How Canary Wharf Group is continuously transforming urban spaces into extraordinary environments

Canary Wharf isn’t just the bit of footage you see at the start of The Apprentice; it’s a place to live, work, and play,” begins Alec Vallintine, Managing Director of Construction at Canary Wharf Group. “It isn’t just a place for bankers and businesspeople. We’re a destination in our own right, with a staggering 54 million people visiting our parks, shops, bars, and restaurants in 2022.”

As one of the most iconic locations in the UK, Canary Wharf is defined as an area of East London that forms part of London’s central business district. But it’s much more than a place for business; it’s a thriving urban hub with apartment living, retail space, cafes, bars, and year-round events. Some might even argue that it’s a new city within an existing one.

Originally London Docklands, the site was historically one of the world’s busiest docks, named after the constant stream of ships arriving from the Canary Islands. As cargo became increasingly containerised, the docks closed in 1980 and regeneration of the area began. However, in 1992, work ceased as the group of American and Canadian companies filed for bankruptcy.

“Canary Wharf Group was the phoenix rising from the ashes, taking over the estate in 1993,” Alec recalls. “The redevelopment works recommenced, and I joined the company shortly afterwards and we’ve been developing ever since.

“Although we’ve completed a few projects elsewhere, like Fenchurch Street and Southbank, our primary focus has always been on the Canary Wharf estate. With the acquisition of Wood Wharf, we’ve expanded to the east over the last ten years and we’re currently looking to expand north too. We’ve completed around 21 million square feet of property, and we’ve got another five million to go.

“Initially, the biggest problem was bringing the focus from the City to Canary Wharf, which was previously a wasteland with no infrastructure. We had to transform the site into a destination that people genuinely wanted to visit.

“Fast forward to now, and we’ve got all the necessary infrastructure; roads, rail lines, and transport hubs provide us with an extended network running 24 hours a day,” he says. “The Jubilee line runs directly through the site and the Elizabeth line was a gamechanger for us when it opened last year, by giving us access to a wider pool of residential tenants and visitors. We’re also 45 minutes away from Heathrow Airport, meaning we appeal to more international travellers too.”

Alec reflects: “In terms of construction, the hardest thing we’ve had to overcome is that we’re surrounded by water – everywhere you put a spade in the ground, there’s a water problem. The ground conditions are exceptionally difficult; there’s canals, graving docks, and lock gates underground, and we even discovered an entire basement of an old factory unit on our North Quay site.”

While Canary Wharf Group’s initial challenge was attracting people to the area, it is now faced with the issue of maintaining and repurposing the estate to ensure its relevance to a 22nd century audience. “It was always our intention to reinvent the site into a multi-use destination in its own right,” Alec says. “We’re revisiting what we built in the last 20-to-30 years, rethinking and recharging the estate to keep it alive and maintain its consistent appeal throughout history.

“Our reliance on commercial office buildings has drastically declined in the last five years, for instance, with working patterns changing. While companies do still want to establish a working office culture to foster the exchange of information, they now want to work in buildings that perform exceptionally in terms of environmental impact.”

One of the latest news stories relating to Canary Wharf’s office space is HSBC’s move from its 45-storey tower at 8 Canada Square, which made national press in July 2023. Alec delivered the project for the banking giant as a project executive in 2002, but just over 20 years later, we’re keen to gain his insight on the ever-changing industry demands.

“Although at the time of construction the HSBC project team thought it would serve them forever, they didn’t foresee sustainability requirements and market changes, which means the building no longer serves their requirements,” Alec suggests. “We must consider the ways in which we can either repurpose buildings to make them more environmentally friendly or put them to an alternate use like residential spaces or hotels.

“Away from our commercial centre, we’re currently focusing on residential spaces, with the site housing more than 3400 residents. We’re planning to add another eight buildings, comprising 3500 apartments, over the next four years, which we estimate will double our living population.”

As a socially conscious developer, Canary Wharf Group is working closely with Tower Hamlets to provide social housing facilities. “It’s not just high-end properties we’re adding, but a mixed portfolio of living spaces,” Alec says. “While at one end of the scale we have penthouses in the vicinity of £15 million, at the other end, we have genuine social housing in four buildings. However, our social housing is not kept separate from other properties, thereby eliminating any potential tension or hierarchy between tenants.

“We also offer a scheme where individuals who work on the estate and earn less than a set figure can rent a flat at a reduced rate. We’re creating a genuinely mixed-use development, with something for everybody in our diverse community, from premium penthouses to affordable rentals.”

Another example of how modern ways of living are reshaping the estate is the reduced reliance on cars. “We’ve got one-way systems and underground car parks, but the majority of our tenants don’t drive anymore,” Alec details. “We’re repurposing these spaces too. In one of our disused car parks, for example, we’ve installed a huge electric go-kart circuit under the central square. It takes up the whole floor and has been a massive success so far.”

The business is also investing in one of the key emerging sectors in the construction and property industry – life sciences. “We established a joint venture with Kadans Science Partner a couple of years ago, with a vision to build a 30-storey building, which will be the first of six-to-eight developments on the site,” Alec reveals. “It tends to happen like dominoes; as soon as we complete one building, the next one goes up, and so on.

“On the main estate, we’re also extending parks to make more green space. Additionally, for the last two years, we’ve opened the middle dock over the summer for open water swimming, as the water is so unbelievably clean.

“We’ve recently launched a unique partnership with the Eden Project too,” he explains. “As the organisation looks to expand its portfolio, we’re advising them with construction queries. In return, they’re working with us to create a green spine through the estate, a model of how biodiversity can thrive in an urban environment.

“With around 16.5 acres of parks and open spaces, there’s ample greenery and secluded areas for people to enjoy. The Eden Project’s work with our landscaping team has made an enormous difference so far, with plenty of insects and birds now visiting us and many varied species of plants, including many from the Canary Islands to pay homage to the site’s history.”

Turning to sustainability, Alec says: “Building sustainable places has been a pillar of our strategy since we first began development in 1987. We’ve worked with our concrete supply chain to find carbon-zero concrete through a variety of different additives, thereby reducing carbon content. Rather than keep this information to ourselves, we sit on various panels to
share our findings and collaborate with other contractors on ways the wider construction industry can reduce its environmental impact.”

The continuous redevelopment of the Canary Wharf estate is testament to the company’s commitment to the people that occupy the space, whether residents, workers, or those visiting for recreational purposes.

“Our future is very much focused on reinventing the estate, making it a more environmentally friendly and green space, adding more amenities and developing a world-leading health and life sciences centre,” Alec concludes. “We’re very aware that the world is constantly changing, and we want Canary Wharf to be a place where people want to come to work, live, and have fun for many years to come. And who knows, in 30 years we might be reinventing the estate again!”