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2nd May

Re-imagining London

A few short months ago there was still a heated debate about the need for a new third runway at Heathrow Airport. Environmentalists were arguing that to allow a third runway to go ahead would be a complete contradiction of the government's stated aim to reduce our carbon emissions. That was before Covid-19. I can't imagine anyone seriously suggesting we need a third runway now. I'm not sure we'll need even one runway! A pandemic seems to have achieved in weeks what campaigners have failed to achieve in years. Right now, I'm enjoying the birdsong in London in a way that was always hard to appreciate with planes flying overhead - and I live in east London, miles from Heathrow to the west. Passenger flights have ground to a halt with little prospect of returning to pre-Covid levels for years.

That is just one aspect of London life that seems certain to change when we come out of the pandemic. Another one will be shopping. During the lockdown high streets around the country have been ghostly quiet. But, probably nowhere has become quieter than Westfield in Stratford. Full of shops which sell things that none of us truly need, no one goes there anymore. The only justification for keeping the doors open (and thus allowing curious observers like me to see how quiet it has become) seems to be one branch of Waitrose, selling food. Even the banks have closed and suggest customers go to find another branch in the high street. I think it might take a long time to entice people back to indoor shopping malls, a haven for viruses with their enclosed air recycling systems. Think cruise liners without the outdoor decks.

Another change, might be the headlong reach for the sky with all the construction projects in the City of London and Canary Wharf. Now that we've proved that office workers can just as effectively work from home, who needs offices? So, why build more? Even the office blocks we've already built might be surplus to requirements. I can't see half a million people (the number working in the finance industry) rushing back to work soon. Not least among their concerns will be sharing a confined space on London transport with millions of others. Social distancing is impossible. And that's before they even get to the office. It's just a thought, but looking ahead, why not turn over thousands of square feet of redundant office space to housing? That might be an unforeseen solution to the housing shortage problem in London.

But, some things never change. The virus has highlighted existing inequalities in London. Figures released yesterday showed that death rates around London from Covid-19 are worse in the poorest boroughs. Brent, a poor borough with a large black, working-class population, has a death rate three times higher than Kingston, one of the wealthier boroughs with a predominantly white, middle class popuation. So, while the London which emerges from this crisis may differ in many ways from the London we knew it is hard to imagine that it is going to be a more equal city. Far from it.


1st April

No April Fool

When someone told me today that a huge temporary mortuary was being built half a mile from here on Wanstead Flats (our local open space) I thought for a moment that it was an April Fool joke made in bad taste. But, such are the times we are living in that nothing is off limits and, yes, they really are building a mortuary. I don't know how much space a mortuary would normally occupy, but this one is two or three hectares in size, based on the area they have fenced off. It brings the crisis very close to home in quite a morbid way. Which people who I know could end up there? Could I be one of them?

On a slightly (but only slightly) more cheerful note, they are quite close to admitting the first patients at the new 4,000-bed Nightingale Hospital at Royal Victoria Dock here in east London. It is only just over a week ago that they made the announcement and began work on converting the Excel Exhibition Centre into what will become the world's largest hospital. Similar hospitals are being created in Birmingham, Manchester, Glasgow, Belfast and Cardiff, all to deal with the expected rise in the number of Covid-19 victims over the next few weeks. 

This takes me back to happier times when Excel was used as one of the venues for the 2012 Olympics. Before the Games we used to take students on a tour of east London to explore some of the proposed venues and to choose which would be the most suitable sport for each venue. Excel was chosen for combat sports partly because of its huge interior dimensions (over one kilometre in length) that enabled it to be conveniently partitioned into separate arenas where boxing, wrestling, judo and the rest, could all take place. In a similar way, to create the hospital, they have partitioned it into separate wards with individual cubicles for each bed. While I think of it, Wanstead Flats was also used to create a temporary building during the Games. In that case it was for a police base for all the extra police who were redeployed in London in 2012.

So, in extremis, east London seems to be the go to place where authorities use to find extra space in the capital. There maybe not be many other similiarities between the joy of 2012 and the fear of 2020, but that might be one. Let's hope it's a long time before east London needs to take centre stage again.


21st March

Covid-19 and other crises

Who ever thought it would come to this? Schools closed, restaurants, bars, cinemas and theatres in London shut down, the economy in freefall, over 200 deaths in the UK (a third of them in London) and counting. Thinking back just a couple of months, when news of the virus began to come out of China, the crisis seemed so far away and unlikely to happen here. I, for one, was so complacent or naive that it didn't even cross my mind that it could happen here. I was forgetting about the all-pervasive impact of globalisation and, although I wasn't around to witness it, the world has experienced a pandemic before. Spanish flu in 1918 killed over a million people worldwide, even without the aid of international flights, global business and luxury cruises.

Needless to say, all school visits to east London next half-term have been cancelled or postponed. No one is seriously thinking of organising anything before September. Although I'm not given to prophesy and I don't like making predictions, I imagine that by this time next year all of this will be a bad memory. Yes, sadly, there will be families left bereaved, children with a term-sized gap in their education and some well-known high street brands  who will no longer be with us. However, I'd like to think a few lessons will have been learned about how we organise our lives, not least the need for more investment in our National Health Service.

