Not quite a ‘geography blog’ but where we can keep you
in touch with the latest developments, courses etc.








13th October

Re: Cycling!

Cycling has been on my mind a lot recently. Not least because I am a cyclist! I have been fortunate to have commuted by bicycle for my entire working life. When I started teaching in London almost 40 years ago, only about 1% of commuting journeys were made by bike. It is now estimated at 15% and I feel like one of the crowd. Indeed, when you cycle through London during the rush hour, cyclists seem to be in the majority. All around London, cycle superhighways are being built to cope with the growing volume of bike traffic. Or should that be the other way round - cyclists are venturing out on their bikes because the new cycle routes make it safer to cycle?

Stratford Town Centre is the latest place in London to get the new, cycle-friendly treatment. It has met with the approval of the London Cycling Campaign who have been known to be critical of other new road layouts. Stratford, in case you don't know it, has been surrounded by a one-way gyratory system, isolating the shopping centre from the rest of the neighbourhood. Shoppers take their life into their hands every time they cross the road to reach the centre, with cars speeding around what can feel like a race track. As for cyclists, they either take their chances on the road, or go for the safer option on the pavement, thus irritating pedestrians.

Both pedestrians and cyclists should benefit from the changes, which will create a network of cycle tracks and public realm spaces where people will be safe to loiter. At the moment pedestrians are given ten seconds to complete their crossing at the traffic lights between Stratford Centre and the station, making it touch and go for an older person using a walking stick to reach the other side. They definitely wouldn't loiter! The only people not happy about the changes are drivers, who are going to be forced to slow down to the new 20mph limit, though in the new, two-way system, 20mph might be optimistic.

Another reason that cycling has been on my mind is its potential as a focus for fieldwork. We run a one-day fieldwork programme that asks the question, 'How can cycling in London be made safer?' Students carry out a traffic count on a main road to compare the number of vehicles and cycles. They then carry out a risk assessment at a busy junction and do a more refined traffic count of the number of vehicles moving in each direction. This can later be turned into an elaborate flow diagram. So far, so quantitative! But, to add a more qualitative dimension, they ask pedestrians and cyclists (if they can catch them!), what would make them more likely to cycle or what would make them feel safer.

You don't need to come to east London to do fieldwork like this. Cycling is an important issue in every part of the country and one that is particularly relevant to teenagers.


20th August

Tokyo 2020

Sweltering last week in Tokyo in temperatures in the high 30s, I felt pity for the athletes who are going to be running there in 2020. Before my arrival, temperatures had been even higher - into the 40s - and old people without air conditioning (or unwilling to use it) were dying in the heat. Unfortunately, the Olmypics will be held from late July until early September when temperatures and humidity will be at their highest. Japanese people I spoke to told me that summers are getting warmer. Temperatures in Tokyo have risen 3 degrees over the last century, 2 degrees due to the urban heat island effect and the other degree because of global warming.

Of course, Tokyo is nothing if not resilient. Through its history, the city has been destroyed by fire (more than once), the great Kanto earthquake in 1923 and American bombing in 1945 at the end of World War 2. In this context, a few degrees rise in temperature could be seen as a minor inconvenience and, as you might expect, there are plans to tackle it. The city government is installing solar, heat-blocking pavement in central Tokyo, which reflects the solar rays that cause the surface to warm up. This could reduce surface temperatures by up to 8 degrees. They hope to install 136 kilometres of the pavement before the Games open.

Whilst I was in Tokyo I couldn't help but make a few comparisons with the 2012 Olympics in London. The most obvious difference is that the Olympic sites in Tokyo are dispersed around the city, rather than clustered within an Olympic Park as they were in London. So, the Olympic Stadium is under construction close to the historical heart of Tokyo. However, it is a long subway ride from the Athletes Village, located on reclaimed land on the waterfront of Tokyo Bay. Many of the other venues, including the swimming pool and gymnastics arena, are in the same Odaiba area of the city. Arguably, with a public transport system that operates like clockwork, Tokyo will be capable of transporting competitors and spectators around the city more easily than London could.

Unlike London, none of the areas where the venues are located could be described as deprived or in need of regeneration. Indeed, this would be hard to say of any part of Tokyo that I saw. So, the notion that the Olympics can be a means by which the host city is able to regenerate, does not seem to apply to Tokyo. Infact, with the legacy of the 2016 Rio Games looking questionable you could argue that the regeneration benefits of the Olympics is something that sets the London Games apart.

However, there is likely to be at least one similarity between the London and Tokyo Games. For once in 2012, a major construction project in London was completed successfully and on time. Given the Japanese experience of reconstruction and their ability to run a railway network with trains that are never late, Tokyo is also certain to deliver the Olympics on time in 2020.


