Will the 2012 Olympic Games Regenerate East London?

The 2012 Olympics promises a rich legacy of iconic buildings and sporting facilities in one of London’s most deprived areas, but critics argue this does not justify its immense £9.3 billion price tag in an age of economic austerity.

When East London was handed the 2012 Olympic Games in 2005, the British economy was riding high. There was some controversy in the media about the initial price tag of £4 billion – which would later rise steeply – but most people thought that the cost was a relative bargain compared to the £20 billion shelled out by the Chinese government for the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

But then the Financial Crisis of 2007 struck and the debate about the high cost of the Games intensified. In the new context of national belt-tightening and government austerity measures, critics labelled the spending of billions of pounds for a two-week event an extravagant luxury. The inevitable spiralling costs – recently estimated at £9.3 billion – added fuel to their arguments.

But Professor Ricky Burdett, the principal design adviser to the London Olympic Delivery Authority and professor of urban studies at London School of Economics, passionately defends the decision to spend the money.

“Is it appropriate that the UK should be spending £9.3 billion on this project? My answer is yes, definitely, just as long as you don’t measure the return on investment in the next 12 months, but over the next 30 years,” he said.

Burdett argues that the legacy of the Olympic Games to some of the poorest parts of London will ultimately justify the cost. He focuses especially on the Olympic Park, which will be transformed into the Queen Elizabeth Park in 2013 and provide 100 hectares (250 acres) of parkland, wetlands and gardens for the public. The park is on such a scale that it took 6,200 trees, 9,500 shrubs, 63,000 bulbs and 766,000 grasses and ferns to create it.

“This fantastic park – the biggest built in Europe for 150 years – will connect to the Lea Valley and the water systems and canals which go down to the Thames river,” he said.  “And don’t underestimate the quality of these public spaces. They are as extraordinary to look at as the royal parks.”

The Olympic Park would not have been possible, he argues, if hundreds of millions of pounds had not first been spent revitalising a part of London previously best known for its large areas of industrial wasteland. “The site was previously undevelopable,” said Burdett. “There were thousands of overhead cables criss-crossing it and these had to be buried, allowing housing to be built and kids to play football beneath the pylons.

“The site was also decontaminated at great cost. There were layers and layers of pollutants from old railway yards and other industries. Now, if a child plants a carrot it won’t emerge as radioactive. We have also erected two biofuel plants to improve sustainability.”

The long-term sporting legacy the relatively disadvantaged eastern part of London will also be extraordinary. Four of the Olympic venues will remain as permanent public facilities. They are the £570m Olympic Stadium itself, the £269m Aquatics Centre, the £93m Velodrome cycling track and the £44m multi-purpose arena known as The Copper Box.

“Imagine kids growing up in Leyton or Stratford now,” said Burdett. “Previously, they had to traipse across London to find good facilities. Now, they will be able to learn to swim as toddlers on Saturday mornings in one of the world’s most amazing pools, and then when they reach eight years old, they can start training on their bikes in the elegant Velodrome, the world’s fastest cycling track,” he said.

The high costs of the permanent venues can be explained by their green designs. The 80,000-seat Olympic Stadium, in particular, is a triumph of innovative, sustainable architecture. Populous designed it to use 75% less steel than comparable structures. One clever way of reducing steel use, as well as concrete use, was to house the lower section in a bowl in the ground.

Other green innovations on the Stadium include recycling industrial waste to make the low-carbon concrete and building the top ring out of surplus gas pipes.

It was hoped the Stadium would be sold to a football team after the Games. But following a legal dispute between West Ham FC on the one hand, and Tottenham Hotspur and Leyton Orient on the other, it will become a public venue for sport and athletics, as well as cultural and community events.

The second biggest structure at the Games is the Aquatics Centre, which was designed by Zaha Hadid Architects. It features a spectacular wave-like roof that is 160m long and 80m wide, giving it a longer single span than Heathrow Terminal 5. It includes two 50m swimming pools and a 25m diving tank.

Again, the emphasis was placed on green design. The ceilings above the two pools are made up of 30,000 sections of sustainably sourced Red Lauro timber. The roof has aluminium covering, half of which has been recycled. The one unaesthetic part of the design is the two “wings” attached on either side to create additional capacity and seating for 17,500 people, rather than the 2,500 in the original design. Everyone on the Organising Committee agrees they are an eyesore and Hadid admits to hating them.

The Aquatics Centre will be transformed into a facility for the local community, clubs and schools, as well as elite swimmers.

