With a rich history at the heart of the capital, Canary Wharf has grown into a luscious green paradise. 

LOOK east from any high point in central London and the concrete, glass and steel of the capital’s second business district rises ever skyward. With the expectation of the Elizabeth Line opening later this year, Canary Wharf will become busier. So what, in terms of green infrastructure, can a visitor expect in an area that is now a destination in its own right, yet little more than thirty years ago was a mostly derelict and socially-deprived wasteland straddling the neck of the Isle of Dogs.


The 39-hectare estate, owned by the Canary Wharf Group (CWG) and managed by Canary Wharf Management Limited (CWML), lies south of Limehouse and Poplar in the London Borough of Tower Hamlets. Containing nearly 1,500,000 m2 of office and retail space, above and below ground, a new residential quarter at Wood Wharf is nearing completion.

Known primarily as a wealthy business district, Canary Wharf has in the last few years reinvented itself as a food and leisure destination, with daily commuter numbers regularly swelled by curious locals and overseas visitors to the many bars and restaurants, engaging in water sports, wandering through a tropical roof garden, or enjoying an annual programme of public events, including free lunchtime concerts, seasonal farmers’ markets, the popular ‘Winter Lights Festival’ and more.

Forestry Journal: In Jubilee Park, a cantilevered water feature is surrounded by 200 fast-growing Dawn redwoods interspersed with cherry, evergreen oak and Zelkova.In Jubilee Park, a cantilevered water feature is surrounded by 200 fast-growing Dawn redwoods interspersed with cherry, evergreen oak and Zelkova.

The success of this reinvention owes much to its accessibility. Additional to the DLR (10 minutes to the City), the opening of the Jubilee Line in 1999 (just in time for the millennium celebrations and putting it in easy reach of Mayfair) is cited as the turning point in the estate’s fortunes. Add in accessibility by water, via the Thames Clipper (Uber) water taxi service allowing easy access from all along the river (Woolwich through to Putney), the Elizabeth Line (Crossrail) will ensure Canary Wharf is within easy reach of Heathrow.


From the Jubilee Line, escalators leading up to the western exit of Canary Wharf’s cavernous Tube station deposit visitors at the illuminated ‘Winter Lights Festival’ welcome sign and into a twilight world reminiscent of Fritz Lang’s 1927 film ‘Metropolis’.

Skyscrapers forming a three-sided valley around watery Middle Dock basin are stitched together by the red, white and blue (driverless) DLR trains, threading their way along an elevated track.

To the right, in Reuters Plaza, an endless ticker tape live streams the rise and fall of currencies and commodities around the world. Clock faces tick, tick, tick. A stream of human traffic, meeting, laughing, eating, faces lit by ‘Winter Lights’. Others, their faces illuminated by mobile phone screens, are absorbed or disgorged through glass doors below a large advertising video screen. As a sensory assault, it is exhilarating.


The minutes before meeting Canary Wharf Management’s landscape manager, Paul Griffiths, offers another chance to observe.

The ticker tape in Reuters Plaza has gone (the building was sold and is currently undergoing refurbishment) but the clock faces remain. In the daylight, green landscaping reveals itself in the form of a single row of small, seemingly healthy Metasequoia  glyptostroboides growing in tree pits, providing shade for concrete benches. They echo the plantings of the larger Dawn redwoods framing the curved glass-covered western entrance to Canary Wharf Underground Station.

Seemingly out of thin air, Paul appears. A cheery northerner, he notes how quiet it is. 
“Pre-COVID, 120,000 people commuted each day to Canary Wharf. Add the leisure users and it was bonkers busy. Now, with COVID restrictions in place, it is quieter.”
Landscape manager for two years, Paul has agreed to a ‘walk and talk’ around Canary Wharf’s tree stock, although he cannot guarantee a full tour. He is in the middle of overseeing the installation of 10,000 plants across 385 m2 of ‘living walls’, part of CWML’s Sustainability Goals and a project he hopes to finish by the end of September.

With a background in horticulture and working (among other roles) as assistant producer for television show Love Your Garden (ITV), if anyone can achieve this, he will.
Canary Wharf offers 8 ha of public green space, with more under construction in Canary Wharf’s new neighbourhood Wood Wharf. Green landscaping softens the concrete and glass of the built environment as much as it furthers CWML’s biodiversity, connectivity and sustainability goals (Net Zero by 2030) and is found in surprising places: in pocket parks (multi-stemmed acers and maples planted in steel drums); on ‘living walls’; in ‘living sedum roofs’; even wrapped around lamp posts.

Forestry Journal: Canary Wharf’s trees from the air.Canary Wharf’s trees from the air.

More than 1,000 trees of over 30 different species grow across the estate, many in Jubilee Park. Opening in 2002, 1.25-ha Jubilee Park is built over the Tube station and parts of Jubilee Place Shopping Mall. One of Paul’s first projects was a bid to have Jubilee Park awarded Green Flag status (in the process raising the landscape department’s profile within the company). 

