Today marks the 1000-day countdown until the start of the London 2012 Summer Olympics. It is very timely that I attended a presentation last night by the planning and design firm that led the creation of the Olympic Masterplan Framework.
A team from EDAW (rebranded this month as AECOM), which led a consortium including HOK Sports, Allies and Morrison, and Foreign Office Architects, presented the immense regeneration project being undertaken by its client, the London Development Agency. It was a confidently delivered overview summarising the project that was incepted in 2002 as part of London’s bid for the Olympics and, following London’s selection in 2005, evolved into a plan with full permission in 2007. The evening’s talk began with a caveat that the Masterplan Framework was presently under review with the Olympic Park Legacy Company (“OPLC”), the corporation established by the Government and the LDA to manage the future estate post-games.
The team very eloquently described the challenges faced by the site historically. The Lower Lea Valley is the meeting point of the Boroughs of Hackney, Tower Hamlets, and Newham, three boroughs that have some of the most deprived areas of the city. The Lea Navigation, rooted by the Lea River and its canal systems, and the predominantly industrial use of the land created a desolate no-man’s land that separated Bow to the west from Stratford to the east. The options to cross it tended to be vehicular – by car or bus over the Bow Flyover, by DLR, by rail, or bypassing it entirely underground from Mile End to Stratford on the Central Line. Attempts to improve accessibility seem ad hoc and insufficient. The Greenway is a path set over the Northern Outfall Sewer, lined on either side with green patches, and is meant to link the Lower Lea Valley to the Bow Backwaters and Stratford. Lack of sufficient use and pedestrian traffic made it susceptible to litter and dumping. Lack of maintenance and security made it appear unappealing and unsafe. The same can be said about the canal paths along the Lea Navigation, some of which are now inaccessible due to the OP construction works. These seemed to have improved somewhat with the peripheral development in the Boroughs around the OP fringe. But such development, as was also pointed out by the EDAW presenters, has been varied and not cohesive with an overall strategy. The property boom up to 2007 attracted opportunistic developers that have built tall, dense apartment blocks on whatever small patches of land they could get their hands on. It is curious that the EDAW-consortium’s Masterplan Framework contains a significant amount of high density housing, one of the areas met with criticism from the OPLC. One of the changes that could be already considered is the reduction of the number of tall buildings and the increase in family homes (with 3 or more bedrooms and gardens).
The mixed feelings expressed by London residents about the development of the area comes as no surprise. Many people are concerned that regeneration of the area will impair local businesses, that there will be an inadequate provision of affordable and social housing on the legacy site, that significant amounts of taxpayers’ money will be expended on an event viewed as short-term, benefiting few, and that the ambitious plans to redevelop the area will fail miserably or be of limited success.
Rather than be cynical about the ambitious project, I see major opportunities for the area and the challenges and outside forces being imposed upon it, must be addressed head-on.
I mentioned Stratford City, Westfield’s large shopping centre development, in a previous post. Westfield’s plan pre-dated the securing of the London Olympics and it could prove to be an enormous benefit to the area or become a monster. I think it will increase the attractiveness of living in Stratford, Bow, and Hackney given the proximity of these communities to a convenient retail and hospitality area. However, following last night’s presentation, I have a greater appreciation of the impact Stratford City could have on the legacy Olympic site, Stratford Broadway, Roman Road in Bow, and other local high streets in the vicinity.
I am interested to see what will happen around Shepherd’s Bush, which was increasingly becoming an unpleasant, unsafe triangle until the significant investment in the Westfield London shopping centre was made. The transport links around Westfield were improved somewhat, but congestion around the Central Line access at Shepherd’s Bush greets visitors or traffic jams by anyone who dares driving to the centre (I support reduced car use in Central London!) The major opponents of Westfield London concerned local retailers, in particular the shopping mall across Shepherd’s Bush Green.
Being a native of Toronto, Canada, I grew up in an environment where shopping was done at a destination shopping centre. But shopping centres co-exist with local neighbourhood shops in Toronto. I believe in providing a balance and choice of retail options to communities – ranging from large stores and high street chains to small businesses and boutiques. Both offer a different shopping experience and range to consumers. But this requires considerable investment, support, and shared knowledge to smaller businesses to enable them to compete. This could come in a number of different forms, ranging from funding, to training and advice, to collective purchasing and shared services. I believe, in conjunction with the larger scale redevelopment at Stratford, local planners and small business bureaus can help local businesses revitalise high streets and create a strong sense of community. This type of anchoring in a community, which encourages people to choose a particular neighbourhood to live and work in is also important to big centres like Stratford City. Embracing the local community, rather than alienating it, may be an important element to its success.
Comparisons to other East London regeneration schemes
There were questions raised last night and comparisons drawn to other regeneration projects in East London that have proven to be problematic, namely the Greenwich Millennium Village and O2 Centre, the Royal Docks, and Canary Wharf. The latter experienced significant difficulty financially and initially attracted corporate occupiers, but wasn’t much of a community. It became more successful in the economic boom as overseas financial institutions poured onto the estate, a greater retail and leisure offering was developed and luxury high-rise flats were built along the riverside. The estate began to experience a life on the weekend, not only during business hours. But the quarter is lacking in cultural attractions and the housing is divisive, with affordable and social housing crammed down the centre of the Isle of Dogs, surrounded by the newer flats around the perimeter. In the midst of the economic crisis, the failure of Lehman Brothers has created void space in their former London headquarters and financial institutions have down-sized dramatically. Development is still progressing at Canary Wharf with the new restaurant openings at Churchill Square including Jamie Oliver’s new Italian outpost. As the geographic name suggests, being situated on the Isle of Dogs, Canary Wharf is effectively on an island. Transport links are limited to the DLR and Jubilee Line. Road access enters the estate at the north end, but must exit in that same direction since there are no road bridges connecting the Isle of Dogs to the other side of the River Thames. The Greenwich Peninsula, on which the former Millennium Dome, now O2 Centre sits, is also effectively an island. Although, connected to the north by the Blackwall Tunnel running under the Thames and served by the Jubilee line, it is surrounded by water except to the south. The Royal Docks practically sits on the outskirts of London. The ExCel exhibition centre attracts trade shows and conferences, hotels and residential development has been prevalent in the area, but large commercial buildings sit empty. The OP, however can be different and estate managers must be careful not to let it slip into an island-like existence. Good pedestrian access, interesting leisure and cultural draws, and good public transport connections are critical to ensure the parkland and new communities are successfully linked to Bow, Hackney, and the rest of Stratford. With the enormous size of the sporting venues that will endure and the mammoth rail hub at Stratford, the OPLC and developers should ensure the area retains a pedestrian-friendly environment, enjoyed in much of Central London. The ability to walk from neighbourhood to neighbourhood, with shops, bars, galleries, parks, and other points of interest at every corner is one of the main draws of London (something that is lacking in a large sprawling city like Toronto for example).
I can see lots of opportunity for the OP post-games as well as ways to leverage off it positively in other neighbourhoods such as Hackney and Bromley-by-Bow which still suffer from high levels of deprivation. The approach must be wholistic and genuine in order to create an environment where people can live, work, play, and enjoy. The development of a large community takes time – the legacy plan extends through to 2020 and beyond to at least 2030. It isn’t just about the next 1000 days.