Urban Lab Walk: The GreenWay — Green & Blue Infrastructure

UCL Urban Laboratory
11 min readApr 19, 2022


During the Spring of 2022 UCL Urban Lab curated a series of walks across East London, as a means of exploring London once more following the Covid-19 ‘lockdowns’ which had enforced the cancellation of so many in-person events, and linked to its annual theme Emergency. Running between UCL’s Bloomsbury Campus, and the soon-to-be-opened UCL East, the series moved to the Greenway and Pudding Mill Allotment Garden, stopping by Channelsea River, for the sixth walk led by UCL PhD Student Aude Vuilliomenet. In this blog post, Aude responds to walkers’ questions, explaining how the different elements of the itinerary are related to the concept of green and blue infrastructure.

On a sunny early spring day, Sunday 10th April, UCL Urban Lab met me outside Plaistow tube station to the west of LB Newham, to discuss green and blue infrastructure. The aim of the walk was to explore past, present and future features of the urban realm that act as multi-functional spaces delivering climate mitigation strategies and community and economic benefits.


The walk started with a brief introduction from UCL Urban Lab and to the participants — a nice mix of locals and inhabitants from across London, with diverse backgrounds but a shared interest in architecture and its relationship with urban planning. The group looks around the entrance of the station, some faces look perplexed, some unsure. There are not many trees or flower beds to be seen.

Why start a walk about “green and blue infrastructure” in this location?

I smiled. The decision to meet in Plaistow was a debatable one. Plaistow lies in Newham, a borough well known for its lack of accessible green spaces and tree coverage. The borough has just over 10% of accessible green spaces, a sad number compared to the 39% average across London. Moreover, the current parks and green spaces have been poorly managed over the years and concerns over safety and lighting have been raised by the local residents. Changes are however happening. Newham is pioneering Community Assemblies, asking citizens to take leadership by submitting initiatives and making decisions on the most important issues to tackle. A topic that has generated wide interest is green spaces [1].

So where are these so-called pieces of “green infrastructure” (GI) and what do they actually look like?

Green infrastructure and the often forgotten blue infrastructure have three key features: they form a network, are multi-functional, and deliver environmental, social and economic benefits. Parks, open spaces, woodlands, street trees, allotments, green roofs and green walls, sustainable drainage systems, wetlands are all covered by the GI umbrella term [2]. River and green strips of land form the links between ponds and green spaces, and walking along and between these spaces gives a sense of how nature unfolds.

Part I — Green & Blue Corridors

The first part of the walk engages with the so-called ‘Green & Blue Corridors’. These are illustrated by the Greenway and the Channelsea River. Both provide options for active travel and habitat for birds, insects and other wildlife, and they help reduce flood risk.

The group walked down Upper Road to enter the Greenway, leaving the noise of cars and buses behind. The soundscape changes. It’s the weekend and among the trill and whistling of the birds, we encounter a few dog walkers, joggers, family on bikes and e-bike delivery men. The Greenway extends to the left and right of us along a straight line. It’s wide with more than half covered by grass and it is elevated, offering views over the roofs of houses and the parks along each side. Next to a shrub full of sparrows, great tits, and chiffchaffs, we stop. For most people on the walk, it is their first encounter with the Greenway and questions start to flourish.

(1) The Greenway in Winter 2022 by the East London Crematorium and Cemetery. (2) A shrub full of sparrows in Winter 2022. Image Credit: Aude Vuilliomenet

Why is this park so straight? What is the story behind this so-called Greenway?

The Greenway, which was also referred to in the past as the Sewerbank, is a seven kilometre long, man-made green corridor. It runs on top of the Northern Outfall gravity sewer (NOS) which runs from Wick Lane in Hackney to the Beckton sewage treatment works [3]. While today it is mostly viewed as a green infrastructure providing active walking and cycle routes, habitats for birds and bees, and spaces for orchards and community gardens, the true nature of its function is as blue infrastructure.

Its story goes back to the 1850s. In 1853 a severe outbreak of cholera hit London followed by the “Great Stink” of the Summer 1858, when hot weather exacerbated the smell of untreated human waste and industrial effluent on the banks of the River Thames [4]. In response to these events, Joseph Bazalgette proposed a solution to build a network of enclosed sewers collecting sewage outflows and diverting it downstream North and South of the Thames, which was approved. The NOS was built along with the Abbey Mills Pumping Station.