19th July 

East London inferno

Wanstead Flats is one of east London's best kept secrets. It's not a high-rise apartment block as some outsiders imagine, but a large area of open common land on the edge of Epping Forest, beloved by dog-walkers, footballers and naturalists alike. It doesn't attract the visitors that better known open spaces in London, such as Wimbledon Common, attract but in my opinion it has just as much to offer. More in some ways, because there are no crowds to contend with and you can find remote spots to be alone, with just distant views of the skyscrapers of Canary Wharf or Stratford to remind you that you are in London.

This week disaster struck Wanstead Flats when it caught alight and the tinder-dry grassland and shrubs went up like a box of matches. It was described by the London fire brigade as the worst ever grass fire in London. 220 firefighters were called to fight the blaze, similar to the number that fought the Grenfell Tower blaze last year. Fortunately, that's where the comparison ends because there were no fatalities  or even casualties from the inferno. Despite fears that neighbours may be evacuated, no one had to leave their homes, although residents had to battle fires that broke out in their front gardens as flames leapt across the road from the main fire.

The fire destroyed about 100 hectares of vegetation but, looking at the birds-eye view from a helicopter, less than 10% of the total areas of Wanstead Flats was affected. That was bad enough. Part of the area that burned was heathland, designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest and home to a variety of rare insects and birds, including skylark. Indeed, Wanstead Flats is the only area within the M25 with a colony of breeding skylarks. Hopefully, the vegetation and wildlife will make a comeback with the arrival of rain in autumn.

It was only four months ago in March that I reported on the severe winter conditions that we were suffering. On my wall I keep a weather tree to track the conditions day by day. This year, so far, we have had five sub-zero days and seven with temperatures over 30 degrees, and more forecast. That makes 2018 a pretty remarkable year for weather. Obivously, we can't read too much into one hot summer, but I was around in 1976, the other record-breaking summer and I can't remember there being such an extended hot, dry period as the one we are experiencing now. Global warming on its way? Wanstead Flats 2018 could be a portent of years to come.


23rd June 

Homeless in Stratford

This week the Daily Mail highlighted the plight of homeless people in the Stratford Centre, the old shopping mall in the shadow of Westfield, Stratford City. The story was taken up by the BBC, but for anyone who lives in Stratford and who walks through the centre late at night or early in the morning, it was hardly news. Fifty or more homeless people sleep there every night, more than the entire rough sleeping populations of cities like Nottingham, Portsmouth and Liverpool. Many of the sleepers are Londoners, but there are also regulars from Romania, Albania, India, Pakistan and Africa (a continent, rather than a country!).

Stratford is probably the only shopping mall in the country to provide a soup kitchen for the homeless. Every Wednesday night, when the shops close, volunteers set up trestle tables to serve food. After the meal, many of the customers settle down for the night in the doorways of the shops, some in sleeping bags, others without, some huddled in groups, others alone. Early in the morning they are roused by noise of cleaning machines, washing and polishing the floors, and disperse among the early morning commuters.

People sleeping in the centre are there for the usual reasons - drug addiction, alcoholism, mental health problems. The mortality rate among the Stratford homeless community is worryingly high. In the past month, four regulars have died from a variety of chronic health conditions. They ranged in age from their 20s to 50s. One evening in April a young Romanian man was murdered in the shopping centre. The centre was closed for two days while the police carried out their investigations.

So, why does the Stratford Centre allow its malls to be used as a homeless hostel while Westfield, only a few hundred metres away, would never dream of entertaining dossers? The answer lies in their ownership. While Westfield is the largest privatised space anywhere in the UK, and can decide who is allowed in and for what purpose, the Stratford Centre is unusual as a shopping centre in that it is also a public right of way. This dates back to the 1970s when the centre was built on the site of the old Angel Lane market. The mall more or less follows the same route and even the old market stalls are now pitched inside.

Newham Council have been complicit in the arrangement, allowing homeless people to sleep in the comparative comfort of an indoor centre because it means they do not have to housed elsewhere. The recent negative publicity from the Mail and BBC may force them to think again. Newham's new mayor said they would be opening a new hostel for 20 homeless people, though this will not even go halfway to solving the problem. And, with the recent publicity, you might reasonably expect more homeless people to arrive to take advantage of the unlikely hospitality of a shopping mall.


23rd April

Stephen Lawrence Day

Yesterday, marked the 25th anniversary of the racist murder of Stephen Lawrence in 1993. It was announced that 22nd April, the day of the murder, will from now be known as Stephen Lawrence Day. The event has become etched on our national conscience, as we come to terms with the fact that our society could harbour such evil in our midst and that our police so miserably failed to investigate the murder at the time. The particular resonance for me was that my parents moved to Eltham (where the murder happened) in the year I went to college and south-east London became my adopted home for a while. This was before the murder but, nonetheless, I never really took to Eltham as a place. I could never quite put my finger on it. I guess, as a white person, I was fairly oblivious to any racism or the fact that, had I been black, I would have been in a small minority. In 1993, just 6% of Eltham's population were black, compared to 23% of London as a whole.

