Cleaning the environmental and social conditions of the 2012 Olympic Park

The clock is counting down to the start of the 2012 Olympics in London. The main Olympic Park [map] is located in East London in heart of the Lower Lea Valley, which happens to be the same place I studied in my recently completed PhD. My research demonstrated the close correlation between the degraded environmental conditions and the disadvantaged social conditions in the sections of West Ham built on the wetlands. I ended my dissertation wondering whether the current multi-billion dollar project to clean up the environment for the Olympics might result in a comparable effort to clean out the socially undesirable people from this landscape.

An article in the Guardian, “Houseboaters being ‘socially cleansed’ from Olympics area,” suggests this process might be underway. House boaters are concerned that British Waterways are going to increase the mooring costs along canals in the Lower Lea:

British Waterways, which manages 2,200 miles of canals and rivers, has put forward changes to the mooring rules on the river Lea, in east London, that could increase the cost of living on the waterway from about £600 to £7,000 a year. Residents see the move as a deliberate attempt to drive them away. A draft note from British Waterways on 6 December 2010, seen by the Guardian, says: “The urgency … relates to the objective of reducing unauthorized mooring on the Lea navigation and adjacent waterways in time for the Olympics.” Continue reading

Olympic Neighbourhoods: London 2012 and West Ham

With the Vancouver Olympics behind us, the countdown to the next games in London, England begins.  While the Olympic stadium is taking shape, I’m not too sure how much the people of London are paying attention to the games at this point.    The willingness of some British newspapers to attack Vancouver suggests that some have forgotten they are coming under the limelight next.  London is a city with many great neighbourhoods and as you can imagine, they are not planing to bulldoze buildings in historic Westminster to build an aquatic centre.  Instead, they are using the games to “revitalize” the Lower Lea Valley, a post-industrial landscape, situated between four inner-suburban boroughs in the East of London.  For this reason, the games are out of sight and out of mind for many Londoners.

A century ago R. A. Bray described West Ham “as that of a spot somewhere near London to which people went with reluctance if they had business there, and from which they returned with joy as soon as the business was over.”[1] Sadly, I don’t imagine the average Londoner would describe it any differently today and most probably only know it as the home of a football club.  Half a century of rapid industrial and population growth in the second half of the nineteenth century transformed the once green wetlands of the Lower Lea River and Thames Estuary into a dirty manufacturing suburb with a range of social problems that matched the extensive environmental degradation (for more on the history check out my research blog).  Despite this troubled history and the scarred landscape it left, I would still suggest travelers to London should venture eastward and see a different side of London from the regal and imperial parks and buildings in Westminster.  The Docklands Light Rail lines make it easy to travel around East London and they are above ground, so you can see where you are going.  Most of the sites listed below are within walking distance of a DLR station.

Here are a few highlights:

  • The Olympic Park:  While the stadium is visible from a lot of places in the Lower Lea Valley, the park is blocked by high blue walls.  The best views are from the elevated Dockland Light Rail trains traveling from Stratford to Bow.  You can get off at the Pudding Mill Station for a longer view.  The building is starting to accelerate and each time I visit more of the buildings are taking shape.  You can also see the two Back Rivers that flow through the Olympic park and the massive piles of contaminated soil that the organizers promised to clean on site.
  • Abbey Mills Pumping Station (Cathedral of Sewage): This amazing building located alongside a polluted stream and old factories looks really out of place.  It is even more bazaar when you realize its function: to pump sewage through the massive main drain underneath the green-way path you’ve just walked on to find this Victorian relic.  The architecture provides a reminder of the civic pride  created by an integrated sewage system in the 1860s.
  • Three Mills Island: This is the oldest remaining tidal water mill in England.  There have been tidal mills on the Lower Lea since before the Normand Invasion in the 11th century and the House Mill building dates back to the early 18th century.  You can also admire the massive gasometers just south of Three Mills and contemplate the changing scale of industry between the 18th and 19th centuries (or you can wonder why Jim spends his time contemplating such things).
  • The Royal Docks and the Excel Centre: The former docks provide an excellent opportunity to see the process of revitalization already underway, as the warehouse have been replaced with a university, an airport and a large conference facility.  The Excel Conference centre will host some of the Olympic events and this is one of the better places in town to find a cluster of nice restaurants.
  • The Thames Barrier: Taking the train out to the amazing flood barrier bring your past the handful of remaining industrial sites in West Ham, including the Tate and Lyle sugar refinery.
  • The Lea Towpath:  If you are lucky enough to be in London during nice weather the many tow paths along the old canals are great locations for walks.  You can walk north along the River Lea miles, all the way to Waltham Abbey if you are feeling really ambitious.

