London Olympic Legacy

Camilla Ween (LF ’08) worked until 2011 for Transport for London, advising the mayor on land use development. Having had both feet in the planning process for the 2012 Olympics plus the benefit of hindsight, she delivers a thoughtful appraisal of the impact of these games on the city and what differentiates them from Olympics before and since.

Four years ago London hosted the Olympic and Paralympic “all public transport” games. They were a huge success, the weather held up and the transport worked a treat–perhaps because the scare messages from Transport for London drove a large proportion of residents to flee on holiday. There was no congestion on the network!

But the real story is the legacy: a dead river and poisoned land, crossed by giant electricity pylons, that has been transformed into a new mixed-use quarter in London. Two hundred buildings had to be removed, and cleaning up the environment, restoring ecology, and burying the pylons could only be economic and effective at a very large scale and delivered on the back of a mega project such as the Olympics. No regeneration project could have afforded this. The area designated was centered close to an existing transport hub that was well served with high speed rail, regional rail, underground and light rail services, and a wide network of busses. As a result, it was possible to design the Olympics around public transport access, and the regeneration development that is following is classic transport oriented development. There had been some 70 master plans during the preceding decades, but the area was a backwater, and fragmented ownership meant any consensus was difficult. The Olympics delivered a restored river with fish and wildlife, all the soil washed and decontaminated, and the pylons removed. That alone would have been an incredible legacy, but the bid to the International Olympic Committee included a long term legacy program to transform the Olympic site after the games into a new district of London, with housing, employment, leisure and sports facilities, and a 560 acre park.

After the Olympics, work started immediately on dismantling temporary structures and transforming the park into a more intimate community and human scale facility, narrowing many of the bridges and making adjustments to the venues that would remain. Three hundred million pounds (over $390 million), which was part of the original Olympics budget, was spent on the transformation work. Master plans were created for the areas to be developed, planning permissions were negotiated, and developers recruited. It is anticipated that by 2031 there will be 24 thousand new homes, of which 35 percent will be affordable units, though the new mayor Sadik Khan has made it a priority to increase this percentage. The permanent venues are now packed with events, and the aquatic center is used by the local schools, so much so that it is actually hard to book an individual swim. Chobham Academy, the first school, opened in 2012.

This work has been and will continue to be delivered by the London Legacy Development Corporation, which was set up some months prior to the games, a public sector, not-for-profit organization responsible for the long term planning, development, management, and maintenance of the Olympic Park. Immediately after the games the LLDC took control from the Olympic Delivery Authority and the London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games. The LLDC is answerable to the mayor, and land is being effectively retained in public ownership as the leases being granted are very long, up to 250 years. The former press and broadcast center for the Olympics has been transformed into 1.2 million square feet of commercial space for London’s creative and digital industries, Here East, creating 5,300 jobs. A major new riverfront cultural and education quarter is being developed, with University College London, the Smithsonian in collaboration with Victoria & Albert Museum, the University of the Arts London, and the Saddlers Wells Theatre all having venues in the new quarter. The area will eventually deliver 40 thousand new jobs. The legacy benefit is estimated to be 75 pence for every 1 pound spent. Maintenance of the park and facilities is currently funded by the mayor’s office, but the long term ambition is to become cost neutral.

A key objective of the Olympic bid was to ensure that urban regeneration benefits would be extended to the maximum number of Londoners. The 2012-2040 vision was a big picture transition from sport to future urban use, with a clear end state from the outset, and the need for housing underpinned it. The end state was actually politically more important than the Olympic games. Land assembly was the first major task, and compulsory purchase in the UK could only be carried out on the basis of the end state, not purely for the Olympics. The Games coalesced public, private, and local authority opinion and was a catalyst for transformation.

London was the only fully “legacy” Olympics; Athens, Sydney, and Barcelona only developed and retained their Olympic villages. By contrast the Rio Olympics approach has been very different. Transport will rely on buses. The site is sandwiched between layers of wealth and the poverty of the favelas, and the winning plan did not work. The consortia of construction companies and developers were focussed on profit, which led to commercial deals. Delays and running out of time have meant that many “nice to have” ideas have been lost. The fun of the Olympics will mostly be overlaid on the status quo rather than built in, so it will have little lasting benefit. It is questionable what the legacy is, though the white water rafting center will be turned into a large swimming complex for the favelas.

One of the key lessons from London is the private sector did not seek to extract value from the regenerated site, though some developers have ridden on the back of the increased land values and developed around the park. The biggest achievement has been the knitting of the piece of land back into the surrounding urban fabric, creating permeability and access (30 bridges in total) so that the site is no longer an island. Placemaking and high quality public realm were central to the planning and are expected to inform all the new developments. A priority was that jobs should be provided for local people; by monitoring construction and development, local participation has been guaranteed. The local plan had a requirement for new businesses to create apprenticeships, ensuring that local people have access to opportunity and skill development.

There is inevitably a sense that some opportunities have been missed. Particularly regarding housing, it is felt that testing alternative economic housing models such as co-housing, community development trusts, and community land trusts would have been a good experiment. Could some land have been allocated for a community land trust?   Some feel that there was a reluctance to be experimental and that solutions could have been more bottom up rather than top down.

At the end of the day, London 2012 will have delivered a vibrant, mixed use community in a part of London that most likely otherwise would have remained contaminated and unattractive to development for another 100 years. If there is a clear vision for the long term, then Olympic projects can deliver lasting benefits and regeneration.

Cover image courtesy of London Legacy Development Corporation / Allies and Morrison / O'Donnell + Tuomey
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