Just a week ago there was another murder, around the corner from where I live now, here in Forest Gate. Another black teenager, Sami Sidham, was murdered outside his home, stabbed in the back by a gang as he came home from watching a West Ham match. There are some uncanny parallels with Stephen Lawrence. He was 18 and an undergraduate law student at Queen Mary College, University of London. He had no known connection with gangs and the murder seems to have been totally unprovoked. No one has yet been charged, but there is no reason to suspect that the murder was racially motivated. Indeed, in the climate of black on black murders in London this year, that might be less likely. Perhaps, the other parallel with 1993 is that so many murders of black teenagers are happening without there being national outrage or the requisite deployment of police resources to solve the problem. Neville Lawrence, when asked yesterday about the epidemic of black teenage murders recently, commented that this was a modern challenge for the Met Police, equivalent to the racist violence of the 1990s.

Sami is one of 55 people who have died on the streets of London this year, most the victims of a knife attack. There seems no end in sight to the problem and I have no more idea than anyone else about the cause, nor what should be the solution. I do suspect that social media plays a part in the problem with the rapid spread of messages or rumours on the street. As for the solution, effective implementation of the law is the obvious answer. But, that is less likely to happen while the proportion of black and ethnic minority police officers does not reflect the population of London as a whole. Most black people still do not think of the police as a career option because of perceived racism going back many years. It might be 25 years since Stephen Lawrence was murdered, but the legacy of 1993 still casts a shadow today.


22nd March

East meets Westfield

This week the new £600 million expansion at Westfield London in Shepherds Bush opened with a great fanfare. Ten years since the original shopping complex opened in west London, it adds another 740,000 square feet of shop floor space, bringing the total area of the site to 2.6 million square feet. This makes it the largest shopping centre in Europe, overtaking Aviapark in Moscow which, in turn, overtook Westfield Stratford a couple of years ago. Once more, east London is left feeling a bit inferior to its west London neighbours.

However, the story doesn't end there. I've heard rumours that Westfield Stratford too is set for expansion. In a recent blog (4th February), I outlined plans for a new concert hall, adjacent to the shopping centre that will be part of the Westfield site. However, the shopping centre may also be expanded. Although the site is constrained by the adjacent railway and Olympic Park, I understand that the car parking space at Westfield is underutilised (this is reassuring because it suggests more shoppers are coming by public transport) and that this space will be converted into more shops. The rivalry between Westfield London and Westfield Stratford to be Europe's premier shopping centre looks set to continue.

All of this begs the question, how many mega-shopping centres can we cope with? This Christmas saw a 3.5% reduction in high street spending on the previous year. Over the longer term, there has been a reduction in the proportion of our spending on traditional high streets from 49% in 2000 to 38% last year. The majority of our spending is now done away from the high street in large shopping malls or online. This is serious for established high street stores that are struggling to stay in business. BHS disappeared last year and other high street names, like Mothercare, are believed to be under threat.

But, there is much more to high streets than the big brand names. After all, many of these brands can be found in shopping malls too. Unlike the Westfields of this world, high streets are public spaces (Westfield Stratford became the largest privatised space in the UK when it was built). They are where people meet each other and are often the glue that hold together communities. Small independent shops as well as other communities services, such as libraries, are found there too. They often reflect the pride, or the lack of it, that a community has for itself. So, as a resident of a comunity in east London where the local high street is struggling, all I can say to Westfield is, a plague on both your shopping centres!


2nd March

2026 Winter Olympics to be held in London!

Yes, it's a spoof heading - just to make it clear before the rumour goes viral. However, sitting at my window, looking out at the wintry scene in east London today, it seems quite believable.

No sooner had the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang come to an end last weekend than the temperatures in London fell and we became immersed in our own winter. There have been delightful scenes in the capital with the Olympic Park clad in snow, canals frozen over with ice and even Olympic snowboarders trying their luck on Primrose Hill (they didn't have much luck in South Korea). All of which left me dreaming of what would happen if the next Winter Olympics-but-one came to London.

Well, we already have a ready-made Olympic Park. Granted that it was devised for a summer Olympics but, with a little bit of imagination and ingenuity, it could be converted for a Winter Games. Many wise people in 2012 said that the Games were so successful we really ought to hold them here again. Why not in winter? The stadium is still here and, very conveniently, now has a roof on it to keep snow off the spectators. The Olympic torch could come via the River Lea, as it did in 2012, but this time with David Beckham arriving on skates rather than by speedboat. We don't have any mountains as such in east London, but there were plans to turn the Media Centre in the Olympic Park into an indoor ski slope. Those plans could be dug out again. And, in case you are wondering about the bobsleigh, the Orbit tower now has its own slide, which doesn't seem to have many customers at this time of year. A winter Olympics could give it a new lease of life!

