Olympic host cities have a poor track record when it comes to urban regeneration. But the 2012 Games can be different—if we allow for a little DIY alongside the big developersby Rowan Moore / February 24, 2010 / Leave a comment
A CGI rendering of how the £500m Olympic stadium will look, presented to the London 2012 Committee in 2009 Go to most former Olympic sites and you will find the same things: monumental buildings that have rarely been fully used since the Games; a lack of urban intensity, in the worst cases desolation; perhaps illegal activity; and a few initiatives to liven the place up.
This is true, with local variations, of Athens and Sydney, and of older sites like Munich, Tokyo and even Berlin. If you don’t want to travel so far you only have to go to Wembley (1948), a zone of unexpected depression 20 minutes from the west end, to see how little an Olympiad regenerates its hinterland. Even Barcelona (1992) was not the exception it is often said to be: yes, the city was renewed, but much of it as a result of initiatives independent of the Games. And if you go to Montjuic, where the main sports buildings are, you find a desultory atmosphere at odds with the city’s famous vibrancy.
There are reasons for this consistent inability to regenerate. The infrastructure needed for a two-week event, attracting hundreds of thousands of people, is totally different from that needed for a permanent, everyday, piece of city: it is like trying to make your wedding marquee into a lifetime family home. Sports buildings, dark and closed except when they attract sudden floods of people, are usually lousy for city life. Each Olympiad, with its fixed deadline and pressure to perform, demands huge budgets which are not available for the site’s afterlife. Olympics are usually held in places that were underused and the reasons for that underuse tend to persist.
London is determined to be different. The bid made great play of the concept of “legacy”—the idea that, if the International Olympic Committee (IOC) blessed the city, one of the most deprived areas of Britain would be exalted. Which, among other things, would make the IOC look less like the promoter of a vainglorious and unsustainable extravaganza. The bid won and London 2012 continues to see itself as the Legacy Games. Up to 15,000 new homes are imagined, with 10,000 new jobs. It is spoken of as a modern opportunity to create the kind of elegant and successful development that John Nash created around Regent’s Park 200 years ago.
There are reasons why London might be different. The £9.3bn budget includes the burying of overhead power lines that once blighted the area, decontamination of land, and a new park with bridges that will enable people to enjoy a remarkable network of rivers and canals for the first time. The land is in public ownership, which removes the complication of multiple boundaries and gives public bodies leverage.
Stratford, to the east of the site, has long been the Barnardo boy of regeneration zones, the poor shoeless cockney kid that ministers pick out when they want to show how much they care about east London. It has long been showered with infrastructural investment: the Jubilee line extension, a stop on the Channel tunnel rail link, a bus station, the Docklands Light Railway. These are all assets for regeneration.
For these reasons the site of London 2012 could eventually become a successful, job-creating, home-providing, beautiful piece of the capital. It may even one day be an exemplar that other cities will follow. But to achieve this it still has to overcome some very large obstacles. It also has to do things differently from any other regeneration project in modern Britain. Specifically, it has to go further than the practice of commissioning large, prescriptive, formally specific masterplans, and then inviting large property companies to build them.
The future of the Olympic site is in the hands of a delivery company, the Olympic Park Legacy Company, whose chief executive, Andrew Altman, has won approval for his work in Washington, DC. He started in August 2009, and is wisely refraining from showing his hand. A new corporate plan is promised in late spring. This is therefore a moment in which the future of the legacy project is likely to be determined.
One of Altman’s main decisions—expected later this year— will be what to do with the Legacy Masterplan Framework (LMF), a document produced a year ago by a group of three architecture and planning practices. Their aim was “to deliver exceptional, high quality and sustainable development across the LMF area.” The framework embodies many of the current principles of urban planning. It shows high-density courtyarded apartment blocks, somewhat like those in Berlin and Barcelona. It supports the ideas that street frontages should be “active,” that people should be consulted, that sustainability and biodiversity are desirable. It recognises the need for community facilities like schools as well as unadulterated development. It acknowledges that such a large site, inserted into a diverse existing fabric, should not be monolithic, and so proposes dividing it into six neighbourhoods.
So far, so reasonable, but the framework suffers from a double problem of plausibility, both cultural and in terms of delivery. On the cultural side the masterplan looks generic, and utterly alien to the mixed bag of neighbourhoods it adjoins. To one side of the site are the quiet two-storey streets of Leyton, to another the rackety, artist-infested, semi-industrial zone of Hackney Wick. The old town centre of Stratford is something else again. Such large-scale development might be expected to change an area, but you also want an understanding of the existing spirit of the place.
