The average tourist might not realize it, but, having its roots in the Roman and medieval times, London’s Docklands is historically known as a port region. As the shipping industry fell out of significance in the middle 20th century, so did the region of the Docklands and the communities it fostered. The region direly needed regeneration. In the last 20 to 50 years many issues were solved by revitalization planning, however some social issues remain and are continuously being addressed as infrastructural changes are still being developed.
The Docklands is a region of East and South London consisting of the boroughs of Tower Hamlets, Southwark, Newham, and Greenwich. The area served as the Port of London, which was once one of the world’s largest shipping ports. The land has always been immersed in water and swamp marshes thus unsuitable for agriculture and posing particularities for architecture. The area was an isolated part of London, as few roads existed linking the area to central London. The Docklands was a divided community between the poor ship workers and the wealthy ship insurers.
By the mid 20th century, shipping and shipbuilding fell out as new technology and containerization, or cargo transport, was implemented. Ship builders lost work and competition significantly increased, as the docks were not able to accommodate many new carriers. When the docks began closing in the mid 1960s, workers were continuously laid off throughout the 1970s and into the 1980s. The land was left empty, social classes divided, and communities suffering from unemployment and severe poverty. Warehouses and large-scale facilities became obsolete and deteriorated.
Redevelopment plans began shortly after the dock’s closure. In 1968 the Port of London Authority sold the St. Katherine Dock to the Greater London Council, launching a competition to find a developer to regenerate the region. The idea was to develop the urban area and secure the physical, economic, and social aspects of citizen’s lives. However, it was applying the actual plan that took nearly a decade. Things were not being built as quickly as initially projected and people were still losing their jobs. Between 1978 and 1981, 10,000 jobs were lost and 9,000 people left the area.
Soon many landowners were involved, such as the Greater London Council, the Port of London Authority, British Gas, Central Electric Generating Board, and British Rail. By 1981, the London Docklands Development Corporation was created out of the Government Planning and Land Act of 1980 and by Secretary of State for the Environment, Michael Heseltime. The LDDC now had to upgrade and use the current buildings, encourage industry and commerce development, ensue housing and social facilities, and create an attractive and peaceful environment. Improvements that took place between 1983 and 1984 were improved roads, buildings, and travel ways. But remaining issues pertained to chemical pollution, and other health and safety hazards. Sewage, drainage, and sanitation systems were soon updated. Tax incentives made way for the development boom.
Controversy came as the developments taking place were about creating luxury housing, aesthetically pleasing office spaces, and industrial buildings over affordable housing. Communities were suddenly being gentrified, as people were still facing unemployment, poverty, social issues, and struggling with the negative construction environment.
While private investors and local governments worked to revitalize the area, it was the small communities that organized for change. The Association of Isle Communities, the Joint Docklands Action Group, the Docklands Forum, and more community organizations were set up in the 1970s to create change. These community action groups tried to bring tenants, workers, and businesses together to work with local planning councils to transform the policies based on what local citizens actually wanted.
What further came from community organization was a niche activist culture consisting of people voicing their concerns through news articles, self-published magazines, pamphlets, and music, such as the song “Give Us Back Our Land” by Tough Cookies. They also organized public screenings of films, demonstrations, and concerts, as well as memorabilia such as coffee mugs and posters to spread the message about the Docklands not developing to their needs.
While it was the LDDC that was largely instrumental in planning and beginning construction, it was the community organizers that made the push for appropriate physical infrastructure in the Docklands. Substantial development began taking place in the mid 1990s. Poor transport into the rest of London was relieved with the construction of the Docklands Light Railway and the London City Airport underwent needed upgrades. Finally, the LDDC began a campaign to bring office spaces and jobs to the area, however, faced criticism because it was still outsiders who were taking the open jobs and commuting in. But, similar to how buildings were transformed into office space, some buildings were transformed into large art spaces and places for artists to live, thus attracting a culture the current community was open to. Affordable housing became abundant, attracting more people to the Docklands.
The Docklands faced several ups and downs in the following ten years because of recessions and various monetary shortfalls. But development continued bringing the much needed resurrection to the Docklands. On March 31, 1998 the LDDC’s role came to an end. The Docklands was transformed with a new culture, new jobs, and a new way to travel. From the mid 1990s into the early 21st century, the working population nearly tripled bringing a thriving atmosphere to the region.
Tourists and Londoners alike can learn more about the Docklands at the Museum of London Docklands, located near the West India Quay DLR stop. To learn more about the history of shipping in London a trip to the Docklands’ museum, the National Maritime Museum and the Royal Observatory located in Greenwich will do the trick. And to get a holistic education of London since the dawn of human civilization, check of the Museum of London.