Unfortunately, I was woken from my dream by cruel reality. Even before the worst weather arrived, we were greeted by ominous newspaper headlines, "Trains grind to a halt as snow is forecast". Services were cancelled in anticipation of ice on the tracks (as it turned out the snow was 24 hours late and the trains stopped for nothing). When, eventually, the snow arrived, The Beast from the East was closely followed by hysteria (from Siberia?). The media were guilty of hyping the whole event out of all proportion. TV news reporters stood, clad in skiwear, on a remote stretch of motorway at the dead of night (who would do that?), as lorries slid out of control on the ice. As a result, now we are scared to venture out of the front door. Schools around London have virtually all closed in case children were to slip on the pavement on the way there. Life as we know it in the capital has ground to a halt.

No, perhaps holding the Winter Olympics in London is not such a good idea - even if global warming does allow us to have snow here in 2026.


4th February

Pie in the sky?

Not quite a pie, but it is certainly large and round, and it is in the sky. I'm talking about the proposed 130-metre tall, spherical concert hall that could rise higher than St Paul's Cathedral, being planned for an empty site, near the Olympic Park in Stratford. It's not as if we are short of iconic buildings in this part of the world, you understand. We already boast the Aquatic Centre - aka, the Stingray - and the Velodrome - aka, the Pringle - not to mention Westfield, the largest urban shopping centre in Europe, though that is hardly 'iconic'. 

The new concert hall, dubbed the Golf Ball, would be just one more extraordinary building to adorn east London, an area that until a few years ago boasted a few scrapyards, two industrial estates and a fridge mountain. Were it not for the fact that I have had to suspend disbelief so many times in recent years (I didn't believe we would win the Olympic bid and I didn't think anyone would come shopping in Westfield), then I might think the latest proposal was just pie in the sky. But, we've been here before and I actually think this might happen.

The venue is designed to hold 20,000 people and would rival the O2 arena as London's largest indoor venue. It's capacity would be four times that of the Royal Albert Hall, itself once a visionary design for a concert venue in west London. It will be 20 metres taller than St Paul's Cathedral and double the height of the nearby Olympic Stadium, designed by the same architect. Seating in the arena would be arranged in a 360-degree bowl within the globe-shaped venue. It would be supported on a tripod of pylons that would allow pedestrians to pass underneath it.

The site on which the venue will be built is, apparently, owned by Westfield and sits on the other side of the railway tracks from the shopping centre itself. Considering the location and land values around here, it is a surprisingly large site. The local planning authority, the London Legacy Development Corporation describes it as a site for 'large-scale town centre use with supporting elements'. Something of an understatement for what is envisaged, I would say.


9th January 2018

Leaving London

According to figures published last week, more people are leaving London than at any time during the past decade. In the year up to mid-2016, 292,000 people left the capital - that's more than the population of Sunderland which, coincidentally, is the only city in the UK where population is actually declining. So, is the population of the capital also dwindling? Not at all - it is increasing at it's fastest rate in a century and is now about 8.8 million people, the highest number that have ever lived here. The people who leave are being replaced, more than adequately, by migrants from other parts of the UK or abroad. Furthermore, many of these newcomers are young, giving London a younger population profile than other parts of the UK.

Most of the people leaving London are being driven from the capital by soaring house prices or by financially squeezed councils sending homeless families out of the capital, in some cases hundreds of miles away because they cannot afford to buy housing stock in London. The most popular destinations for people moving from the capital were Birmingham and Brighton, but large numbers of people also moved to Bristol and Manchester. Meanwhile, the traditional drift from London into the Home Counties continues, with many moving to growing towns in Essex, Kent and Hertfordshire.

A significant proportion of the number leaving are people who graduated from university in the 1990s, moved to London and bought homes when they were cheap and are now leaving in their 40s with their children and a large amount of equity behind them. They are not always welcomed by locals in the places they move to, as house prices rise when property-rich arrivals outbid each other to move in. One example is the town of Lewes in Sussex, to which 740 Londoners moved last year. Understandably, such migration fuels resentment in other parts of the country towards both London and the new incomers, branded "DFLs" or "down from London".

But, that is just one side of the story. Another side of the story, which has particular resonance for our family, with three children now in their twenties, is the impact which the explosion of the housing market has on young Londoners. Despite my best efforts to persuade them that, really, they would stand a much better chance of buying a home outside the capital, none of my brood shows any inclination to leave London. Why should they? This is where they were brought up, made their friends and now earn a living. There is little to attract them out of London to a life of long-distance commuting. So, it looks like our house is going to be crowded for some time to come. Not everyone is leaving London. Far from it.


18th December

Blame game

Who's to blame for the funding debacle at the London Stadium, formerly the Olympic Stadium? We'll probably never know, but leading politicians have been busy passing the buck between one another since it was announced last week that Newham Council will never recoup the £52 million of ratepayer's money that they put into the project. Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, has blamed former mayor, Boris Johnson, claiming that he bungled the post-Olympic conversion of the stadium into a multi-purpose venue. Boris, in turn, blames the previous mayor, Ken Livingstone,  who was in charge when the original Olympic bid was made and the decision taken to create a temporary stadium that would convert into an athetics arena after the Games. 

