Tag Archives: olympics

Road Show: Olympic Park Legacy Company and Legacy Now

Wow, that was quite some presentation yesterday evening at Queen Mary’s University of London. It was the fourth and last of a series of presentations by the Olympic Park Legacy Company and the Legacy Now team. They welcomed questions from the audience at the end of the presentation, but to call it a consultation would be a misnomer.

I had attended the first of the four talks at the London School of Economics on 10 November. The big leaders were present for that one including the Chief Executive of OPLC, Andrew Altman, the American planner who was responsible for leading and effecting significant change and regeneration of the Anacostia River waterside in Washington, D.C. Over the course of the last month, I have been to several presentations and consultations about the legacy park, what will result from the Olympic Park site post-2012 games.

I am sometimes optimistic about aims and ambitions of the Olympic Delivery Authority, which is presently land-owner and developer of the site. On the one hand, the Olympics are a great catalyst for change in the Lower Lea Valley area, without a doubt. The land straddles four boroughs – Tower Hamlets, where I live, Newham, Hackney, and Waltham Forest. Without the singular goal of Olympics, there was less incentive for the four boroughs to work together and communicate a cohesive plan. The site itself was a developers’ nightmare with derelict waterways, electricity pylons, and railway lines intersecting and interrupting the landscape. Historically, an industrial-intensive site, it lacked adequate transport and pedestrian links and basic infrastructure to allow it to be a livable community space. The Olympic development has changed all that. Mind you, it is taxpayers’ money that has been poured into infrastructure – the electricity pylons have been buried underground, the canal system is being cleaned up, new roads and bridges are being installed to connect it to the surrounding neighbourhoods. The ODA is mindful that what remains post-games – the legacy park – is rightfully and sympathetically returned to the public.

Last night’s talk was sympathetically titled the People’s Legacy. But this is easier said than done. I have decided to stay as positive as possible in this post, although I will say one thing – fortunately the talk ended on a high with meaning and real practical words. It didn’t start off that way. The panel was diverse including representatives from the OPLC, London Citizens, Fundamental, students from the Department of Geography at Queen Mary, University of London, Bob Colenutt (head of research at the Northampton Institute for Urban Affairs), and Lord Andrew Mawson (social entrepreneur and founder of the Bromley by Bow Centre). The evening opened with presentations about how members of the surrounding community, in particular young people, had been engaged in projects related to the Olympic development. This included architectural projects for youths leading up to the Olympic bid, manifestos developed by students from local schools, and a set of ethical guarantees that were submitted to the International Olympic Committee for inclusion in the 2012 bid. The presenters were enthusiastic and marketed the plans and activities well. Where it fell short was in providing evidence of the impact of these efforts, especially the ethical guarantees. I wondered how much of these ideas had actually been implemented. I only heard them say that things were going well and that there were regular meetings to measure progress. But where is the hard evidence that the ethical guarantees are or will be honoured?

And then the presentation got really interesting. Andrew Mawson provided examples of how he and his organisations have made a difference. He emphasised the need to get into the nuts and bolts of projects and to pay attention to the detail. His philosophy was about doing, not just planning and talking and he proved this through anecdotal examples of using redundant church space for other business uses such as a dance school, an integrated nursery, and a gallery. This was the foundation for the Bromley-by-Bow Centre which boasts an health care unit, social enterprise hub, and advice for small businesses. Lord Mawson was not only promoting the idea that by getting involved practically and building stuff, we would effect change, he was able to showed that this worked from his own personal experience and hard work with sleeves rolled up.

The final speaker was Bob Colenutt from the Northampton Institute for Urban Affairs who was blunt and frank with his comparison of the Olympic Park opportunity with the of the London Docklands Development Corporation, which had been responsible for regenerating and redeveloping the Isle of Dogs and Royal Docks near the City Airport and Excel Centre. Again, using examples that were supported by visible evidence, what was promoted as a once in a lifetime opportunity for real economic change in East London had failed miserably to provide jobs, improvement, and sustainable wealth for the local community. It was the property investors and City and West End uses that benefited. The divide on the Isle of Dogs is evident with affluent riverside apartment buildings around the perimeter and council estates squeezed down the middle. The Dockland Highway makes a clear definition between the financial power of Canary Wharf to the south and the deprivation of Poplar to the north. He stated something obvious, but that seemed to have fallen on deaf ears in the past decade – the redevelopment of the Docklands was property-led rather than people-led and the Olympic Park is at risk of the same issue. He cited Coin Street, one of my favourite examples, as one model of community-led building where the community rallied together, fought for just development, and the land was acquired for £1. A similar approach is being proposed for the St. Clement’s Hospital site on Bow Road as a predecessor to the legacy park in the form of a Community Land Trust, in an attempt to transfer land ownership to the community at existing use or affordable use values.

This is what we need in order to build sustainable communities – real action and people-led development – and I find inspiration in Lord Mawson’s and Bob Colenutt’s presentations. I will shortly be doing something very real and people-led. I’ll be starting small and taking Lord Mawson’s advice of making one thing work first. Watch this space – I might be needing your help in the future to make it a success.

In the meantime – were you at last night’s talk? Were you at any of the other Olympic Park Legacy Company and Legacy Now talks at the London School of Economics, University College London, or Goldsmiths? I’d like to hear from you. Please leave me a comment – it’s with your comments and feedback that I can help do better in the community. Thanks.

1000 days and 18 years: London 2012 Olympic Park

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.

Stratford City

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.