“It’s a nice spot. Submitting a 50-page business plan covering everything from security and cleanliness to amenities provided, I knew it would have no problem getting the award.”

The park’s central feature is a snaking, cantilevered water feature (with ponds and fish) surrounded by ‘woodlands’, 200 fast-growing, lateral-rooted, deciduous Dawn redwoods interspersed with cherry, evergreen oak and Zelkova. The treescape reduces the neck-cricking urge to look up and frames vivid grassy (or astroturf when necessary) open spaces adorned with public sculpture and groups of two and threes, presumably deep in business conversations. On weekends, the parks are then regularly used by families, due to accessibility, cleanliness and security.

Paul believes redwoods were used because they are on the endangered plant list. 

“Their roots are lateral and we do have issues with them breaking up the paths. The planting was of its time, very green, but not great for biodiversity.” 

Leading a team of seven static gardeners and employing a variety of treework subcontractors, Paul began his tenure by modernising the department, updating PPE and H&S protocols, upgrading hand tools and brushes with battery-operated hedge-cutters, blowers and electric works vehicles, and digitising treework systems.

Forestry Journal: Canary Wharf Group landscape manager Paul Griffith.Canary Wharf Group landscape manager Paul Griffith.

Navigating north, Paul leads the way through the glass doors below the live advertising video screen at the base of ‘One Canada Square’, along the confusion of corridors that is Canada Place Shopping Mall, out, up and across the Adams Plaza Bridge pedestrian walkway (given a psychedelic makeover by artist Camille Walala) to Crossrail Place.

Opening in 2015, Crossrail Place Roof Garden is the crowning glory of a clipper ship-shaped structure (representative of Canary Wharf’s maritime heritage), built (in the North Dock of West India Docks) to house the Elizabeth Line Canary Wharf Station, dockside restaurants and 180 retail units. The roof garden straddles the Meridian Line and plantings are divided into Eastern and Western Hemispheres, evoking ‘the rich heritage of the London Docklands’ and species chosen to ‘depict the various supply routes of goods that arrived in the West India Dock’.

The lush 0.2-ha roof garden, designed to create community space and free for all to enjoy, offers wide pathways and open seating or secluded pockets for contemplation. Blackbirds (and others, including a family of goldfinches) provide a musical chorus while a botanical photographic exhibition adds further points of interest. In summer, the amphitheatre’s programme of free events offers further opportunities for engagement.

The garden is partially enclosed by a part-timber lattice roof, said to be reminiscent of the ‘Wardian Cases’ used by the plant explorer Sir David Hooker to send home specimens collected on plant-hunting trips. North-facing steamy side windows look out on a coracle-shaped hot-tub (Jacuzzi) boat chugging towards Billingsgate Fish Market, where Sammy the seal may have feasted on lunchtime scraps. With overseas travel costs inflated by COVID testing and hotel self-isolation, Western Hemisphere (braced) tree ferns and Eastern Hemisphere bamboos provide colourful, tropical backdrops for visitor ‘selfies’.

“Canary Wharf’s climate is inclement, we don’t really suffer frosts,” says Paul. “The roof helps to create a milder climate in which tree ferns, bamboos, magnolias and liquid ambers thrive. The ends are not enclosed and with the wind-tunnel effect, we did lose tree ferns during the Beast from the East.” Mildewed dogwoods have also gone.

To Eastern plantings of Black and Golden bamboos, Paul has added Mimosa, which flowers yellow in the spring, a Paperbark Maple for its bark, a Silk tree for its upright brushes of pink flowers, a Handkerchief tree for its white flowers and appeal to pollinators and a Loquat for its evergreen foliage. 

“The Loquat fruited this year and within four hours the sweet fruit had been taken,” by visitors it is assumed.

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In a newly planted Eastern bed, red Ethiopian Bananas are much admired. “I am quite proud of this border. It was overgrown with scruffy-looking bamboo. We ripped it all out and installed a metre-deep root barrier. Last year, planting directly into the soil, we managed to plant Ginkgo, a Carolina Ironside (rust-coloured bark) and some (perennial) banana plants, an unusual ‘tree’.” A banana plant’s stem is not wood, rather a series of tightly packed overlapping leaves. The banana plant is classified as the biggest living herb.

Heading south along Upper Bank Street towards Wood Wharf, Paul says that he works with the London Borough of Tower Hamlets on projects such as RHS ‘Britain in Bloom’, winning gold for the last two years.

On a corner opposite Canada Square Park, a ‘living lamp post’ looks remarkably unruffled. Lining one side of the park, at 235 m high, the pyramid-roofed 50-storey ‘One Canada Square’ was the UK’s tallest building until 2012, when the 72-storey ‘Shard’ at London Bridge overtook it. 

Forestry Journal: Zones are interspersed with breezy herbaceous borders and grassy hummocks dotted with mature willows, flowering cherries and magnolias.Zones are interspersed with breezy herbaceous borders and grassy hummocks dotted with mature willows, flowering cherries and magnolias.