The blame game is being played, not just by London mayors but also, by local politicians. Sir Robin Wales, the elected mayor of Newham, also blames Boris, regretting that the borough will not get its money back. But, local councillor, Conor McAuley, says it outrageous that Sir Robin should blame Boris since he was also part of the deal that saw Newham agree to help the funding of the stadium conversion in return for some of the profit. It is now clear that there will be no profit. Indeed, the stadium is running at loss with matchday costs at the stadium of £220,000 set against the £2.5 million paid by West Ham each season. It could get even worse if West Ham were relegated this season and their rent is halved.

It's a shame that politicians can't talk to, or about, each other more sensibly because, while mistakes were clearly made, my interpretation is that they were made for understandable reasons. Going back to the original plans in 2005, the stadium was designed at a time when the empty Millenium Dome (now the O2 Arena) was an embarrassment to the government, having cost £3/4 billion. Rather than repeat the mistake, they decided to build a temporary stadium that could be dismantled after the Games and re-erected elsewhere, leaving the running track inside a much smaller arena. This plan had the added merit that it would help to make London 'the greenest games ever', by using less steel and concrete than any previous Olympic stadium and even making use of old, recycled, gas pipes in its construction.

The fortunes of the Millenium Dome changed and it became successful as the O2 Arena. So, plans for the stadium changed too as Boris decided that it might have a future after all. A tenant was sought that would fit the plans for a multi-purpose stadium that could be used through the winter as well as being an athletics arena again in the summer. West Ham put forward the successful bid, with the support and financial backing of Newham Council. We are left where we are today, with Newham residents, already some of the poorest in London, £52 million poorer.


10th November

Bad news, good news

The bad news this week was that Newham, the borough in which most of the Olympic Park is located, is the most indebted part of the UK. This despite all the regeneration benefits that the 2012 Olympics were supposed to bring. Almost one in four people in Newham - approximately 60,000 people - have debt problems. This is symptomatic of the growing problems of debt across the country, as borrowing increases at five times the rate of the growth in earnings. Debt in the UK is now at the highest levels since before the financial crisis ten years ago.

The traditional explanation of the problem in Newham is the closure of the docks in the 1970s followed by the steady decline in manufacturing industry, leading to high unemployment from which the area has never really recovered. But, I'm not sure this can fully explain today's problem. There have been a huge changes in Newham in the past twenty years, with the loss of the white working class (who worked in the docks and factories) to be replaced by black and ethnic minority groups that now make up 70% of the population. Most people are now in work. The employment rate in the borough has increased from 52% ten years ago to 69% today - still below the London average, but higher than it's ever been.

So, what is driving debt? The obvious cause is the cost of housing and rapidly growing rents. About half of Newham's residents rent privately. The median monthly rent for a one-bedroom flat is £1,200, up from £800 in 2011. This takes a large chunk out of households' monthly income and, assuming they earn enough to pay the rent, it leaves people unable to pay their bills or buy essentials, like food. Food banks fill some of the gap but a large number of people in Newham resort to payday lenders, pawnbrokers and bookmakers, all commonly found on the local high street.

Another culprit for debt might be Newham's brash new kid on the block - Westfield shopping centre - a luxury shopping experience, incongruously located in one of London's poorest areas. Aimed to attract customers from a much wider catchment area, inevitably it also attracts local residents. Some of them must be tempted to part with money that is beyond their means. Aspers Casino, one of the largest in the UK, is also located there. I don't know of any research on this, but people over-reaching their income buying consumer goods could also be a factor in Newham's debt problem.

Newham Council have responded to debt by opening their own debt advice centre - Moneyworks - in Stratford Shopping Centre, opposite Westfield. Here, as well as advice, local people can obtain loans to pay off debts, underwritten by the Council in partnership with the London Community Credit Union. It is an attempt to break people's dependence on payday lenders and loan sharks. Judging by some of the individual stories from Moneyworks clients, it seems to be working. That was the good news this week! 


10th October

The inner city is good for you

A study by the universities of Oxford and Hong Kong, published last week, revealed something that I have suspected for a while - that people living in inner cities are happier and healthier than people living the good life in the suburbs or the countryside. This runs counter to the story geographers have been teaching for decades, that inner cities have the most deprived neighbourhoods with a poorer quality of life. These changes are reflected in the new GCSE and A-Level specs we are teaching, where the old urban models have been replaced by new takes on urban geography, including the opportunities and challenges of urban living.

Of course, nowhere is the city changing faster than here in east London. Older, poorer people are moving out, to be replaced by young professionals. In the past this process of gentrification used to happen in small pockets of the city - areas like Islington and Notting Hill. Now, whole swathes of London are undergoing what has been termed, 'state-led gentrification'. Greasy spoon cafes are being replaced by healthy, vegetarian alternatives to the point where it is now the greasy spoons that are the alternatives. No wonder people are living happier and healthier lives!

