seeking affordable housing certainly aren’t going to get it.  The affordable housing component of the Pan Peninsula scheme is all about 200m away from the dock in a block called Phoenix Heights.  The flats there may well be beautiful inside, but the immediate environment isn’t a patch on a waterside view of course.

And there’s the rub.  It’s the campus-like quality of the waterside areas that really sets Canary Wharf apart.  It is all privately managed semi-public space, well looked after and a joy to walk round.  But once you’re away from the water it is just like anywhere else – only bigger.

Huge apartment buildings are going up outside the old dock estate too, not least the controversial plans to replace Robin Hood Gardens. I’ll look at these in my next blog post.  But I leave Canary Wharf with the realisation that my Ronan Point- and Irvine Welsh-derived views of tower block living might need a thorough overhaul.  If only I can get that waterfront outlook…