Isle of Dogs glimpses ‘ultra-high density’ future

Wednesday 27 June 2018

The developers and architects creating what will be the densest area of the UK must strive to provide enough social infrastructure or risk losing both its essential character and the living standards of the strong local community.

That was one of the key messages to emerge from an NLA conference on location in the Isle of Dogs, an area which will become ‘ultra-high density’ when a series of tall buildings are realised for the area, but whose impact the GLA hopes will be ameliorated by a new Opportunity Area Planning Framework.

Keynote speaker John Biggs, the executive mayor for Tower Hamlets, said that the area will soon be the densest in the country and has ‘ambitious targets’, albeit with a few ‘bumpy edges along the way’ and a desire to use the ‘wealth of developments to meet the needs of its community’. But beneath the surface there was a ‘silent epidemic’ of housing need, as well as a desire for the next generation to be able to stay in the area if it can. Biggs said he had also noticed that the days of the early noughties – where people of all incomes live alongside each other’ was something people no longer talked about. ‘People do like development, but the enormous impact on the infrastructure, the impact of ultra-high density is something that is causing some stress in our community’, he said. Making sure that the OAPF reflects the needs of the people and local opinion was of key significance, he added. ‘It’s what happens behind the bricks. It’s getting that right that is important’.

Tower Hamlets principal place shaping officer, strategic planning Michael Ritchie said that the local plan for the area is aimed at managing growth and sharing the benefits, with five areas identifies for tall buildings, and an expectation that heights will descend away from the central core and Canary Wharf cluster. The authority is looking at ways of monitoring high density over time and at how it impacts on quality of life. From the GLA’s perspective, said its growth strategies manager Shelley Gould, opportunity areas are ‘absolutely key to delivering the growth London needs to continue being a successful world city, with the main focus in the Isle of Dogs being to overcome issues of severance. But working with the locals has been important in feeding into the narrative of the document too. ‘We had some quite tricky workshops with local communities and sensed straight away that there was an enormous sense of feeling about what was happening to this area’, she said. People were in particular concerned about pressures on transport, schools and open spaces, as well as the impact of so much construction at such a scale on such a small area. The GLA developed a design-led 3D toolkit, while Transport for London director of spatial planning Lucinda Turner emphasised the need to continue the integration of land use and transport being ‘absolutely critical to deliver good growth’.  Improvements include new DLR trains to deliver 7% more capacity, perhaps lengthened trains and increased frequency plans for the Elizabeth Line, and continuing the move away from car use to more walking, cycling and public transport.

Tower Hamlets infrastructure planning manager Matthew Pullen showed how the ‘unprecedented’ levels of S106 and CIL moneys could and should be spent, with anything from £260m-£430m of developer contributions expected towards a potential £1.2bn infrastructure cost. ‘We need to think about how we’re delivering liveable places, and infrastructure planning is a big part of that’, he said. Engagement and communication, he added, is vital. ‘There’s a lot of talk in planning about housing and numbers. We need to give people the confidence we’re making places.’ Canary Wharf ward councillor Andrew Wood, however, showed how a lack of playspace in the area was a worrying trend, pointing too to the needs for new primary and secondary schools and GP surgeries. Wood added that it was ‘insane’ that the Isle of Dogs Neighbourhood Planning Forum of which he is secretary was the only organisation to have produced a 3d model.

The conference also heard from speakers including Fred Pilbrow, senior partner at Pilbrow & Partners about its hyper-flexible, mixed use C2 scheme at Wood Wharf and Alpha Square, set to form the ‘kernel of a new district in West Marsh.’ Ballymore director of town planning John Turner, meanwhile, took the audience through schemes including Good Luck Hope and City Island, and Jestico + Whiles associate Emily Lawrence showed how New Union Wharf aims to give the ‘streets back to the people’, and include a riverside walk that helps create a sense of identity and place.

Finally, in conversation with NLA chairman Peter Murray, former chief executive of the London Docklands Development Corporation Eric Sorensen said that this is an area of change, throughout history, but that change of this scale requires a very confident local authority – one danger was that a number of towers can provide a ‘less than inspiring’ ground level experience. The area needed to also be prepared for ‘accidents’ and ‘chance’ of the kind that led to the Canary Wharf development in the first place. Canary Wharf Group managing director Howard Dawber said that what happens at the Isle of Dogs is hugely important, and that with the projected growth much more workspace is required alongside the homes and that necessary social infrastructure. ‘Thirty one thousand extra units will need more than a cycle bridge to Rotherhithe to cope’, he said. 

By David Taylor, Editor, NLQ

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Isle of Dogs: London’s emerging metropolis


Guided by a new OAPF launching this spring, and aided by the imminent arrival of Crossrail, the Isle of Dogs is experiencing unprecedented change, creating a unique set of challenges.