Docklands and Canary Wharf as Palimpsests21 minute read

London as a Palimpsest through ‘urban regeneration’
Discovering using the case of Docklands and Canary Wharf

Britain is one of the precursors of industrial revolution and at the same time one of the first countries to urbanize throughout history, encountering earliest urban issues such as ‘deindustrialization’ and urban decay. Since the 1950s, London has explored its urban economic, political and social transformation through urban reconstruction, revitalization, renewal and then regeneration. Early on during the mid-20th century, urban redevelopment and urban renewal were key terms used in London’s urban planning, with a focus on living quality and environment improvements. In the 1970s, while shift in British socioeconomic status and economic depression took place, a change in urban planning subsequently followed, with more emphasize on boosting local economy instead of solely improving living condition. Under this circumstance, the concept of urban regeneration appeared. It was first brought up by Anthony Giddens in 1997 (McCarthy 2007), before former Prime minister Blair officially announced the political significance and governmental support for urban regeneration projects in 1998, while Rogers organized the first research group in the same year, which highlighted urban policies comprehensively including social, economic, political and other urban functions’ recovery.

Viewing London as a palimpsest, the significance of urban regeneration projects is inevitable in the process of transforming the city while adapting to the new era’s political economy. Based on my interpretation of palimpsest, London’s wounds, or scars, are discovered and cured to serve new purposes. If we look at the city of London as a body, these urban regeneration projects are not simply ‘transplant operations’ but should be regarded as ‘acupuncture treatment’, as they do not fully replace the ‘old’ with ‘new’ but instead manage the ‘organs’ to function in a different way to fit into London’s new blood streams. In this essay, I will focus on urban regeneration development in London’s Dockland area, Canary Wharf in particular, to argue for the tight link between regeneration plan and London’s socioeconomic shifts and political changes. I will first layout the theoretical undertaking and historical background of urban regeneration, and then argue that Dockland (particularly Canary Wharf)’s Palimpsest effect is presented through the lenses of state intervention, transportation, and integration of nature and historical value.

Background and theories of urban regeneration:

The word ‘regeneration’ is derived from ‘regeneration’ in the study of biology, which refers to the healing and renewed growth of damaged body cells and tissues. The introduction of regeneration to urban planning field aimed to analyze the city as a living organism and wished to use the concept to create a ‘leverage effect’ for the central government body to develop from a managerial administration to a business-driven one, to attract private sectors’ investments for local and societal self-development and self-renewal. (Jones and Evans, 2008) Peter Roberts defines urban regeneration as solution to urban problems with comprehensive urban development plans for the collective purpose of sustainable improvement of local area’s economy, living quality, society and environment. (Roberts, 2000) According to him, there are four main characteristics of British urban regeneration: multi-dimension, industrial restructuring, comprehensiveness and lastly, diversity and targeting.

Urban regeneration, intrinsically, is a time concept because it changes with urban development. For instance, during Margret Thatcher’s administration, urban policies were more targeted to individuals rather than the boarder society. Therefore, to some extent, regeneration is not only purely ‘rebuild’ but is more like a ‘moral crusade’, which does not confine to saving local economy but the urban soul. As Anthony Giddens argues, ‘the state is back after years of deregulation and market dominance.’ (Jones and Evans, 2008) Thus, to understand urban regeneration as a palimpsest project, it is crucial to take into account that state plays a key role in reshaping the city. Moreover, an urban bloodstream cannot flow smoothly without a well-organized transportation system. Like Giulietti suggests, the goal of facilitating relational proximity through a wider accessibility (Giulietti) is increasingly significant to allow diverse activities and personal interactions to coexist. Again, bearing in mind that transportation system in urban regeneration plans is extremely important and complex at the same time, because it needs to create new linkages across the area while preserving original geographical features and historic memories. Also, the concept of mapping the city can be applied here for analysis of land divisions. Lastly, designs of the landscapes in newly developed urban regeneration, although sometimes regarded as the most undetectable and neglectful parts of any urban regeneration projects in relation to change in political economy, actually share abundant linkages with nature and historic values. Theories of ‘representation of the city’ are thus vital to explain how specific landscape are designed in a way to reflect the natural and cultural heritage of the location. According to Duncan and Lay, they aim to understand the elements in the reshaping of cultural geography by discussing authorial power, landscape metaphor, power-knowledge relations and the sense of place and community. (Duncan and Lay, 2013) In another word, meaning creation and cultural construction are the last denominator of urban regeneration contributing to the broader political and cultural spheres of the city.