(1) The Greenway in Winter 2022 with views of the Orbit and Stratford (2) Part of the group on the Greenway. Image Credits: Aude Vuilliomenet, Joseph Cook

We continue our walk westwards with a view of the towers of Canary Wharf and Stratford. Soon we reach Abbey Creek, a small tidal inlet formed by the Channelsea River. A wide bridge gives sight of Abbey Creek and the Channelsea Island. Looking down to the Creek, some floating islands can be seen lying on the bed of the river as the tide is down. This part of the walk is full of past and present history, another stop is due!

Joseph and I are cheerful. Three weeks before the walk, we participated in a workshop organised by the Surge Co-operative to build new floating islands, and we see the results of our work floating in the river. The islands provide opportunities for nature and wildlife to take hold. They are a perfect example of multi-purpose green and blue infrastructure. The plant roots provide habitats for microbes to break down pollution and nutrients and are a shelter and feeding ground for fishes. On the surface, they seduce waterfowl. It is a perfect spot for swans, ducks and geese to build a nest.

These small islands illustrate only a few activities that the Surge Co-op has undertaken. Founded in 2018 by Hannah White, Al Cree and Stephen Shiell, the cooperative engages in projects to clean the river beds and remove litter, to build raised beds, community gardens and insect hotels, and raise awareness of the historic use of riverside. They are driven by their vision to revitalise the river and create sustainable community-led moorings.

While signs of nature are seen, there is still work to be done. The area is known to be heavily polluted, resulting from the past activities of the Abbey Mill Chemical Works. In 1870, the chemical manufacture expanded onto the Channelsea Island and used the new buildings predominantly for production and storage of sulphuric acid. The Chemical Works was decommissioned in the late 1980s with the majority of the site demolished in 1992. The buildings on the islands were emptied and abandoned, leaving an island contaminated with a highly corrosive acid that not only harm plants and wildlife but also represents challenges to any new engineering structures [5,6].

(1) View across Abbey Creek towards West Ham industrial zone and Canning Town apartment buildings. (2) Four doughnuts floating islands (3) Two barges floating islands and Abbey Mills Pumping Station. Image Credit: Aude Vuilliomenet

It is time to say goodbye to the Greenway and cross Stratford High St to join the bottom of the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park (QEOP). The time is advancing quickly and we are running a little bit late for our meeting at the Pudding Mill Allotments.

Part II — Amenity Green Spaces

The scenery is changing once again. We walk along the Waterworks river with high-rise buildings on our right and what seems to be an empty parking building construction storage on our left. Walking further along this narrow path and round the corner we arrive in front of the Pudding Mill Allotment gate. A magnificent contrast to the very dense and grey area surrounding us, including the neighbouring site of the new UCL East campus.

Allotment gardens are recognised as important assets for ecological and societal goals. These green islands of the urban realm provide large extensive permeable surfaces to regulate water run-off. Moreover, they act as cooling through evapotranspiration of the many plants and provide habitats and food for pollinators, insects and birds. Their primary function is, however, to produce fruits and vegetables, increasing communities’ food security. Through the MyHarvest project, researchers at the University of Sheffield found that some allotment gardens produce as much food as conventional farms.

Our hosts arrive and are opening the gate for us. We are warmly welcomed by Colleen, Julia, and Charlotte, who are all smiling in their gardening clothes and happy to share with us the story of Pudding Mill. Colleen is the oldest allotment owner among Charlotte and Julia. She has been a member of the Manor Gardening Society, to which Pudding Mill is associated, for 40 years. She takes us back to her start and to the history of allotments in East London.

East London was rich in industries and social struggles. The creation of allotments provided relief to the industrial and poor workers and helped develop ties among the local communities. It was around the 1920s that the Manor Gardening Society (MGS) was formed. There were many allotment sites across what is today the QEOP (Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park). Colleen remembered her time at the Manor Garden Allotments, also sometimes referred to by the name of “Bully Fen”. When she was younger, allotments were predominantly visited by men, and it was rare to see women and children around, but today they are intergenerational places where men and women, children, young and old share tips and knowledge of gardening!

The Pudding Mill allotments’ story is interlinked with the story of the London 2012 Olympic Games. Bully Fen was situated next to the River Lee in what is today the area between Here East and Chobham Manor, at the centre of QEOP. In September 2007, the gardeners of Bully Fen had to leave the site to make space for the transformation of the area and the construction of olympics infrastructure. The London Development Authority and the Olympic Delivery Authority (ODA) responsible for the closure of the site committed to the creation of new allotments within QEOP by 2014. In the seven-year interim period, discussion between the MGS and ODA took place in regard to the location and design of the new allotment site. Finally, in February 2016, the MGS signed the lease for the current Pudding Mill allotment. Topsoils were brought in, sheds installed and season after season, the site began to look like any other healthy and biodiverse community gardens. Colleen, Julia and Charlotte are eager to take visitors around the plot and showed us the improvement.

