For Tom Holbrook London’s Royal Docks are a testbed for an ecological urbanism that accelerates an equitable recovery from COVID and addresses the climate emergency.

London’s Royal Docks are the largest area of impounded water in the world. Constructed at the end of the nineteenth century to accommodate ships too large for the upper river reaches and wharves, the last commercial ship sailed in 1981. A giant piece of infrastructure – conceived at the singularity and scale of an international airport – was thus left obsolete: dreaming of becoming part of the city.

Over time, London’s Docklands have given the city a place to innovate – not always benignly. Who could forget Bob Hoskins’ ill-fated character Harold Shand in The Long Good Friday surveying the post-industrial void of Wapping? Shand celebrates Britain joining the EEC – precursor of the EU – telling his dodgy American investors:

Our country’s not an island any more! This is the decade in which London will become Europe’s capital, having cleared away the outdated. We’ve got mile after mile, acre after acre of land for our future prosperity! No other city in the world has got, right at its centre, such an opportunity for profitable progress!”

With satisfying symmetry, City Hall – established at the start of the new millennia opposite Shand’s clearances – will emulate the dockland’s own evolution and move further downriver this year, to a commanding position at the head of Royal Victoria Dock. The tide has turned, and Britain now seems keen to rediscover its island mentality once again.

Our work for the Greater London Authority and Newham on the Royal Docks has coincided with the pandemic, itself a dress rehearsal for the challenges to come from the climate emergency. Spanning from the strategic through to operations on the ground, a series of projects have allowed us to consider the overlapping multi-scalar challenges of infrastructure, urbanism, landscape and architecture.

With London’s post-Covid recovery much in discussion, we can reflect on what we have learnt from the upheaval in the neat divisions of our lives with respect to work, and the rediscovery of our intertwined and co-dependant relationship with nature. Residents around the Docks have been one of the communities worst affected by the pandemic, with high rates of infection and the largest proportion of workers on furlough in the capital.

The move of City Hall to the Royals brings political focus to what is already a project with momentum. In contrast to the Neoliberal experimentation of the London Docklands Development Corporation upriver, the Royal Docks offer the city the arena as an ‘expo’ site to explore both equitable urban recovery from Covid and the development of an ecological urbanism to address the bigger crisis to come.

In its scope and scale the Royal Docks can become a testbed for a resilient London that truly grasps the necessary ambition and innovation of our age.

Tom Holbrook
East London