London Docklands and Canary Wharf

Canary Wharf, the ‘second city’, an ‘evil twin’ to London’ financial district, has overtaken its ancient rival.

Financial Times

1. State intervention urging for change

London’s Docklands area has always taken a leading role in the wealth of the city, especially of the east end. It is one of the largest real estate and urban regeneration project since late 1980s in the city central zone. In fact, the Londoners did not seriously value the use of water on the East End until the 17th century. The first wharf existed in London was the Isle of Dogs, which was established in 1802. In the 120 years onward, the dockland areas have become London’s industrial center, as well as employment center, attracting workers from all over the country and the world. The 1930s was the heyday of the dockland area, employing more than 30 thousand employees while obtaining almost 100 thousand staffs for related businesses and services. (Finsburg 1996).

Old Docklands area, Museum of London Docklands
Old Docklands area, Museum of London Docklands

However, between 1961 and 1971, due to the decline of British manufacturing and transportation industries, more than 500 thousand people lost their jobs in London, which largely impacted the operation of dockland transportation. In 1981, only 1014 enterprises remained, while 70% of them worked on food and tobacco industry, only 15.6% of the businesses continued the original banking and service industries. (Rule 2012) Recognizing the severity of the decline of dockland area, in July of 1981, the government started to take action and set up the LDDC (London Docklands Development Corporation), for a 17-year three-period plan to develop this ancient obsolete area to London’s most high-end business district.

The regeneration plan of Docklands area can be categorized into three main stages, each aimed for different targets and missions. First, the preparation phase from 1981 to 1986 focused on using rational judgment and market analysis to propel private housing market and basic infrastructure construction. Through series of tax exemptions and capital allowances, more business and investment were attracted to the development plan. Also, the central government gave privileges to specific acquisition properties for ownership right to develop land, waterways and public infrastructures. Then from 1987 to 1990, community and public infrastructure building became the main concerns in the urban regeneration process, accompanied with government’s increasing investment in public housing, medical facilities, education and training institutions. A good example can be traced in Rotherhithe, where public fund was successfully spent on the refurbishment of demolished housings. Later on, the last period from 1991 to 1998 was to improve and perfect the reconstruction projects, aiming for recovery on the macroeconomic level, as well as sustainable development. As Giddens claimed, local governments had the capability to attain cheaper land, but the emphasis on high-density housing in centers went too far. (Jones and Evans 2008) Thus, stimulated by green economy, more direct public spending were directed to sustainable development. Like Giddens has identified, the phases of urban regeneration in Docklands area followed the trajectory of public policy development and adapted to various shifts in London’s political economy. (McCarthy 2007) The use of governmental development data and official LDDC data add accuracy and legitimacy to my analysis.

Government’s role in Docklands is so influential that it has pushed for unprecedented changes. Take residential development for example, I have noticed that within the ten years since 1971, Dockland’s permanent resident population dropped 18.5%. Among all the residents lived in the area, about 83% lived in government-provided public housing while the quality of housing for 20% of the total were evaluated to be ‘inacceptable’. Starting from 1981, LDDC has begun to take action accordingly, rebuilt housing sectors in Docklands that satisfy more demands while improving housing quality. By 1998, a total of 24042 sets of housing were rebuilt and provided for the community. Not only did the number of housing increased through government-propelled urban regeneration plans, a diversification of land use also paralleled, along with a three-fold boost of the number of employee population and a five-fold increase in the number of enterprises. (Finsburg 1996) In sum, Docklands’ regeneration development is largely dependent on the state’s management while the government serves as a steering wheel for changes in the area, creating a palimpsest effect. Following the concept of viewing London as a body, the government functions as the ‘acupuncturist’ for curing Docklands’ pain for the long run, instead of offering temporarily relief.