We start with Colleen’s plot, the last one to be created and to receive some fresh topsoils. She has divided her plot in different areas, building a desert garden in one corner due to the dryness of the soil. Another corner is full of kale and swiss chards, which are having a spring regrowth. We are walking to Charlotte’s plot, a few plots away from Colleen’s. Charlotte told us she is learning tips and tricks from Colleen and follows her gardening practices. We are joined by her son, Sunny, who happily turns into our guide. He pointed us to the bushes of black and red currants and raspberries. He is however more interested to show us the three beehives of the allotments and talk about the bees, robins and other birds, foxes and sometimes frogs which inhabit Pudding Mill.

The group is delighted to see such a buzzing environment. A few questions arise around the waiting time to get a space, but also about the contentious LLDC architecture and design plan that will take light away from more than half of the plots [7, 8]. Colleen, Julia, Charlotte and Sunny sighed. More and more people are interested in an allotment space, the waiting list has been growing from year to year with more than 40 people currently on the list. But what disappointed them more is the constant turn around of the LLDC. Everyone in the allotment was aware that new buildings would be built on the parcel next to them, and they all agreed with this. However, the current plans have been designed in such a way that the highest buildings are the closest to the allotment, blocking sunlight from the plots, and rendering the growing of any vegetables and fruits extremely difficult. There is a sense of complete powerlessness: no laws or guidelines exist in the UK about the minimum hours of sunlight required for open spaces, their research and arguments remain void.

It’s time to take a group picture. We turn our back to the new UCL East facilities and they laugh saying to us: luckily you find yourself North of us. We exchanged a few more minutes about the move of UCL into QEOP. Soon, Joseph and I will be neighbours to the Pudding Mill. We hope there will be future flourishing collaboration between the allotment and UCL Urban Lab, the Connected Environments Lab and the People & Nature Lab.


The walk arrived at its end, and I paused to think. The walk from the Greenway to the bottom of QEOP was sharp in contrast: dense business hubs at the horizon, low density terraced houses, high-rise modern buildings, magnificent pumping station, allées of trees and shrubs, and blossoming flowers are all elements of this complex network of grey, green and blue infrastructure. It is challenging to assess the balance between them, to prioritise one over the other, and to judge them only by their financial value. London is a large city that needs good transport infrastructure, better-insulated and more plentiful housing. Undoubtedly, London also needs open and accessible green and blue spaces, where nature thrives, where extreme climate is mitigated, where young and old meet to relax, listen to the birds, grow food, play cricket or rugby.

I am part of the London National Park City, a movement to make London greener, healthier and wilder. We aim to improve access to parks, help everyone feel secure in green spaces, and take ownership to shape their natural surroundings. This walk shows that there is still major potential along the Greenway to create better wayfinding, use arts and culture to regenerate the area and plant a few meadows to welcome more pollinators.


  1. Newham Local Plan Refresh, Greenspaces and Water Spaces, 2021. Available at: https://www.newham.gov.uk/planning-development-conservation/newham-local-plan-refresh
  2. Town and Country Planning Association UK, What is Green Infrastructure?Available at: https://tcpa.org.uk/what-is-green-infrastructure/
  3. London Drainage Facilities, The secret history of Newham Greenway, Available at: https://www.london-drainage.com/blog/the-secret-history-of-newham-greenway/
  4. Summer J., Soho — A History of London’s Most Colourful Neighborhood, Bloomsbury, London, 1989, pp. 113–117
  5. Newham Heritage Month, The Bend in the River is my Home, Available at: https://www.newhamheritagemonth.org/records/the-bend-in-the-river-is-my-home/
  6. Greater London Authority, Abbey Mills Riverine Centre, Planning Report, Availabe at: https://tinyurl.com/2p8mk485
  7. Bridgewater Triangle, Design Code, January 2022, Available at: http://planningregister.londonlegacy.co.uk/swift/MediaTemp/9549-180479.pdf
  8. Bridgewater Triable, Pudding Mill Allotment Sunlight Study, AECOM, December 2021, Available at: http://planningregister.londonlegacy.co.uk/swift/MediaTemp/9549-180410.pdf



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