London’s hollow shoreline: an urban landscape finally reaches for the skies

Sitting grimly among abandoned houses and junkyards on London’s Victoria Dock, the cardboard box in question is nobody’s idea of a portent for the future of the city’s waterways. Once jammed with heavy industry, the deep sea lagoons of the capital’s ancient port have been emptied in the face of suburban competition. But as London comes to terms with how it’s going to get around – and as we discover, the city has no clear plan.

The numerous infrequent vantages along the Thames make the city lean and sometimes precarious, and London is littered with unfinished regeneration projects. The library and its nearby seats – each made of boxbeam timber – are viewed as a monument to the city’s shaky foundations by those who remember its other uses, as a boat repair shed and shipping containers.

London’s wooden boxes

London remains far more heavily populated than many older cities, but the numbers haven’t gone up much since the 1970s. That’s been true across the whole country: there was a significant spike in traffic congestion in the 1980s, but car use has stayed relatively static. Meanwhile, the population continues to surge.

The writer Emily Jenkins recently posted a rendering of what such an influx could look like: all those heavy machines rummaging around on the docks. The map, originally drawn by Google, was shared on Twitter earlier this year. “The dispersion of the boats into the five different cargo zones under this mass of water would indeed be quite a sight,” says London’s Knowledge, a well-known design blog.

Those responses were by a small group, but to paraphrase them, “they make a lot of sense to me” and “not at all what I expected”. Replied one Twitter user: “I see how this jagged, angular spot could absorb tonnes of exhaust from Uber carriages …”

London is a city bound together by these massed wooden boxes, and at the same time missing them. Londoners are a dedicated group, with the single-minded desire to move from one venue to the next with ease. And yet, the cabinets remain immobile, decaying more and more before our eyes. The half-completed brand new cycle mall in Battersea is a case in point. Its laminated shelf units, with shiny saddle-leg legs at the front, tell you it will be up and running by February. But now it’s mid-July, and the shelves are covered in thick rust and grease.

The opportunity to use the boxes alongside freight carriers would be a boon for the busy central Thames estuary, and an opportunity for the new logistics centres that are set to spring up around the world. A port providing goods-on-wheels transport would not only lighten the city’s commercial load, but extend and reinforce its physical bonds. Port city does not stand for weary cities trapped in a long and linear history of foot travel.

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