Housing Data Wharf
(Data collected by World Union Consultancy)

2. Transportation creating new possibilities

One Canada Square, 1992
One Canada Square, 1992

In addition to state intervention, the transportation design also reflects change in urban regeneration plan. Docklands’ Canary wharf is not only a large-scale urban business development case model; more importantly, it is a successful urban regeneration example for the reshaping of urban space. Canary wharf’s development has an inevitable tie with Docklands’ regeneration policies and operation modes, as LDDC has reshaped the conception of central city design because London’s inner city design used to be strictly confined to business development in earlier periods. LDDC has created a new mode, which gave control right to the developers without systematic planning schemes. However, while benefitting from the flexibility and increasing investments, this market-led operation method created negative impacts during earlier periods. During the 1960s and the 1970s, failure of transportation development occurred because the plans failed to win agreement on public spending. Moreover, transport planning during the period was dominated by the concept of land use transport study, which highly depended upon assumptions of travel demand, rather than real analysis. (LDDC) Buildings were isolated from newly constructed roads and waterways, with Greenwich time-axis disappearing in the building blocks. For example, One Canada Square, the 50-store high-rise, was an isolated tower inaccessible by the public in 1992, especially after the failed IRA bomb attack, (London Docklands) compare to now being fully connected to traffic with both HSBC and Citigroup on the sides.

One Canada Square 2012
One Canada Square, 2012 (Docklands Past)

As the development of canary wharf progressed, LDDC gradually paid more attention to creating a mutual balance in the transportation plans, thus achieving broader socioeconomic, environmental and social benefits. Originally functioned as docks, the Dockland area relied upon water transportation in early time while isolating from London’s city transportation network, although with proximity to the urban core. Thus, the main concern of developers was to create links between the area and the inner city. In November 1973, Docklands’ Joint Committee was established to work on the London Docklands Strategic Plan (LDSP), proposing the provision of a spinal east-west public transport link to knit together the whole of Docklands as well as three major road routes. (LDDC) In October 1982, the government granted £77 million to the proposal and finally, in August 1987, Dockland’s automatic light rail transit DLR was activated and enabled connection to London’s traditional financial district in 1991, which improved connectivity and functioned as a catalyst to canary wharf’s commercial development. The aim was to boost London’s vibrancy of urban space while avoiding urban formation from ‘cutting apart’ by the railways. As Giulietti points out, accessibility should be a key component of urban regeneration policy, and urban developers should try to maximize access to existing structures, due to the fact that infrastructure are not ‘mere hardware’ but can ‘sew together shreds of a given territory’. (Giulietti)

Docklands Central area in 1981 and 1996
Docklands Central area in 1981 and 1996
(Museum of London Docklands)

However, the DLR experienced the obstacle of lacking transportation capacity, accompanied with the weakness of road links, making Canary Wharf’s business development in despair, as the rental rate of office buildings only achieved 60% followed by the bankruptcy of developer Olympia & York. (Bull 2012) One drawback of my method of study is that the planning site has limited information on social impacts transportation development bring to the local community. The problem of speed of transportation (efficiency of the whole network) thus merges into the wider concept of accessibility, as ‘spatial opportunity’ is largely dependent upon it. (Le Clercq, Bertolini 2003) In 2000, the Jubilee line was built with a transportation capacity of 30 thousand people/hour, making the transportation time from Dockland to London city center only eight minutes. Rental rate subsequently rose to 99.5%. (LDDC) This new form of urban space system with developments centering on underground station as core, not only represents a significant characteristic of large-scale urban regeneration plans, but also paves the way for future sustainable development plans. After connectivity was secured, more capital flows were attracted to Canary Wharf along with economic and social changes, as a result of the shift in governmental and developmental strategies. Again, is we view London as a body, transportation routes in urban regeneration plans can be seen as the ‘backbone’ or the ‘bloodstream’ of the body that the support functions and deliver nutrients. The ‘unclogging’ effect of transportation routes enabled Docklands to be connected to the hearts of London and to transform itself in serving as the city’s brainpower in the past decade.

Railway Station in Construction, 1990; DLR in 1987
Docklands Transport Map 2000
Docklands Transport Map 2000

3. Integration of nature and historical culture

In a globalizing world, modern day urban development’s most distinct characteristic is its diversification, as a result of the lessening urban self-rehabilitating and organizing ability along with increasingly multilateral and complex features. Urban regeneration can act as a catalyst for urban spaces by preserving history while rememorizing and adapting to changes in times, aiming for local and surrounding areas’ collective development. Largest in size among all Dockland wharfs, Canary Wharf is a portrayal of integrated pluralistic urban elements with bodily wholeness and spatial arrangements. Interestingly, the busy financial center used to be a thriving port for trade of sugar, rum and elephants. (Daily Mail) Back in the 19th century, it was once a storage area for goods imported from the West Indies.

