Will the Games prove more than a quick facelift for East London?

Sensemaking / Will the Games prove more than a quick facelift for East London?

London 2012 promised to be a regenerative force for a long neglected part of the capital. Phil Harper asks whether this promise has been fulfilled, and what lessons have been learnt.

30 Aug 2012

London 2012 promised to be a regenerative force for a long neglected part of the capital. Phil Harper asks whether this promise has been fulfilled – and what are the lessons learnt.

"The true legacy of 2012 is that within 20 years the communities who host the Games will have the same social and economic chances as their neighbours across London."

This rather dry phrase, published in London 2012's Strategic Regeneration Framework, conceals a considerable ambition. The Olympics site sits at the heart of four boroughs which are among the most deprived in England. And yet it lies right next to some of the most prosperous areas of the country. Despite being so geographically close, there is a huge gap in health, life expectancy, educational achievement and crime.

Previous efforts at regeneration have been patchy at best. But the announcement in 2005 that London had won the Games brought a much needed sense of urgency, and most crucially, a looming deadline to get things done. A major barrier to previous regeneration schemes had been 52 electricity pylons and hundreds of miles of unsightly cables located throughout the site. The scale of investment and engineering required to relocate them underground was beyond the scope of previous regeneration attempts. Yet, at the announcement of London 2012, they were one of the first things to be tackled.

"To have brought together an area as large as Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens under one ownership and management, and to plan and operate it through a single lens, means you can do things at scale in a coordinated and strategic way", said David Stubbs, Head of Sustainability at LOCOG. "Most regeneration projects just don't have that strategic focus."

The first task was to transform the site from a mixture of industrial wasteland and urban jungle into a world-class sporting venue-cum-ecological park. The cleared land made way for the Olympic Village, home to more than 16,000 athletes during the Games. When the Games finish next month, the London Legacy Development Corporation will begin a retrofit, giving every apartment a kitchen. The Village has already met Level 4 of the Government's Code for Sustainable Homes – making it good, if not best, practice in terms of environmental performance.

Half the Village will end up as affordable housing, on a shared ownership or social letting basis, and will be managed by Triathlon Homes, a joint venture company established by First Base, East Thames Group, and Southern Housing Group. The other half has been sold on the open market to a consortium consisting of UK developer Delancey and the Qatari Diar group, which also secured six adjacent future development plots with the potential for 2,000 more homes.

There's no denying the scale and pace of change happening in East London. The 2012 deadline meant that work went ahead at what Mayor Boris Johnson called "a sensational speed". But this had its disadvantages, says urban ecologist Joe Ravetz. "In the rush to get everything done, they've had to use many non-local contractors, displace small businesses, and concrete over much loved local green space."

In response, Stubbs points to LOCOG's open and transparent procurement processes, and asserts that it has worked with many small and local businesses to generate employment opportunities around the Games. He adds that the Olympic Park site was "massively in need of regeneration", and that its work "has created new opportunities in terms of jobs, skills development, and accessible green space and wildlife".

The loss of the Manor Gardens allotments became a rallying cry for opponents. Local MP Diane Abbot had a more nuanced view. "It is a real shame that the allotments had to be lost … However I also feel that the benefits that the Olympics will bring to Hackney as a whole are enormous, and do outweigh those of other facilities in the area."

It will form one of the largest urban parks created in Europe in the last 150 years

So, what of those benefits? The Legacy Corporation will manage the project when the Games finishes, and has an extensive plan to bring investment into the area. Already, residents are benefiting from more than 120 walkways and cycle routes, making it easier to get around sustainably. When complete, the whole area will form one of the largest urban parks created in Europe in the last 150 years, and future plans suggest other parts of the site will have 11,000 affordable new family homes. The area will also be one of the UK's hotspots for communications, with a high-speed, high-capacity network installed by BT to bring the Games to spectators across the world.

Just a short walk from the park, East London residents now have access to the £1.45 billion Westfield Stratford City development, expected to bring in more than one million visitors a week. The idea that retail-led regeneration projects can promote sustainability is a matter of debate. The goods are rarely produced locally, and rental costs are often beyond the reach of local businesses. In a similar regeneration at Manchester's Arndale Centre, low-rent space was provided for market traders, but no such provision was made at Westfield.

Unsurprisingly, the area's market traders have mixed feelings. Neil Stockwell, a stallholder on the Green Street market in Newham said: "I love sport, I love the Olympics, and I'm proud that we got to host it. But we were told that the Olympics would benefit local people. The only people who seem to be benefiting are those with the big franchises." It's a view echoed by Glenn Pierman, who has run a stall selling CDs at Stratford's outdoor market for more than 18 years. "It's exciting times ahead, but as for the business I just don't know. The buses now go to Westfield and we're missing the flow of people that we were used to." But he added, "With the Olympics it's a numbers game, [and] the more people pass you, the more chance you've got."

Others may draw optimism from figures showing how many new ventures have opened in the area. While the number of businesses operating in London as a whole has fallen slightly in recent years, Newham has bucked the trend, with the total soaring by 43.3%, from 10,238 in 2010 to 14,672 at the beginning of 2012.

So while the benefits may not reach everyone locally, there's little doubt that, as a whole, the Olympics has succeeded where other regeneration projects for the area failed. The key lesson which seems to emerge is the importance of extensive planning. "They started planning for the legacy of the Games years earlier than other host cities", said Joe Montgomery, Chief Executive of the Urban Land Institute Europe. "This is novel, and London's approach could emerge as a model for future host cities."

The upper half of the stadium can be stripped down and resold on the open market

The model was to develop the legacy plans first, then connect the Games to them. It may seem obvious, but long term use wasn't something developers at the 2004 Games in Athens paid any attention to. Many of the Athens venues now sit behind barbed wire fences, monuments to poor planning. Conversely, legacy uses have been identified for all the permanent venues on the London site. The Legacy Corporation will invite operators to find a regular use for the Olympic Stadium. If future users don't need the upper half of the stadium, it can be stripped down to its core components and resold on the open market – a remarkable and unique engineering achievement. The remaining, much smaller venue will be cheaper to run and might offer a better match for smaller investors. Such flexibility is seen as key to intelligent legacy planning.

Meanwhile, all the lessons learned throughout the development are to be freely shared on a dedicated website – and the information is already beginning to snowball, with tips on everything from how to get rid of Japanese Knotweed [an invasive plant that is notoriously hard to eradicate], to contending with the more niche problem of discovering a submerged ancient boat.

As the Strategic Regeneration Framework acknowledged, it could be 20 years before we can see the full impact of the Olympics in terms of its legacy for the local community. The regeneration is nowhere near the finishing line yet, but with investment pouring in to the area, it has certainly got off to a good start.

Phil Harper is a freelance writer specialising in green issues.

Photos: imagebank; LOCOG

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