One of the most elegant designs belongs to Hopkins Architects’ highly praised Velodrome Stadium. It was a finalist in the prestigious Sterling rize for architecture and the judges at the 2011 Structural Awards said: “It demonstrates outstanding creativity and uniqueness in its combination of the art and science of engineering.”

The Velodrome is the Olympic Park’s most sustainable building. Its low-cable net roof system weighs just 30kg/m2, and is designed to deflect the sun to reduce the need for air conditioning and the venue will be nearly 100% naturally ventilated. The Stadium also makes optimal use of natural light, reducing the need for electric lighting.

In between the lower concrete tiers and upper tiers there will be a glass wall, giving spectators a 360-degree view across the Olympic Park and allowing people outside the venue to see the sporting action taking place inside.

After the Games, the new mountain bike course and road-cycle circuit will be added to create a VeloPark for the local community, sports clubs and elite athletes.

“The Velodrome is especially important for the legacy of the Games,” said Burdett. “London has not had a Velodrome before and this is one of the world’s best. Britain is doing well in cycling sports and likely to win gold medals so there is bound to be a new generation of cyclists keen to use the facility.”

The last of the four permanent structures is the Copper Box, which was designed by Make to host modern pentathlon fencing, as well as handball and Paralympics events.

Again, the Copper Box is a forward-looking green design. Its 88 rooftop sun-pipes feed natural light into the venue resulting in 40% energy savings. And 3,000sq m of external copper cladding – mostly recycled – has been used that will give it a rich natural colour as it ages.

After the Games, the Copper Box will become a multi-use sports centre for the communities in east London, offering basketball, handball, badminton, boxing, martial arts, netball, table tennis, wheelchair rugby and volleyball.

These permanent facilities will enrich life in east London, but Burdett points out that one of the unique aspects of the London Olympics is that many of the structures are designed to be dismantled and recycled.

“At most Olympics they have built all the venues as permanent buildings but we thought: “Why build very large buildings like the basketball stadium, which is the size of the Royal Albert Hall, to be permanent when we don’t play basketball in the UK? Basically, the basketball stadium has been designed to be taken apart with a screwdriver and a wrench,” he said.

After the arena is dismantled, 12,000 seats will be sent to Silverstone Grand Prix racing circuit and the rest of the venue will be shipped to Brazil and rebuilt for the next Olympics in Rio de Janeiro in 2016. “This is another part of the sustainability of the London Olympics and a way of recouping some of the costs,” Burdett said.

Another major transformation will be the conversion of the Olympic Village into homes. The Village cost £1.1bn to build. The village provides accommodation for 17,000 athletes and officials over the course of the Games and will leave 2,818 new homes for Londoners as part of the Olympic legacy. It has already been sold to a consortium, including the Qatari government, as part of a £557m million deal to own and manage the entire village.

A final major legacy of the Olympics in East London will be the improvements to transport infrastructure. So far, £125m has been invested by the Olympic Development Authority in permanent improvements to Stratford regional station; a new 36m-long bridge will form an entrance and exit at Stratford International; £80m will be invested in Docklands Light Railway to boost capacity; and a new 12-track railway siding will be built to the north-east of the Olympic Park.

The effect of all the regeneration projects will be complex and there will be winners and losers, according to Professor Steve Cummins from the School of Geography at Queen Mary, University of London. Professor Cummins is leading a major five-year study of the effects of the Olympic Regeneration on East London.

“We know from the regeneration of the London Docklands in the eighties that there will be winners and losers,” he said. “The new facilities will encourage gentrification of the area. We will see new migrants who are healthier and wealthier, with better careers. As a result, boroughs rents and house prices will rise – we are already seeing this – and there will be a lot of disruption to local communities. People on relatively low incomes will be the hardest hit.

“At the same time, having these iconic buildings on the doorstep will enhance community self-worth. People will feel that their local area has not been forgotten. In fact, we’ve already seen the Olympic effect with the recent opening in Stratford, close to the Olympic site, of the Westfield Shopping Centre – the third biggest in the UK. This is creating employment possibilities locally.”

The sporting legacy is also complex and double-edged, Cummins argues. “We’ve seen Government investment in facilities at great cost, but at the same time Government has cut the budget for funding sport in schools. The amazing infrastructure might inspire people to take up sport but if the underpinning preconditions for success are not there it will come to naught. These are questions we are looking at and we will have to wait and see for the answers.”


Author: David W. Smith