Ten years after the unanswerable sporting glories of London 2012, questions about the legacy of what we now call the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park continue to be raised and wrangled over. And so they should be: large regeneration promises were made, a lot of public money was invested, and people living in that part of east London, where four boroughs meet, endure some of the deepest and most stubborn poverty in the UK.
Progress so far can be measured in different ways. Ten years on, London’s Olympic Park beats the competition with Bolt-esque élan. Its facilities are used by the public, people are living there, it is an open space open to all. No other host city’s legacy comes close. It has been claimed that many of the changes to the area, including improved transport links, would have happened anyway. Not so. Winning the host city bid on that Singapore night in 2005 put rocket fuel in the clanking state machinery of infrastructure investment.
Plans for a swimming pool and new cycling facilities had been made, but not for creations as deluxe as the Aquatics Centre and the Lee Valley Velopark. The giant electricity pylons that stretched across the site would probably still be there. The Westfield shopping centre might not have been built, and the business quarter across the road would not exist. It is absurd that London had to win a competition to hold a big sporting event for these changes to take place, but it worked. Only ideologues and miserabilists want to turn back time.
The social and economic outcomes, especially for local people, are tricky to quantify. The host boroughs, renamed growth boroughs, set social and economic “convergence” targets for elevating their residents’ quality of life to the London average, but it was hard to separate any Olympics effect from other forces of change: school exam results might have picked up regardless of the Games; young professional first time buyers might have been moving into Plaistow anyway, changing the income profile; the wounds of austerity “sabotaged” potential the Games had created, according to Newham’s Mayor of the time, Robin Wales.
What can be said with confidence is that the Lower Lea Valley and the derelict old Stratford railway lands no longer form a weary, contaminated backwater. It is wrong to say there was nothing of value there before, but the change has brought superb amenities, a cleaned and restored natural landscape, and a still unfolding story of renewal and possibility.
The former Olympic Stadium, now the rebuilt London Stadium home of West Ham, is costing the taxpayer too much to run – albeit less than it was – but at least it’s not a crock of tumbleweed. Here East, the technology and innovation campus fashioned from the Games time media buildings, is widely hailed as a success. The emerging East Bank – initially known as Olympicopolis, reflecting Boris Johnson’s designs on greatness – could be astounding, a culture and education cluster to rival South Ken.
East Bank is not the only way the Park legacy is still forming. In July, at a New London Architecture (NLA) event held at Here East, the London Legacy Development Corporation’s Rosanna Lawes, who has been a senior figure in the Olympics project since before Tony Blair’s government backed the bid, said the task for the next ten years will be to re-establish the land around the River Lea as the industrial corridor it once was and as a “centre for inclusive growth and innovation”.
Her LLDC colleague Emma Frost defined an ambition to “turn the Park into an urban testbed” involving partners from academia and property development addressing climate issues, health and movement in cities. “It’s crucial that we connect with the surrounding neighbourhoods,” she said, citing civic involvement as a key ingredient.
By the end of 2024 the boroughs will get their planning powers back from the LLDC, and they are looking to the future. Newham, which has the largest amount of land in the Park, including the East Bank and London Stadium sites, is already working on a new “Stratford vision” for the next ten years, the borough’s planning and development director Jane Custance said. Stratford station, though massively made over from the backwoods state it was in before a revamp in the mid-1990s, is now phenomenally busy and “desperately in need of further investment” as part of a larger programme of town centre improvements.
Waltham Forest, the borough with the smallest land stake in the Park, is anticipating the migration of New Spitalfields Market to Dagenham and the big things that could be done on the ground it will vacate. Others are looking at how to reduce the amount of roads still running through and past the Park, infrastructure Lawes described at the NLA event as necessary for the Games but “oversized” and “of its time”. Meanwhile, the proportion of affordable homes is going to rise thanks to the policies of Sadiq Khan.
The capital’s centre of gravity keeps moving eastwards, with the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park a flagship draw. Spatial development seems certain to continue, albeit partially dependent on the attitudes of an unsteady national government. Perhaps the largest challenge will be the classic one with big regenerations – ensuring that change is tailored to the needs and desires of hard-pressed local people and persuading them to embrace it.
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