5. Inside/out? Why the rules of space are different in Canary Wharf

You’ve just arrived in Canary Wharf for the first time to head to your new office. You’ve put your destination into your phone and it has given you a route – but when you’re actually there, that route seems to want you to walk through a building. What the fuck is going on?


©Apple Maps

Yes, you can walk through (provided you’re not in workwear, on skates, with a dog, smoking, etc…)

Learning where and when you can walk into buildings is one of the strangest parts of spending time in Canary Wharf, along with discovering (and getting lost in) the vast network of underground shopping malls, which at some points appear to be several levels deep. And that’s not to mention the indoor bridges over channels in the docks. Space appears to work in a different way here…

There’s a reason. Most of the time, we assume (without often, if ever, consciously thinking about it) that if you are standing on a pavement, you are subject to the laws of the country, and that’s it. Go inside a house or a shop or a restaurant, and you accept the rules of the owners that place (and the laws of the land still apply, obviously). The same thing applies if you are outdoors but in a place that has a barrier of some kind – if you’re in the beer garden of a pub or your mate’s garden or at Alton Towers – their gaff, their rules.

So, out in the streets one thing, inside another. But Canary Wharf doesn’t work like that. The clue comes in the signs you will see scattered around the place like this:


What does that mean? It means that this may look like the same kind of street or square you’ll find elsewhere in London, but it isn’t like many of them. This is actually a private place. All of it, the whole of the Canary Wharf estate. It’s like a shopping mall, a Westfield, only rather than having an entrance when you know you are going inside, you walk across an often invisible line, and the rules have changed.


And that’s why Canary Wharf has been designed so that you can walk through some buildings because in a way, you’re ‘indoors’ even when you’re out in the open. (It is easier to spot the change if you drive in, because there are security barriers on the road, although these are left open most of the time. But not that many people do come in by road, and if they do, it is probably in a taxi).

So what rules change? The most important one is that you have no right to protest within Canary Wharf. And that matters because a number of large companies have their UK headquarters there. If you want to organise a demonstration because a bank is doing business with a regime that tortures its people or is where a president who has stolen his country’s money has his accounts, you can’t do it in Canary Wharf. And if you want to picket the company you work for that won’t pay the living wage, you can’t do that in front of their CW HQ.

Professional photographers have also complained that they are stopped from doing their work in Canary Wharf. I’ll balance by saying that I’ve never seen Canary Wharf security stop anyone from taking photos, and I’ve taken many with my phone, but I’m sure they do. I guess you wouldn’t get very far kicking a football around Reuters Plaza in front of the tube station, either. To compound the sinister effect (effectively offset in this case by that adorable dog), the security guards could be mistaken at first glance for the Metropolitan Police – the words on their jackets do explain who they are, plus their caps have blue-and-white checks as opposed to black-and-white ones.


If you’re at all interested in this stuff, I’d recommend journalist/activist/academic Anna Minton’s book Ground Control: Fear And Happiness In The Twenty-First-Century City, which is a clearly written account – based on good reporting and solid research – of the way money, (often exaggerated) security concerns and government policy are changing Britain’s cities. The updated edition came out in 2011, so it’s a little out of date, but mostly the trends she identifies have only become stronger during the financial recovery. Minton isn’t keen on Canary Wharf’s privately owned, publicly accessible-under-certain-conditions space, but she’s more concerned about the way it set a precedent, and has led to chunks of land all over the country being seemingly free to walk through, until you do something that triggers the attention of lurking security guards. The Garden Bridge, if it happens, will operate like that, despite the millions of pounds of our money that have gone into it. So will the new park at Elephant & Castle.

Not everyone is as worried as Anna Minton. In the academic circles that study this stuff, the debate is sometimes known as Minton vs Carmona. Matthew Carmona is professor of Urban Design at University College London’s Bartlett School Of Planning. A grossly simplified version of Carmona’s argument would go like this: the hundreds of thousands of British residents who use Canary Wharf’s publicly accessible spaces – or those of More London by City Hall or the Paddington Basin etc etc – don’t care about the technicalities of land ownership and right of way. They just like the shiny new places to hang out or shop that were not there before (and Canary Wharf was indeed full of families when the last day of half-term coincided with the warmest day of the year). Carmona does think that we should all have the right to take pictures and protest anywhere in our cities, but that we don’t need government to take over the streets and squares of Canary Wharf for that to happen.

In any case, it’s not as if it were a straight choice between publicly accessible private land and  public land. Walk around just outside Canary Wharf and you’ll come across this a lot:

Gated ‘communities’ are one of the other subjects of Minton’s book, and there are plenty of them on the Isle Of Dogs (although, interestingly enough, most of the newest residential developments aren’t gated). And many of the gated areas have their own private fronts on the river – in contrast to Canary Wharf where all the docksides are freely walkable.Where you can walk by the river or the Millwall Docks, you get the same kind of reminder/warning as in Canary Wharf:

In the case of the Canary Wharf Estate, too, it’s not particularly accurate – as some do – to talk about ‘privatised’ land. These weren’t – unlike in the far more contentious case of the Liverpool One shopping centre – once normal streets and squares that slipped into private hands*. This was a working dock until 1980. The streets, squares and dockside paths of Canary Wharf, just like the vast shopping catacombs and the unexpected indoor passageways, are all creations of the developers. And because CW was started in a weird situation of no planning rules**, the developers could have easily designed an area in which each corporate HQ had its own exclusive waterfront terrace and the only shared spaces were narrow paths between them.

Instinctively, I’m more on Minton’s side than Carmona’s – I do think we’re going backwards when private companies control the space between buildings as well as the buildings. And like both of them, I think it is appalling that people can’t hold demonstrations in Canary Wharf. But equally, I do understand the difference between the history of Canary Wharf and, say, Liverpool One. And if you think of it as like a very weird version of Legoland, the rules don’t seem so strange.

*There is a problem with the use of the overworked word ‘privatised’ here – yes, this area was once owned by the British state – but that didn’t mean that members of the public could walk through it. There are plenty of state-owned spaces you don’t have access to, just as, long before Canary Wharf, there were many private areas you could walk around.

**The history of Docklands development will be covered in later posts.


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