View Olympic Neighbourhoods in a larger map


[1] R. A. Bray, “Review: West Ham A Study,” The Economic Journal 18, no. 69 (March 1908): 60-64.

Jim Clifford

Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, welcome to an ongoing segment here at The Daily Gumboot. It’s called “Get to Know Your Community” and, basically, it goes like this: each and every Sunday we will profile someone from a community somewhere. Each person is asked the same five questions (see below as well as in the “Ideas from Everywhere” page). At the end of the profile, the Gumbooteer (member of this blog’s Editorial Board) who found the person will list their three favourite things about the highlighted community member. Savvy?

Here are some ideas from everywhere. Here is one way that we try to build community. Have fun with it!

Jim Clifford: a man of History and Food

Jim Clifford: a man of History and Food

1. Who are you?

Jim Clifford, eternal student, historian and teacher. I’m working to finish writing a dissertation on the environmental history of a suburb, West Ham, and river, the Lea, on the eastern edge of London, England from about 1855-1935. Most people will hear a lot more about this area in a little under three years, as it’s the location of the 2012 Summer Olympics. I study and teach at York University in Toronto.

2. What do you do for fun?

Most of my life is pretty fun. I’m at that great age where I have a lot more money and comfort than when I was an undergraduate student and still don’t have the life changing young children that the majority of our friends have started creating. I like to run and
bike; eat, cook and drink; make beer, canned goods and pork products; talk about politics, food, music or just about anything else with friends; and go to concerts and take it easy with my wife Katie.

3. What is your favourite community and why?

This is a touch question, as I’ve moved a lot in the past ten or eleven years and I’ve got a very dispersed community of friends and family spread around Canada. So instead of focusing on a community of people, I think I’ll talk about the place I live. I really like Toronto. We’ve been here for over four years now and its the first place where I’ve really put down roots since leaving South Surrey in 1998. Despite the reputation for “coldness,” Toronto’s a pretty amazing city. Its a lot more complex than the world of bankers, media elite and Leaf fans seen by the rest of Canada. There are millions of
people here and a lot of them are pretty great. We don’t have the natural beauty that Vancouver has, and the city’s forefathers even managed to ruin much of the natural wonders we do have, but we do have great neighbourhoods that give many of the different areas of Toronto great character. Getting to know many of these neighbourhoods draws newcomers like Katie and I into the city and makes us feel at home.

4. What is your super power?

Does painstaking analysis of past events and communities count? How about writing and talking about this analysis? Sounds exhilarating eh?

5. How do you use it to build community?

I’ve joined together with a group of fellow historians in Canada to promote more active engagement with the communities we study and with the major problems of our time. We have a website, ActiveHistory.ca, and we are currently working with historians to publish a series of essays written for the public and posted on the website so they are accessible for anyone to read. We are continuing to think of other ways to connect historians with both the public and policy makers – op-eds. blogs, walking tours, public talks, comic books, policy papers, guerrilla-museum exhibitions and alternative historic plaques. While ActiveHistory.ca is mostly focused on Canada, I plan to use a variety of these approaches to bring the environmental history of West Ham into the growing conversation about the massive changes brought by the Olympics, connecting my active history with my dissertation research.

I think history matters, but I’m tried of the standard yearly news story about young Canadians failing a history pop quiz. We’ve got to find better ways to build a wider consciousness of the past that goes beyond remembering dates and facts from high school: who was the third prime minister, what date did the battle of Vimy Ridge take place. Knowing the answers to those questions while help you win trivia games, but they will contribute little to building a sustainable future where the economy, environment and our society can coexist for generations to come. I’m not sure if we’ve got the super powers to change and expand the historical consciousness of our culture, but we are going to try.

My three favourite things about Jim Clifford are…

1. He’s really, really interesting. The stuff above gives you an idea of how much the painstaking analysisof his academic life makes him an amazing conversationalist and ideas man. And the best thing about Jim being interesting and knowledgeable is that he’s very, very good at consistently striving to engage anyone from anywhere on an intellectual level. An ambitious pursuit to say the least. Activehistory.ca is what the kids out there are calling a “game changer” – it’s very cool, so check it out. And, remember, graduate students are not terrible people, Tina Fey!

2. He is a man of food. Not only does Jim understand the politics of food, he is also a damn fine cook who possesses a passion for local food, especially tomatoes. I am lucky enough to be visiting Toronto, Jim’s community, in about a month – what’s on the menu, my friend?

3. We have shared adventures. Jim is a guy you want in your corner when the chips are down, and I know this because we have been on road trips, midnight hikes and graduate seminars. You can trust on Jim to stand up for what he believes in and always doing what’s right. He’s a rugby player, too, so cultivating shenanigans is never a problem when out on the town with Jim.