But, it is not just the recent changes that make inner cities happier and healthier places to live. There are aspects of urban living that are intrinsically better for you. For a start, living in cities, you are likely to walk more. We walk to work, to the station or to the shops, not least because there is nowhere to park the car and, if you try, you are more than likely to be towed away. Whereas, in the suburbs or the country, most of these places are more than a convenient walk away and driving is the only way to get there. There is also the truism that cities offer more to do, in the way of entertainment, sport and leisure - the sort of things that keep you healthy and happy. Recent figures suggest that we now spend more of our money on such things than we do on consumer goods, and this also keeps us more active.

I would also argue - though I think this was beyond the scope of the study - that urban living offers more cultural and ethnic diversity and this too can lead to healthier, happier lives. We broaden our outlook, learning new ideas and, hopefully, better habits from our neighbours. For example, the demise of the aforementioned greasy spoon cafes, on which I was brought up, has been hastened by the appearance of an array of enticing new cuisine from around the world. The alternative to broadening our outlook is that we turn our backs on the changing city by moving out and become angry or resentful about what we have lost. And that can't be good for anyone's health or happiness.


18th September

Making it real

One of the themes in the new A-Levels is 'place-making' and in east London we can see places being made before our very eyes. One example, though perhaps not a very typical one, would be Queen Elizabeth II Olympic Park. According to the London Legacy Development Corporation, who own and manage the site, the aim is to 'create a new piece of city'. But, according to many of the students who visit, it feels like a rather sterile environment, quite different to many of the vibrant, older neighbourhoods that surround it.

 Anyone visiting the Olympic Park this week might not describe it as sterile - quite the opposite in fact! Since August, a group of travellers have been occupying one of the sites earmarked for development in the park. They were evicted last week after the LLDC obtained a High Court order. They left behind mountains of rubbish, apparently rubbish that people had paid them to take away and dumped beside their own caravans on the occupied land. The company that have an agreement with the LLDC to develop the site into housing will be left to clear up the mess. Fortunately, the eyesore is not immediately obvious to anyone visiting the park since it is hidden behind one of the large green fences that surround sites for future development.

The incident highlights just how the environment in and around the park is controlled and managed in a way that other parts of east London are not. Travellers co-exist with other residents on pockets of unused land in many places. Indeed, one travellers' site was within the area designated to become the Olympic Park back in 2007. Like their neighbouring residents in Clays Lane they were cleared from the site to make way for the construction. I don't know if this is the same group of travellers but, it could be argued, they just came back to what was theirs. Whoever they were, they were not welcome.

The contrast between the engineered place-making of the LLDC and the dynamic, piecemeal place-making that characterises the rest of east London is exemplied by the way in which Hackney Wick, to the west of the park, has gradually transformed from an old manufacturing neighbourhood into the artists' hub that it is today. Walls are smothered by art/graffiti, old buildings get demolished to be replaced by new ones, travellers (as well as everyone else) comes and goes and, yes, there is plenty of rubbish. But, the place feels lived in - it feels real. Students are fascinated by the area. So, is place-making something that best happens naturally or does it have to be engineered? A question for A-Level students to consider.


11th August

A walk in the park

Five years after London 2012, the Olympic Park in Stratford once again finds itself at the centre of attention, hosting the 2017 World Athletics Championships. Except, it is no longer just 'the Olympic Park', but is now known as the Queen Elizabeth II Olympic Park. So, apart from the name, what has changed in those five years? Any of you who follow this (admittedly occasional) blog, will know that the park is not static. Apart from the stadium, the Aquatic Centre and Velodrome are also well used by the public, and at reasonable cost. The green spaces in the park are well-maintained and are maturing with time. Only the proposed five new residential communities around the periphery of the park remain unbuilt, leaving rather ugly gaps in an otherwise pleasant landscape.

I have been reading a fairly new book about public parks by Travis Elborough called 'A walk in the park'. In it he charts the history of parks in the UK from their early origins as aristocratic hunting grounds to what they have become today. He points out that, in these times of austerity, public parks are under threat, either from neglect or from creeping privatisation, where the transfer of public land to private ownership results in people having to pay for the privilege of using parks. He mentions the example of Battersea Park where an old adventure playground was turned over to a private company who charge children between £18 and £33 for climbing sessions on the improved facilities.

The QE2 Olympic Park is the largest new park to be created in London for over a century. As a nation we have got out of the habit of creating new parks in cities that, at the end of the 19th century, were much in vogue as a means of improving the health and well-being of a rapidly growing urban population. Fast forward to the early 21st century and we are in danger of losing those hard fought for gains. The QE2 Olympic Park could become a model for the next generation of parks or, as Eldborough fears, it might become a new preserve of the rich in the way that the first aristocratic hunting grounds once were.

