I had a couple of hours spare last week, and being in central London at the time I thought I’d pop over to Stratford to see how it’s looking before the Westfield shopping centre opens in September. I’ve only been to Stratford once before. That was a couple of years ago to have some drinks. I got there at dusk and went straight to the pub. Therefore my knowledge of the place was almost completely non-existent except for an average boozer.

So with less than a year now until the Olympics kicks off, and the big shopping centre opening in September, along with a new DLR extension that will run direct from Woolwich Arsenal opening in late August, I thought it would be a good time to see progress. I didn’t make it to the Olympic Park, as I didn’t have enough time, and I’ve read a lot about security restrictions. Instead I wanted to see how the streets and buildings were looking, and whether they were still grotty, as Stratford has often been remarked as being. Or whether the process of improvement was in full swing. Good quality streets are one of the ‘legacy’ aspects I am most hoping to see. Improving older buildings along with high quality new ones could do a lot for the more run down areas of East London, and also South East London. Streets, parks, and building improvements are not as well reported as many of the other changes the Olympics will bring, but it is one that could bring some of the biggest visible changes and long lasting improvements.

I decided to take the central line to Mile End from Bank and walk down to Stratford from there. As Mile End is in zone 2, and a station I’ve never had reason to visit before, I thought it’d be a good place to start. I left the tube station behind hundreds of Spanish students. No idea why they were there as upon leaving the station there seemed to be nothing around. First thing I did see was the big blue lines on the road. The new cycle superhighway. I grand name for something so flawed in implemetation. See here for diamondgeezers view on the new cycle superhighways, which pretty much matched mine as I walked along. I can’t see many novices getting on a bike to ride it.

One thing that surprised me is just how little housing there seemed to be immediately around Mile End station. Given the need for housing that there is, a spot in zone 2, next to a tube station and on a main road should be a prime spot for a high density development. I don’t mean a tower which would be out of place there, but something of about 6 stories. Why, a few buildings like the new flats in the Woolwich Arsenal development of a few posts back would be ideal.

Walking along Bow Road was pleasant as there’s a lot of trees, and the paving is generally very wide, which could’ve been used for a cycling blue strip which would have separated bikes from buses and other traffic. There’s a lot of Georgian terraced housing which I didn’t expect. I passed under the Bow flyover and was then onto Stratford High Street. Lot’s of tall buildings were suddenly visible. The cladding quality didn’t seem too high on a few of them. I walked down and made it to the town centre. The paving looked new around this part of town, and there was an absence of guardrails along pretty much the whole stretch from Mile End. TfL’s policy of removing miles of them in evidence here which was good. Below is a pic of the improved streetscape. The streetlamps look new, and lighting has been strung across the road between lampposts. I’m guessing the very tip of the poles light up given the elongated length.

There are a lot of rather rubbish cheap buildings along there that will hopefullly be swept away, including 90s infill as can be seen on the right. There’s also gaps and a few one/two storey buildings. New buildings are everywhere though. The UEL building on the left has plans for a tower I believe. Many of the buildings finished, or under construction, are pretty tall which will create quite a cluster. However there’s nothing revelatory about them. They aren’t awful, but quite generic in design and plasticky, and the detailing doesn’t dazzle. There’s an excess of drab tones. Greys are plentiful. The shot below, though taken on a rubbish mobile camera and in poor light, shows the many grey facades looking towards Bow away from Stratford High Street. It’s a bit deflating and dreary. Good enough for an Olympic site?

Another shot looking towards Stratford town centre –

Building so many tall buildings will greatly increase the density of the area. It’s a reasonable assumption to make though that many people paying to live in these new blocks will work in Central London, or Canary Wharf. Given the busyness of the Jubilee and Central lines, and DLR Line it remains to be seen how many more commuters they can handle, even with the frequency increase of the Jubilee Line now taking place and the new DLR line opening later this month. A Crossrail station will appear, but in seven years.

One brilliant aspect of the Olympics is the ‘High Street 2012’ idea of improving the stretch of road from Aldgate to Stratford. This scheme is designed to remove the clutter littering the road, the street furniture that is intrusive and obstructing, which is ugly and mis-matched along the road. As well as that there is a process of cleaning and restoring buildings historic buildings along the route. See below for a before and after of some completed work in Aldgate –

I didn’t have a chance to see these myself sadly, nor any other ongoing work further towards central London, but the change is extremely impressive.

It’s a fantastic scheme that I would like to see much more of. For a modest outlay the streets of London can be improved massively, creating places where people want to live, visit, socialise, and attract businesses. Combine it with some low rents to encourage ‘pop up’ businesses and people looking to give new ideas a go, and you have interesting and exciting areas. Not that that is happening there that I’m aware of, but it would be great if it was. The High Street 2012 website lists all the improvements from Aldgate to Stratford, encompassing Whitechapel, Mile End, and Bow.

I ended up by the bus station and one way system. It was horribly overcrowded around there so I left sharpish. It wasn’t a particularly pleasant environment. I’ve just read on diamondgeezer’s blog that the bus station is to close for reconstruction which is welcome.

It was a brief walk. Only a couple of hours. I wasn’t dazzled by anything I saw, or felt like I was in an area that will shortly be visited by millions and one of the future ‘places’ of London. Nothing felt special. To be fair, there’s a year to go, and many street improvements will hopefully take place shortly before the games so as to present the streets as shiny and new. I hope to check out the work being done further towards London, as that has the potential to massively improve the area.

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