West India Dock in 1900; Modern-day West India Quay
West India Dock in 1900; Modern-day West India Quay
Elephants delivered for Circus Tour, 1968; Bananas loaded onto rail tracks, 1935 (Museum of London)
Elephants delivered for Circus Tour, 1968; Bananas loaded onto rail tracks, 1935 (Museum of London)

Environmental and historical elements are both crucial for the reshaping of urban space in regeneration projects because integrity of the two enables the newly regenerated areas to blend in the new pulses of urban growth with historical legacies. My method of study relied upon walking and conducting observations, inspired by Atkins and Sinclair’s idea of ‘walks as portraits, walks as prophecy, walks as seduction, walks for the purpose of working out the plot and walks that release delirious chemicals in the brain as they link to random sites’. (Atkins and Sinclair 1999) Canary wharf uses a rectangular grid system to divide the area into 26 blocks. Open spaces are organized in accordance to the central axis and the public square above the tube station. One unique act in the regeneration process of canary wharf is that it kept the original river system on its periphery while rearranging space to strengthen water-proximity and spatial creativity. However, these waterways could not be preserved as they once were completely. To reuse them effectively, considering the wharf’s historical functional influences, original water surface are cut into a larger piece and a smaller piece, South Dock and North Dock, to separate architectural space. Then, parts of the water were landfilled while some parts of the land were dug to introduce water into the river systems. In the end, water and space organically integrate as a whole. For example, the square above Jubilee line tube station was landfilled on the south and north sides while still open to waterways in the directions of the east and the west. In this way, an impressive vision is created while space and nature being connected, environment being preserved.

Canary Wharf mapping, Google Map
Canary Wharf mapping, Google Map
Canary Wharf Aerial
Canary Wharf aerial photo, Daily Mail

Urban regeneration plan of canary wharf emphasizes utilization of waterfronts, in combination with green space, architectures and entertainment functions. Distinctively, I have noticed that waterfront spaces at canary wharf have two forms, one being linear space, which high-rises set back behind the pedestrian paths forming an overhang pattern and leaving generous space for pedestrians and social activities. The other form is square; while some use the facades of surrounding buildings as the edges, forming open waterscapes. Both kinds of waterfront spaces incorporated greenery, accompanied with supporting facilities including cafés, restaurants, bars, shops and some other recreational facilities. Water, as an important historical symbol of Canary Wharf, is preserved while other developments changed over time. Timur has claimed that ‘cities seek waterfronts as places of public enjoyment where there is ample visual and physical public access’, more importantly, they should serve as places to work, live, and play. (Timur 2013) Waterfront regeneration has become an effective tool for the representation of the city, as it is described as a ‘natural attitude’ rooted in the philosophy during Enlightenment, when imagery and language appeared to be perfect, transparent media to represent the reality of the city. (Duncan and Ley 2013) Although walking and observing are useful methods of studying water-proximate designs of the area, they lack in conceiving from a social perspective. All in all, either through the building of bridges, large steps, pedestrian ramps, or glass elevators, access to water or at least, to water scenery, is guaranteed in Canary Wharf. Various layers of design with different functions also ensure connectivity between the underground and the upper ground, further pushed for integrity for better economic profits and social cohesion. The waterfront system preserved in Canary wharf not only achieves a visual palimpsest effect through, but also at the same time carries on the historical legacy of port life.

Linear vs. Square
Left: Linear; Right: Square
Pedestrian bridges over water
Pedestrian bridges over water

