Research project

Dispersal: Picturing Urban Change in East London


Dispersal: Picturing Urban Change in East London

Dispersal: Picturing Urban Change in East London is a book published by Historic England Publishing in 2017 (forthcoming September). It emerged through a collaboration between urban researcher Dr. Juliet Davis and photographers Marion Davies and Debra Rapp.

Its focus is on the site of London’s 2012 Olympic Games, which was entirely transformed over the decade between 2006 and 2016 from a low-rise landscape consisting largely of industry and transport depots to an Olympic Park replete with sporting venues in 2012 and then to an emerging cultural centre and series of urban neighbourhoods. However, the book does not concentrate on the processes of realising urban change through new development. Rather, it considers urban change in terms of what was dismantled, what vanished and of what some of the impacts of redevelopment on existing communities were.

Its focus, hence, is on what is often considered to be worthless in the context of redevelopment plans, such as industrial landscapes, and on legacies which unfold outside the frame of official representations of what regeneration might solve and bring, such as the dispossession of existing users. Its aim is to give visibility to these spaces and processes but also to consider their political and social significance. As the philosopher Henri Lefebvre writes, the ‘moulding’ of places after top-down visions has all too often involved regarding existing users, buildings and the visual clutter of everyday life merely as ‘obstacles and [forms of] resistance’ in the path of desired change [Lefebvre 1991, 49].

Chapter 1 shows how representations of the site as a post-industrial, impoverished ‘wasteland’ ripe for redevelopment were key to the regeneration planning that followed. And yet, the site was by no means devoid of life, accommodating over two hundred small to medium scaled enterprises of many different kinds and an eclectic range of other uses including a huge Pentecostal church, allotments and local markets. This variety of uses reflected the way in which the site had developed from the 19th century — when it was a place of laissez-faire industrialisation just outside the boundaries of London — to eventually become an ad hoc edgeland at the junctions of four Greater London boroughs. This history was of course reflected in the physical landscape, which was a palimpsest bearing the accumulated traces of many different eras of development. A selection of beautiful photographs by Davies and Rapp in Chapter 2 reveals the working environments and workers of sixty of the industries, who were engaged in activities as varied as belt making, zinc galvanizing, kebab making and salmon smoking.

So what happened to those industries which were seen to have no part to play in regeneration and were displaced to make way for the Games? Chapter 3 addresses this question, by revealing the sites to which firms moved and by exploring their experiences of change and adaptation over the years to 2015. It argues that many struggled to continue and adapt, partly as a result of relocation but also as London’s property market surged and planned regeneration continued to transform the fabric of historical, industrial East London. The book’s conclusions draw attention to the critical issues this raises for regeneration policy and practice.

  • The early research for this study was funded through an AHRC Doctoral Award (full scholarship).
  • The later research was supported by a Research Grant from the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art
Dispersal advance leaflet_Page_2

More Architectural History and Theory Group projects