We’ve just passed the fifth anniversary of the London 2012 Olympics, with all its sweat, glory and pride. The event sold Britain in the most positive image of its capital: a thriving, enterprising, multi-ethnic, multicultural centre of global urban excellence.
The ensuing “legacy” years can be seen as successful too, certainly by comparison with those of other Olympic host cities. The fact that all the permanent sporting venues on the Olympic Park – now officially called the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park – are in regular use while the former press and broadcast centre buildings are hosting real businesses mean that London is streets ahead of the dismal norm (see Athens, see Beijing). The athletes’ village has been converted for residential use, as promised. There are new schools, more housing neighbourhoods are under construction and no tumbleweed is blowing around.
But those achievements do not mean there’s no debate left to be had about the Games as a vehicle for economic development and what its benefits or otherwise have been for that piece of East London and for its surrounding areas.
After the London won the bid to host the Games in 2005, the then Mayor Ken Livingstone and the then culture secretary Tessa Jowell, two very different London Labour politicians whose achievement the “regeneration games” largely were, used immense political and legal muscle to secure the public investment required and to assemble the necessary land.
Compulsory purchase powers, almost always controversial, were deployed to relocate nearly 200 businesses and around 450 residents from the 500-acre site, not without complaints. The case is still made that the expense and disruption have not justified the outcomes, and that the area in question was growing quite nicely all by itself, without needing any big bang intervention by the state. That argument will go on for a while yet. There are always winners and losers with such projects, and one person’s regeneration triumph will always be another’s profit-driven vandalism.
Next month, Historic England will contribute to the debate by publishing a book called Dispersal: Picturing Urban Change in East London. It documents in images and commentary the array of small businesses that used to be in the area and what became of them.
On 5 October, I will be chairing a discussion about the book with its three authors – Marion Davies, Debra Rapp and Juliet Davis – for my local bookshop Pages of Hackney (buy your tickets here). The issue is of particular interest to me because I live near the Olympic Park – I can and often do run to the erstwhile Olympic stadium – now called the London Stadium and the home ground of West Ham United – and have spent a lot of time over the years watching the park and its environs form.
With the Pages event in mind, I spent a few hours recently roaming the territory. Dispersal will remind us of what was there before. What follows will, I hope, give a flavour of what is there now: how the legacy phase is unfolding and some of the challenges and tensions that remain features of this East London landscape.
My route to the park begins by heading down from Clapton to the towpath of the River Lee Navigation Canal – often spelt “Lea” locally – and heading south, initially past Hackney Marshes. The canal’s edge is lined with narrowboats, many of which are homes. My eldest child and her partner owned and lived on one for a couple of years, saving to buy a house. For others, the boats are romantic hobbies. For a few, they are bases for making anti-establishment statements, perhaps in the form of thunderous trance soundtracks at daybreak. I smile at them through my 59-year-old eyes as I go past in a way designed to say: “Living at the margins. All night parties. Recreational drugs. Wow. Never heard of those.”
Beneath the A12 flyover, a gloomy space that was occupied by travellers in the years preceding the Games, a back wall is a clamour of graffiti. A handful of workbenches stand amid the clutter of works-in-progress or never-to-be-completed, as the case may be.
Further along, the towpath becomes a corridor of transition into the realm of consumerism, athleticism and achievement ethos beyond. On my left stand the ex-Olympics media buildings, now called Here East, accommodating a hive of small businesses, a conference space and the base of BT Sport.
Across the water to my right is a hipster hinterland of art, craft beer and eco-tech including the officially authorised White Building. Other structures have a more improvised or “meanwhile” look about them, defining for now the character of that part of Hackney Wick, now a contested space in its own right.
Also on the park side, a primary branch of the phenomenally successful Mossbourne school federation has opened its doors and there are hoardings which I take as signifying the onset of Sweetwater, one of five new residential neighbourhoods to be assembled in the park. Past Old Ford Lock and on a bit, I swing left up a slope on to the Greenway, which carries you past you the stadium and the gormless Orbit tower. But the view the other way is just as striking. In the foreground, gravel heaps are a monument to the mountain of construction still to come. A new branch of UCL is to rise there, part of a cultural and education district. Beyond it, a vista of booming, soaring East London economic history, from the former Bryant and May match factory, now converted into Bow Quarter, to the megaliths of Canary Wharf. Squint hard, and you can even make out The Shard.
From here, you enter the park via a road that divides it from Westfield Stratford City. The mall has become part of the life of my family. Before it, major shopping or seeing a film that wasn’t being shown locally always meant heading to Islington or the West End. Today, we are as likely to head east on the Overground as west by bus or Underground.
The park itself, for all its landscaping and flowerbeds, is not a place of sylvan repose in quite the way of other London parks with royal handles. Much of it is thoroughfare between amenities: the stadium, the Aquatics Centre, the Copper Box and, further on, the Velodrome. Eventually, the other half of the cultural and education district will spring up beside the aquatics centre. Now entitled Stratford Waterfront, it will accommodate new branches of the Sadler’s Wells dance theatre and the Victoria and Albert museum.
Clusters of young people headed for a dance festival. Triathletes came straining past me as I walked. The buildscape fits around strands of the Lee that flow separately from the canal. Road and railway bridge the water, the latter enabling construction spoil to be borne away by trains lugging more than 20 trucks.
And so the part is place of culture, a place of sport, a place of learning, a place of new forms of work and industry. Can it also be a good place to live? The former athletes village, now east Village, has that generic, holiday apartment feel that Duggie Fields has disparaged across town in Earl’s Court. Still more building work is underway there. It is bound to feel antiseptic. Success will be its eventual bedding in as an enclave that connects with its surroundings. The parade of shops was quiet. A lone sunbather enjoyed the greenery.
Next door, another of the five additional neighbourhoods, Chobham Manor, is encased in scaffolding.
Alongside it, a mural called Tapestry by artist David Shillinglaw – a “modern day take on the Bayeux” – seeks to represent local feelings: hopes, visions, losses, anxieties.
By now, we’re in the most northerly part of the park that feels the least developed. Viewed within its setting, just north of Chobham Manor, it’s that bit easier to imagine that the Velodrome is really an alien spacecraft. Another bridge over another road and we reach the scrubby fringe where the Lee Valley Hockey and Tennis Centre, known during the Games as Eton Manor. There’s a fenced-in hockey stadium and bunch of tennis courts behind, all with electric blue playing surfaces. A bit desolate from the outside, it is lively within: the whack of stick on ball, children in wheelchairs swinging rackets.
The park straddles four boroughs: Newham, Tower Hamlets, Hackney and Waltham Forest. The Hockey and Tennis Centre is just inside the border of the latter. Council leader Clare Coghill, firmly pro-Olympics and pro-growth, has enthused about it and said it has “the potential to do loads more”. What goes for Coghill’s corner of it goes for the park as a whole. Good growth or bad? Landscape of dispersal or renewal? All of the above? The one clear answer is that there’s plenty to talk about.
Historic England’s book Dispersal, by Marion Davies, Debra Rapp and Juliet Davis, will be published on 15th September. The Pages of Hackney event discussing the book is on 5 October at Sutton House, E9. Buy your tickets here.