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What does the future hold for London beyond the 2012 Games?

By news editor, on 20 March 2012

By PhD Planning Studies students Gabriel Silvestre & Lucy Natarajan

Many Londoners are wondering what will happen after the Olympic Games in London this summer, especially those studying planning at UCL. At the time of writing, the university is in talks with the Olympic Park Legacy Company (OPLC), the body tasked with managing the development of the Olympic 2012 venues after the Games are over. They are discussing a potential additional campus in Newham, next to the Olympic Park. Lessons from the Bartlett School of Planning’s latest London Planning Seminar demonstrate that there is a wide range of factors that can help shape the future of London’s East End.

Kathryn Firth, Chief of Design at the OPLC and Professor John Gold from Oxford Brookes University spoke at a double-bill seminar on the evening of 15th March. The event, entitled ‘Olympic Planning: London Beyond 2012’, focused on evaluating the developmental trajectories of Olympic host cities, including London and others. These distinguished speakers shared their experiences and knowledge, and explored post-Olympic scenarios for London. They asked: What does the history of the Olympics tells us about the urban outcomes? How will the planned Olympic spaces integrate with the wider area? How does London’s post-Olympic work compare with the experiences of previous urban regeneration programmes?

Discourses of Olympic Legacy
Prof. John Gold presented a historical view of the agendas which underpinned the Olympics. He highlighted how the games were a perennial feature of European history (even quoted by Shakespeare!) and had only taken on their modern form in the 1890s. He vividly traced the evolution of the pillars of the Olympics, from Sport and Culture to current notions of ‘legacy’.

The presentation focused on what had been left to cities after hosting the Olympic Games. Up to the 1960s, existing and temporary facilities were largely used for the Games. It was only with Rome 1960 that new build and urban regeneration started to be associated with the Games. This type of investment has become a trend and escalated sharply. It has even exceeded control, for example leading to the financial disaster of Montreal in 1976, which left a 30-year debt to be paid by the local taxpayers.

Barcelona is widely cited as benefiting from significant regeneration but, as Prof. Gold reminded the audience, only one fifth of the regeneration budget for that city was directly linked to the Games. The International Olympic Committee was increasingly concerned by this dynamic of ‘giantism’. This was seen by the IOC as threatening to undermine the interest in hosting the Games, but this changed with the social debates that emerged in the 1990. These new discourses offered a new motivation for hosting the games, and the suggestion that cities could benefit from positive investment and development associated with the Olympics.

The global discussions over Environmental Sustainability that marked the early 1990s led to its adoption by the IOC as a ‘third pillar’ of the Olympics, alongside Sport and Culture. Prof. Gold made the point that in this way the IOC gained some control to curb perceived excesses that could put in danger the Olympic project while also transferring the responsibility for a ‘Green Games’ entirely on to the host city’s shoulders.

Over time, the notion of ‘legacy’ has become central to the discourses of hosting the Olympics, though it was barely employed until 15 years ago. Prof. Gold highlighted how it was largely used by organisers of the Atlanta 96, Salt Lake City 2002 and Vancouver 2010, and how the term took on positive associations, particularly in contrast to alternatives such as ‘impact’ and ‘outcome’. The notion of a ‘legacy’ is now endorsed by the IOC, who created the Olympic Games Global Impacts (OGGI) – an analytical tool to assist Olympic Legacy Planning. In addition Vancouver and London, two cities which relied heavily on the rhetoric of legacy, were successful in their bids. In this context, London is now seen as setting a legacy agenda from scratch.

In his final comments, Prof. Gold reflected on potential future host cities. For example, he touched on the impacts on international relations of turning down Doha’s 2020 bid. But there were also the opportunities for a more progressive international ‘legacy’, for instance by dismantling infrastructure and reassembling it in countries with less-developed economies.

Developing East London
Kathryn Firth agreed with Prof. Gold that Olympic pillars were the key drivers of London legacy planning. She said that sports venues and cultural spaces were important elements of the Olympic Park, but could not in themselves ensure greater levels of participation in sporting or cultural activities. Instead, ongoing collaborative spatial planning would be necessary. She also emphasised the importance of ensuring the green credentials of any new development emanating from the games.

Through a series of maps and diagrams, Firth showed the pre-existing landscape, infrastructure and social issues in East London. She discussed how these had informed the legacy planning. Several spaces were to be opened up after the Games. These would initially be temporary facilities, which could then later give way to planned projects, such as residential housing, office space, schools and parkland.

The whole of the Olympic Park area will be known as ‘Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park’, but as Firth explained, the OPLC aimed to create open spaces, which could operate as three separate areas, with distinctive characters. The greenest area of the park will be to the north, around the velodrome, framed by family housing, playground spaces and community use. The south will become more ‘visitor-oriented’, and include the Olympic landmarks of the aquatics centres and the ‘ArcelorMittal Orbit’ tower. The Lea Navigation area to the west will focus on riverwalks, with enhanced natural habitats and sports facilities.

As the summer event draws to a close, OPLC’s long term planning will come into effect across the area of the new Park and its four surrounding boroughs. This will involve the creation of five new neighbourhoods: Pudding Mill and four others, which will use new names put forward by local residents in a competition last year. Firth explained that these neighbourhoods were designed with a specific mix of uses in mind. New landscaping would focus on the character of each neighbourhood, for example, framing views outwards over wider areas. Another important consideration was the likely climate effects, for instance, how open spaces would feel on a windy October afternoon.

The neighbourhood to be known as Marshgate Wharf will be densely occupied with both commercial and residential space, and contain the large Westfield shopping centre. Adjacent to this, employment generation will be promoted at Pudding Mill, which comprises the current DLR station. The newly named neighbourhoods of Sweetwater and East Wick will be residential-oriented. Sweetwater will have a lower density and will be lined with apartments and East Wick is destined for families, schools and a multi-sports arena. The fifth neighbourhood, where the Athletes’ Village currently stands, will be renamed Chobham Manor and converted to include mixed-use residential and taller buildings.

In conclusion, Firth emphasised that one of the OPLC’s goals was to avoid creating cut-off areas of isolated developments. Instead it hopes to create complementary areas that can “pull in the existing patterns so it knits all up together”. Using an impressive array of computer generated images, and a progression of topographic A-Z maps, she gave a thorough picture of how the Olympic Park will be integrated as a new part of London. She emphasised that the OPLC had set a target of 35% affordable housing for the 6,800 new homes that it would be building, and was pursuing this commitment as part of its Legacy Communities Scheme.

The debate which followed focused on ‘cohesion’ and in conclusion it seemed that strong joint working between the OPLC, local councils and other development partners would be the key to a successful legacy.

Image: The Olympic Park (Credit: Gabriel Silvestre)

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