Certainly, a £15 charge for the thrill of sliding down the new helter skelter at the Orbit in the park does not auger well for the future. However, the park remains open for the public to freely enjoy the new, improved environment of the Lea Valley and, if they so choose, they can take the opportunity to improve their health and fitness by walking, running or cycling in the park. The fact that many east Londoners don't choose to take the opportunity can hardly be blamed on the London Legacy Development Corporation who manage the park. I remain more optimistic about the future of the QE2 Olympic Park, if not parks in general, than Travis Eldborough seems to be.


21st June

Quality of life.... and death

There can surely be nothing left to say after the tragedy that befell Grenfell Tower last week, leaving 79 people dead. However, it has left me to reflect on what we glibly call 'quality of life' in geography. There can be no more basic aspect of quality of life than the right to stay alive! People living in Grenfell Tower probably accepted they did not share all the trappings of the good life enjoyed by their wealthy neighbours in Kenisington, but they should have at least expected to be safe. Except that not all of them did feel safe. Warnings given on a residents' blog uncannily foretold the disaster.

The Edexcel Geography GCSE B spec require students to investigate 'How and why quality of life varies within urban areas'. Normally, we consider such factors as environmental quality, access to services, crime risk and housing quality. Never have we thought to consider whether the buildings are actually safe to live in. Indeed, had we investigated Grenfell Tower before the disaster, we might have concluded that the environmental and housing quality were good, given the facelift the building had recently undergone with new cladding.

Some suggest the cladding was for cosmetic reasons, to please the rich neighbours in Kensington who could see the building from their windows. I hope they are wrong, but fear they might be right. Others, including some of the tabloid press, say the cladding was to insulate the building. No doubt a case of environmentalism gone mad or excessive European red tape! Whatever the reason, the decision to clad the building in the cheapest, flammable material is utterly inexcusable. It must have been someone's decision, but almost certainly not the people living there.

Which brings us back to the second part of Edexcel's question - why does quality of life vary?' It has everything to do with wealth and power. People living in Grenfell Tower included recently arrived migrants, families on low income, refugees. They probably had little say in where they were housed, let alone how the building was clad. It's the same for other council estates all over London. On the Carpenters Estate in Newham, within a stone's throw of the Olympic Park, three tower blocks, earmarked for demolition for the past 15 years, are still used as emergency accommodation for those with no better options. When we investigate quality of life there, we rarely ask why people are still forced to live in blocks deemed unfit for human habitation. Perhaps, we should.


5th June

Terror talks louder

They say actions speak louder than words. In the wake of recent terrorist attacks in London and Manchester we've heard plenty of fine words to the effect of "not to give in to terror" or "getting on with our normal lives". But, the reality is different. Already, there's evidence that people are changing their behaviour in the light of the terrorist threat. Particularly when it comes to their children's lives. Which is totally understandable. After all, it's hardly possible to offer the level of protection to every gathering of young people that we saw at the Ariana Grande Manchester benefit concert at Old Trafford last night.

We have experienced the reality in east London this week with the cancellation of two school fieldwork visits. I fully expect there to be more. And, who can blame schools, or parents, for wanting to avoid the worst happening? However, from previous experience, once the media coverage of the latest terrorist outrage dies down, people quickly forget. One school postponed their visit after the Paris atrocity in 2015, only to resurrect the trip a few months later. Surely, to be consistent, school outings should be banned altogether because no time is a safe time to be out in a city? Or, is that to give in to terrorism?

Perhaps we need to be smarter, organising urban fieldwork. Far be it from me to second guess the twisted mind of a terrorist, but it seems to me that crowded places are an obvious target. That may need to be recognised in our risk assessments in future. As far as east London goes, Westfield Shopping Centre might not be the smartest place to hang out. On the other hand, Westfield doesn't allow school groups to carry out questionnaires there anyway, so it's been of limited fieldwork value. Perhaps, Westfield needs to review its own security policy and realise that inquisitive students may be the least of the potential threats to shoppers!

The usual advice given in risk assessments, in the event of danger to stay close to the group, may not work either. One bit of advice I've been given, if a terrorist incident happens, is for the group to 'split and run in all directions'. Only after ten minutes should they think about making contact with the group leader, and specifically not to call home (for fear of creating panic). That chimes with the latest police advice of, 'run, hide and tell'. It's a sad indictment of our times that we are having to think about these things at all. But, not to do so would be negligent or naive. It's either that, or we all decide to stay at home.


9th May

Something in the air

A lecture at the Royal Geographical Society last night underlined the importance of the headlines we have been seeing recently about air pollution in London. The speaker, Frank Kelly, Professor of Environmental Health at King's College is an advisor to the government on air quality. He took a historical view of air quality in London, talking about the success achieved by the 1956 Clean Air Act. Over 60 years it has reduced the amount of smoke in the atmosphere to almost insignificant levels and eradicated the smogs that once caused thousands of deaths in London.

He likened the current pollution crisis, caused by particulates and nitrogen dioxide from diesel emissions, to the smogs of the 20th century. In the same way that determined action, backed by legislation, eradicated smogs so he believed we could reduce current pollution levels that are estimated to be the cause of 9,000 premature deaths in London every year. A shame then that, due to the impending general election, the government has put on hold their plans to introduce legislation on air quality and had to be taken to the high court last week to be held responsible.