There are other crises that in the longer term will prove to be greater than the virus pandemic. We've already had a test-run this year with the fires in Australia and floods in the UK. The threat posed by the climate crisis to our children and grandchildren is much greater than Covid-19 (and not just because young people seem much more resistant to the virus). It won't be possible to self-isolate from global heating and social distancing just won't have any effect on floods or droughts. And, I've heard, it's not impossible that the two crises - climate and Covid-19 - are connected by our destruction of the natural world. Burning rainforest, for example, not only adds to global carbon emissions, it also is decimating the wildlife that live there. Those animals harbour viruses that, deprived of their natural host, are looking for new ones. They may have found us!


11th February 

Smile - you're on camera!

I made a point of not going to Stratford today. It was the first day of the Metropolitan Police using Live Facial Recognition (LFR) in London. They chose Stratford as their location and I didn't want to be on camera. It's not that I have anything to hide you understand. It's just that I disapprove of all Londoners (or should that be east Londoners?) being taken for criminals. It feels like a slippery slope from this to Big Brother knowing what each of us is doing anywhere, any moment of the day.

The argument goes that LFR can help police identify wanted criminals by matching live pictures with digital images. After a camera is installed at specific locations, it starts capturing images of all the people passing in front of it. The live images are then streamed to a live facial recognition system, which compares them to images offenders sought by the police. If a match is found, the system generates an alert for the police officer present on the scene.

The Met have announced that LFR technology has now been fully trialled and is ready to be permanently integrated into everyday policing. Results from the trials at events like football matches and concerts suggest that 70% of the wanted offenders would be recognised. However, the privacy campaigning group, Big Brother Watch claim that live facial recognition technology is highly inaccurate and is a breach of human rights. 

But, the question remains, why Stratford? The police justified it by saying, "Stratford transport hub located next to the Westfield Shopping Centre is a footprint where gang violence has been prevalent.....A number of persons, both within Newham and neighbouring boroughs have been identified as being wanted for violent crime". They might as well say, "if you're from east London you're more likely to be a criminal". Having recently re-introduced 'stop and search', this just seems like another way to target black and ethnic minority people. If I was smart enough to avoid Stratford today, I'm sure real criminals would have been even smarter to keep a mile away from police cameras.

In the old days, police used to walk the streets with the idea being to prevent crime from happening in the first place. It helped to make us feel safer. If a criminal was identified, police could go to their home to arrest them. They didn't use a large vacuum cleaner to suck us all up just so they could grab the criminals. That's what this feels like - a sledgehammer to crack a nut. When the police trialled LFR in Stratford in 2018, no arrests were made. I wonder how many criminals they caught in Stratford today, while making the rest of us feel like criminals?


20th January 2020

Daffodils in January!

I was astonished, walking through the Olympic Park last week, to see beds of daffodils in full bloom. I don't know if they planted a special variety of early-blooming daffodils in the park but it was a sign to me that all is not normal with our climate. Indeed, over the past year, the discussion has moved on from talking about 'climate change' to talking about a 'climate emergency'. Pity those poor souls, like Donald Trump and Scott McKenzie (and even more so, those under their leadership), who are still struggling to recognise climate change. Wildfires in the USA and Australia, not to mention melting ice in Antarctica, floods around the planet, protesting schoolchildren and the hitherto measured voice of David Attenborough talking about a 'crisis', have all helped to focus minds.

Go back to 2012 and we were talking about the London Olympics being 'the greenest Games ever'. Eight years on and two Olympics later, unfortunately, we are probably still talking about London being the greenest Games ever! Rio 2016 was far from being a successful Olympics and sustainability did not appear to be so high up the agenda. Certainly, the Olympic venues in Rio have not found their way into everyday post-Olympic usage in the way that venues in London have. The signs are not great for Tokyo 2020 either. I saw the development of the new stadium in progress when I visited Tokyo in 2018 and was surprised to find yet another huge construction project. Whatever happened to the 1964 stadium? Couldn't that have been re-used? Nor does Tokyo appear to have an Olympic Park where all the key venues are brought together in one location. The stadium, other venues and Athletes Village are scattered around the city, requiring journeys to be made by athletes as well as specators. I'm sure Tokyo's public transport network will cope, but could it have been better planned to minimise journeys?

Since the 2012 Olympics, we have been running fieldwork programmes around the Olympic Park, investigating London's claims to be the greenest Games. Much of the focus has been on East Village, the former Athletes Village. The village has many sustainable credentials - high-spec design to minimise energy use, local renewable energy supply, water recycling, great public transport connections, more cycling and fewer cars, 50% affordable accommodation. Unfortunately, in 2020, we are still talking about East Village being a model for sustainble urban living. Where are the new developments in London to emulate it? Good as it is, East Village is far from perfect. What lessons have been learned to apply to future developments? If we are to take the climate emergency seriously, we haven't got long to think about these questions. Twelve years only gives us three more Olympics!