“Skyscrapers funnel the wind causing wind tunnels. This park suffers the most. Lime boughs break and the limbs fall on the floor. The trees are planted in wide borders so we wouldn’t expect anyone to be underneath them. We go in straight away, chop it up and get it shifted.

“With such expensive real estate, the landscape must be kept to a high standard. Everything is kept clean. There is no chewing gum and no litter. Scarab sweepers clean the gutters and footpaths almost 24/7. Outside of Crossrail we don’t plant any fruit-bearing trees. The last thing we want is soggy fruit dropping and staining the footpath or becoming a safety hazard.”

All the estate’s green spaces cover subterranean infrastructure. The shallow soil depths (and tree pits) restricting new plantings, the species selected and how they are planted out. 

“We don’t plant young trees because their impact needs to be immediate. We buy-in mature trees (double-checked against Defra’s Xylella fastidiosa host list) from biosecure nurseries in Germany and Holland and plant them out in tree pits using HIAB cranes. We use organic feeds through the irrigation systems.” 

The landscape team visually inspects the trees weekly and an independent consultant surveys every three years. Replacing three to four dead or diseased trees a year, Paul says: “We have OPM in mature oaks at Westferry and we get leaf curl on other trees.” 

He won’t be planting any more oaks. “More worrying is box moth. The shrubs are infested with it. We have tried to eliminate all chemicals but when it comes to box moth it is hard to do. If we didn’t spray, we would lose hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of box, which has taken years to shape.”

One team member is arb-qualified, but because of lone-working rules, treework is subcontracted out. “Subcontractors did our pollarding. Next week they are cutting out deadwood from red oaks in Westferry. One grows right next to an extraction vent and hot air blows across it all year round.”

Forestry Journal: Living wall complete near Water Street Bridge.Living wall complete near Water Street Bridge.

Opposite the eastern exit of Jubilee Line Tube station, seasonal event space Montgomery Square hosts a double row of mature disease-resistant Dutch elms, planted in tree pits engineered when Canary Wharf was built. During the ‘Winter Lights Festival’ they provide a backdrop to thousands of light bulbs that drip in pink, purple, blue, white, yellow, red.

Currently, they shade a seasonal weekly farmers’ market.

Beside Water Street Bridge, connecting the existing Canary Wharf Estate to Wood Wharf, the wall alongside a ramp leading down to the dockside walkway is in mid-transformation with the installation of the first planters (and plants) in a 100 m² ‘living wall’. Two dead hornbeams in a line of trees planted in pits have been removed. “When the weather cools down they will be replaced. A HIAB with a 20-m crane will lift out the old root stock and we will plant brand new trees.”

At Wood Wharf, developers have just planted 25 new trees. “Contractors build and landscape an area (including planting the trees). At some point the design and landscape management responsibility is then handed over to me.”

Wood Wharf’s Harbour Quay Gardens overlook South Dock. The ‘Boardwalk’ (pristine decking and scalloped wood-panel-backed seating) ends in hoarding that masks the big plant and machines still working there. Above the Boardwalk, in (approximately) three quarters of an acre of landscaping, pathways link together a series of zones, a multi-coloured Perspex butterfly, a children’s play area (including musical instruments), a metal pergola and tall hedging. The zones are interspersed with breezy pollinator-friendly herbaceous borders and grassy hummocks dotted with mature willows (crane-planted three weeks ago), flowering cherries and magnolias. “The willows are massive. You’d think they have been there for fifteen years.”

A glitch in the ‘living wall’s’ watering system needs Paul’s attention. Explaining the quickest route to Westferry Circus, about a mile away, he races back towards the bridge.


The ‘Winter Lights Festival’, a highlight of London’s post-Christmas calendar, has been postponed for the second year running. Plan B ‘working from home’ restrictions are about to lift and sections of Crossrail are predicted to open in June.

A break in the dreary grey allows the sun to reflect off the skyscrapers of London’s ‘Second City’. The boat docks at Canary Wharf Pier.

Forestry Journal:  Along West India Avenue, knuckles of leafless plane pollards are almost twice the height of the hoarding surrounding another skyscraper-in-progress. Along West India Avenue, knuckles of leafless plane pollards are almost twice the height of the hoarding surrounding another skyscraper-in-progress.

One level up, a handful of people are sitting on benches in Westferry Circus Park, below leafless London planes (some of the 112 reduced last summer), soaking up the low winter sun. In spring, these planes will soften the roundabout and entry points to the car park below Westferry Circus. This, the oldest park on the estate, is planted with English Oak, Red Oak, Magnolia Kobus, Yucca and Hazel, most over 30 years old.

Along West India Avenue, balls of box hedging cut with millimetre precision provide a ground-level blanket of green. Above them, the knuckles of a double row of leafless plane pollards are almost twice the height of the hoarding surrounding another skyscraper-in-progress across the road. In sunny silhouette, thin shoots of new growth reach ever skyward.