Professor Kelly made invidiuous comparisons between the inaction of former mayor, Boris Johnson, and the new incumbant, Sadiq Khan, who has made air quality in London one of his main priorities. As someone who himself suffers from asthma, he seems to realise the huge importance of air quality, particularly for vulnerable groups such a children, the elderly and those who make frequent use of the roads.

Concern about air quality may also go some way to explaining the controversy that has arisen close to the Olympic Park about the decision to locate a cement factory there, despite objections from residents (see blog on 5th January). With building in east London continuing apace, not least the five new residential neighbourhoods in the park itself, there is huge demand for cement. Rather than transport it around London in lorries, powered by polluting diesel engines, there must be an argument for producing the cement closer to where it will be used.

It would make an interesting decision-making task for students - whether to locate a cement factory in the heart of east London, against residents' wishes, or to transport the cement longer distances by road, adding to pollution levels in London's already toxic air.


16th March

Hackney Hipsters

There is a new group of people moving into east London who, unlike previous incomers such as Bangladeshis or Eastern Europeans, are not immigrants to the UK. However, nor are they indigenous to east London, or I assume not. I'm talking about the hipsters who are colonising areas of east London like Hackney and Shoreditch. Interestingly, they are not found all over east London but only in pockets of what might be called the more 'edgy' areas. You don't find so many hipsters in Stratford or Canning Town, for example.

So, who or what are hipsters? Are they just the most recent incarnation of a phenomenon that has been seen in London over the past fifty years or so - namely, gentrification? Or, is there something distinctive about hipsters? They can be identified by their physical appearance - beards in the case of blokes, but also vintage clothing, ill-fitting tousers, checked shirts and dodgy or no socks. They might also be seen riding single-gear bikes or hanging out in trendy new cafes with internet connections. It's got to the point where some geographers have coined a new term - hipsterfication!

Thinking about Hackney, it is an area of former manufacturing, where workshops and factories developed along canals, railways and roads during the 19th century. In recent years the area has suffered from the same decline that has afflicted other former industrial areas, with employment in manufacturing falling from 32% of jobs in 1971 to just 5% in 2011. However, over the past ten years a new sector of London's economy has been growing - the so-called 'creative sector' that includes designers, artists and digital technology specialists.

Old warehouses and factories offer cheap rents and vacant spaces that suit the needs of these new, creative workers. They are also attracted by the diversity, edginess and shabbiness of areas that might deter more conventional middle-class types from venturing in. Often they are younger people from the suburbs of London and other parts of the UK, who want some of the excitment and vibe of the inner city. They have become part of the change and, indeed, as house prices in Hackney go through the roof, local people and businesses are being priced out of the area.

I often wonder how young people can afford the, by now, astronomical rents and house prices in east London. No doubt, some jobs in the creative sector are well-paid. But, being more cynical, I imagine that many hipsters are having their new lifestyle funded by wealthy parents sitting on valuable suburban real estate, paying their offspring's rent or investing in another property in the city. If so, 'hipsterfication' is no more or less than a new form of gentrification.


5th January 2017

Concrete plans for Olympic Park

For years, I've been telling students on field trips to the Olympic Park that the days of heavy industry in east London have long gone. It turns out that I was wrong. There are plans for four giant cement and concrete factories to be built within the Park. 11,000 people in east London have signed a petition against the proposal, which goes back to the planning committee of the London Legacy Development Corporation later this month.

Under the proposal, there would be more than 900 movements of heavy goods vehicles a day to and from the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, not to mention the threat of air pollution from the factories themselves, built near to schools, homes and sports venues. At a time when there are growing concerns about air quality in London, the proposal seems to run contrary to any common sense, let alone the promises of the Olympic legacy to improve the environment in the Lower Lea Valley.

The site chosen for the factories was the area for the warm-up track during the 2012 Games, but this was only ever a temporary facility. The land is owned by Network Rail and leased to the German logistics company, DB Schenker, as an operational rail freight facility. Until 2012, this is where most of the construction material for the Olympic Park arrived. The land is classified as industrial and, according to the LLDC, the post-Olympic transformation plan required the site to be returned its original use after the Games.

However, east London is changing and, whilst the land once lay at the heart of a larger industrial area (the old Bryant and May factory is close by), much of the land use in the surrounding area is now residential. As part of the post-Olympic plan, a new residential neighbourhood is due to be built on the northern edge of the factory complex (and work on the primary school for the neighbourhood has already begun).

It is hard to imagine, even at this late stage, that LLDC won't have a change of heart and squash the plans. But, 2016 was a year of strange decisions. Brexit and Trump spring to mind. Will 2017 continue in the same way, with four concrete factories in the midst of Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, as a legacy of what were to be 'the greenest Games ever'?