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The Bartlett Development Planning Unit


Collective reflections about development practice and cities


The Golden Epoch of London, or the Arrival of the ‘Apocalympics’?

Matthew AWood-Hill29 March 2012

Twenty-twelve. As the Mayan calendar, or a certain over-exuberant Hollywood film would have you believe, this could be the end of the world as we know it. It also marks a moment in time where the world’s greatest sporting event is being held in one of Earth’s truly global cities.

For cities and – historically – civilisations, the Olympic Games have come to represent the height of individual success and achievement. Efforts are increasingly made to mirror ‘on the field’ sporting success with the ‘off the field’ glory of having curated and hosted a successful Games. The prestige is enjoyed as much (if not more so) by the host city as it is by the victorious athletes.

Defining exactly how and who benefits from the event and its Legacy are tantalising questions. Under the auspices of well-meaning objectives such as fostering greater inclusivity, promoting sport through the development of infrastructure, regenerating downtrodden urban zones and attracting investment to the city, Bid Documents frequently paint a utopian picture of the event and its legacy where everyone wins. Often where negative connotations can be found (a common one being that the long term benefits or detriments cannot be predicted in advance) they are dismissed because the feel-good factor generated through the event will vastly outweigh any criticism. The difficulty, as is often observed, is in comprehending these intangible benefits and drawing a comparison between the invisible legacy of the event vis-à-vis the more obvious tangible legacies (be the improved housing/infrastructure, notable gentrification of areas, or increased national debt).

Departing from this, ‘Whose Olympics? Transformations in urban open space and the Legacy of London in 2012’launched this week and undertaken by DPU staff in collaboration with UCL Anthropology and Open City London, with funding from UCL Grand Challenges – seeks to explore the dynamic impact that the Olympics will have on the use of London’s open spaces by the plethora of people who will bear witness to the occasion. The project adopts video and social media platforms as tools for urban research, drawing on the potential of new media technologies as used by residents and visitors to London to represent their changing relationships with the city’s open spaces. The research takes place across three phases: before the Games; during the Olympic and Paralympic Games; and immediately after the Games to the end of 2012 – charting these transformations and the grass shoots of Legacy thereafter. Central to the research are questions such as how public and open spaces are being transformed, and how these spaces enhance or limit people’s experiences of the event as a result. Members of the public are invited to upload their own short films, or one-off videos clips, with a description and spatial reference to an online platform hosted at www.whoseolympics.org Visitors to the website can then access an archive of geo-spatially referenced footage showing first-hand experiences of the Games through the eyes of those present in open spaces around London.

Modern mega-events transcend different scales, with television and media shortening the gap between the local and the global, bringing the event to households the world over – an estimated global audience of up to 4 billion is predicted.[1] For the vast majority unable to obtain tickets for the Games, London’s parks and open spaces will become focal points for collective Olympic experiences, and social media platforms the means through which they are shared. ‘London Live’ (www.londonlive.uk.com), for example, will run a series of fan-parks and events across the summer, while the Cultural Olympiad and London 2012 Festival promise to change the way public spaces are used throughout 2012.

By asking ‘Whose Olympics?’ we want to see how people are taking ownership of their Games and benefiting (or not) from newly built facilities and to understand who has what rights to the Olympic city. Where are the particular spaces of celebration and contestation before, during and after the event? This challenges and explores the assumptions around the legacy of such mega-events – that they truly can contribute to social and physical regeneration of the city, or conversely that they are little more than PR exercises to attract overseas investors, by documenting the togetherness that the Olympics purport to share and create –

whose is the right to the Olympic city?

The organisation and distribution of side-events around the city will influence how open spaces are appropriated and by whom, and how far the London 2012 Olympic Games is able to effectively engage the British and visiting public. These questions arise at a pertinent time, with the activities of the Occupy LSX movement putting a spotlight on the public vs. private space debate. The intensive hyperactivity created by the summer Olympics of 2012 stands to invigorate the city and its populace, and potentially exacerbate the underlying anxieties of those managing or ‘minding’ these areas, which could in turn influence the free use of public space.

Ultimately the research, which will culminate in a short film or a series of mini-films, will ask: Do we live in a city and society that encourages individual freedoms and the enjoyment of all? Are we all able to share equally in this once-in-a-lifetime spectacle, and how can social media enhance this collective expression? What will be the real Legacy for London in 2012, and how is public space changing as a result?

Through this we can reflect on how far we are living through London’s golden epoch as an urban centre, and whether society and space is fundamentally changing as a consequence of this Olympic (or indeed – apocalympic) event.

Visit www.whoseolympics.org to upload films of your stories and map your own Olympic Legacy.

The ‘Whose Olympics?’ team are currently [29/03/2012] recruiting volunteer filmmakers and researchers, see here for more information.

You can stay up to date with the project by following us on Twitter, Facebook or Foursquare.

[1] Evans, M., 2009, Screen Tourism Towards 2012: Maximising Olympic Opportunities For UK Destinations. http://www.insights.org.uk