In addition to environmental nature, canary wharf’s urban regeneration plan also takes into account its significance of historical symbolism. Located on London’s space-axis, the area possessed abundant historical recourses. Geographically, the axis lands on the Tower Bridge on one end, which highlights London’s long history; on the other end of the axis, the Millennium dome features London’s urban modernism. Locating on such important urban axis, the Docklands area holds more meaning than a symbolic space for urban regeneration because it is also an iconic node in the context of urban space-axis. With that in mind, the regeneration plan of canary wharf ensures the developers to use unique spatial arrangement to recall people’s memory, in another word, nostalgia for the old Dockland life. The architecture company SOM has mentioned in its design thoughts that “we put many of the mid-high office buildings in order alongside the river because it is where the boats anchored; we try to design the parking lots in the middle of the land because it used to be where cargos were stored; the circular street patterns and gridding share similar flow line with the ones for early ship and cargo transport.” (SOM) These series of deliberate concerns to link the new with the old are quite valuable for the continuation of Docklands’ legacy. Although the new canary wharf is no longer a dock for cargo transport, with commercial high-rises replacing the cargos, similar spatial patterns were remained and preserved. A stranger may not see Canary Wharf as a Palimpsest, because he/she only sees the surface, not the countless deeply hidden ties the area shared with its history.

Docklands Palimpsest flow chart
Palimpsest effect by comparing the old Dockland to Dockland today


In sum, the urban regeneration project of Docklands, Canary Wharf, provides us with a showcase of London’s urban transformation. As one of the largest in size,most time-consuming whilst most expansive urban regeneration projects in the UK, even in the world, it generated multiple characteristics of modern urban regeneration that contribute to the palimpsest effect, as result of the changing political and social dynamics. In the regeneration process of Docklands and Canary Wharf, the central government played a key role in boosting investment and partnerships that propelled residential and business developments; transportation improvements, especially the creations of DLR and the Jubilee line, have ‘unclogged’ the disconnected area to London’s urban cores and attracted abundant capital flows; landscape designs targeting water-proximity and nostalgic port-life mirrored the past of Docklands while blending in modern elements. To me, urban development does not have an endpoint but only has periodical targets. On the basis of realizing the value of these periodical goals, regeneration plans tend to satisfy people’s expectations and demands. Today, Canary Wharf is assisting London on a financial ground to compete with other world cities like New York, but will Canary Wharf follow the story of West India Docks, serves as London’s wealth generator, or will it fade and decline over time, wiping out its past? Throughout history, bodily urban spaces rise and fall over time; the only unchanging possessions are our wisdom, creativity, and imagination of the urban future.


Atkins, M. Sinclair, I. (1999) ‘Liquid City, London’, Reaktion Books Ltd, Vol. Topographic S. LSE Library, (accessed 19 April 2016)

Bull, J. (2012) ‘In Pictures: The DLR at Twenty Five, London Reconnections’, (accessed 20 April 2016)

Duncan, J. Ley, D. (2013) ‘Place/ Culture/ Representation’, Routledge

Finsberg, B. (1973-1977) London Docklands Development, Chapter 2: London, Parliamentary and Conservative Party Politics, Reports from Greater London Council Docklands Joint Committee, LSE Archive

Giulietti, F. (unknown date) ‘Transportation Planning and Urban Regeneration-Accessibility, metropolitan railway networks, territorial strategies’, Transport Planning and Urban Regeneration, Department of Urban Studies, University Roma, Published by Association of European Schools of Planning, Academia, (accessed 20 April 2016)

Hatherley, O. (2012) ‘The myth that Canary Wharf did east London any good’, The Guardian, (accessed 18 April 2016)

Jones, P. Evans, J. (2008) ‘Urban Regeneration in the UK’, SAGE Journal, (accessed 14 April 2016).

Le Clercq, B. (2003) ‘Urban Development without more Mobility by Car? Lessons from Amsterdam, a Multimodal Urban Region’, AME, University of Amsterdam, Sage Journals, (accessed 20 April 2016)

McCarthy, J. (2007) ‘Partnership, Collaborative Planning and Urban Regeneration’, Routledge

Roberts, P. Sykes, H. (2000) ‘Urban Regeneration- A Handbook’, British Urban Regeneration Association

Rule, F. (2012) ‘London’s Docklands: A History of the Lost Quarter’, Ian Allan (accessed 24 April 2016)

Timur, U. (2013) ‘Urban Waterfront Regenerations’, Chapter 7, INTECH, (accessed 20 April 2016)



London’s Docklands Past and Present, Canary Wharf, 1983, (accessed 18 April 2016)

LDDC, (accessed 16 April 2016)

Museum of London Docklands, Gallery of Docklands’ history

SOM, ‘Canary Wharf Master Plan’, (accessed 21 April 2016)

World Union Consultancy, London Docklands Area Regeneration Case Study, accessed through Tsinghua University

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.