Many people, including the Hackney-based writer Iain Sinclair, have protested against the Olympic project’s indifference to cultural ecologies that already exist in the area—the industries, the fragments of history, the spontaneous actions like the creation of allotments—and its destruction or displacement of them. The framework seems to perpetuate this indifference by making little reference to them. Instead it attempts, unconvincingly, to manufacture character and diversity, giving its six neighbourhoods limp themes such as “work-live with a unique waterways relationship” and “learning, living and working neighbourhood.” These neighbourhoods don’t feel like any known to humanity. They are Powerpoint-towns, with tags designed to work in presentations.
As for delivery, it is hard not to feel that this sober-looking masterplan is in fact delusional, as fantastic and unlikely as the crystal cities proposed by German expressionist architects in the 1920s. One can say this because we have seen similar masterplans before, on the Greenwich peninsula, around Wembley stadium, in the Royal Docks and elsewhere, and they have so far happened either incompletely or not at all.
On the Greenwich peninsula, despite £200m of public investment and development taking place during the boom years of the noughties, only 1,100 homes out of 2,900 have been built. In the Royal Docks, impressive masterplans going back to the 1980s have had limited effect. Next to the Olympic site there is the example of Stratford City, whose eight-year-old masterplan responsibly proposed a mixture of offices, homes, public facilities and shopping, with a tissue of public and private spaces. Its problem has been that developers are only building the bits they are interested in, such as the gigantic new Westfield shopping centre. Homes are also being built on the Stratford City site, in the form of the 2012 athletes’ village, but only after the project was taken over by the government from an unenthusiastic private sector.
Of course, projects like this take a very long time, and the framework wisely gives itself a distant end date of 2040. On the other hand the legacy site is far bigger than, for example, the Greenwich peninsula, and nothing even approaching its scale has been delivered in recent years by private development companies. This is because they don’t like to take too big a risk in untested locations, and they don’t want to flood their own market by building too much product in one place.
There are other issues to address. One is the buildings the Games will leave behind, including the velodrome, aquatic centre, main stadium and media centre. These are presented as assets by the Olympic Delivery Authority—and there is much to like about swimming pools and cycle tracks—but they risk being liabilities. Their running costs will equal their Olympic scale. The stadium, which may be reduced in size after the Games, has yet to find a long-term use.
Most problematic is the media centre, a 1m sq ft box built to house the world’s press. It is meant to help regeneration by becoming some kind of media hub after the Games. But its main transport connection is Hackney Wick station on the sleepy North London line, and it is hard to see how its vast area—equal to one of Canary Wharf’s towers—will be filled.
The Olympic Park, around which the legacy development is to be wrapped, is another asset that could become a liability. In theory, new homes around a park sound ideal. But as the urban theorist Jane Jacobs pointed out, parks “tend to run to extremes of popularity and unpopularity… there are dozens of dispirited city vacuums called parks, eaten around with decay, little used, unloved.” And the worst parks “are located precisely where people never pass by”—which, for the foreseeable future, describes much of the Olympic Park.
The park is likely to be ringed, for years if not decades, by large empty sites, enclosed with hoardings, awaiting development. Journeys to the park will involve having to cross these sites through corridors formed for the purpose. Most people are unlikely to bother, and will instead head for nearby Victoria Park. The Olympic Park would become underused, frightening and almost impossible to keep in good order.
In this last problem, however, are the seeds of solutions which might benefit the whole legacy project. The Olympic Legacy Company has started proposing temporary uses for the empty sites such as market gardens, allotments and, less convincingly, arts festivals. Paul Finch, the chairman of the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment, champions the idea of temporary tree nurseries—a source of employment and an environmental benefit.
This idea—of encouraging bottom-up, individual, provisional and temporary uses—could be pushed further and become a guiding principle of the Olympic site. Rather than wait indefinitely for big developers to start rolling out their Barcelona-style blocks, sections of the site could be designated for self-build, where people can construct their own homes under guidelines. Temporary homes, with a licence to occupy for 20 years or so, could also be considered.
Many of the most successful examples of regeneration are through colonisation by large numbers of small users, rather than a few big companies: the 30-year growth of Camden Market, for example, or the appropriation by artists of former industrial districts all over the world. And, for good measure, the planners don’t have to invent a character for neighbourhoods, as one would develop spontaneously. It could reconnect local people currently disenfranchised from the project.
Such actions would not be to the exclusion of work by large development companies, but could happen alongside. The companies could be encouraged to work in the same entrepreneurial way as individuals and small businesses, as they were in the redevelopment of Docklands, which led to the creation of Canary Wharf. While Canary Wharf has its faults, it is still an astonishing achievement, one which was not prefigured in any masterplan. If part of the Olympic site flourished in the same way, no one should complain.
The public ownership of the site should be used to insist on public benefits—access, schools, a coherent public realm—as was not done in Docklands. If the best hope for the Olympic site is a large dose of laissez-faire, a selective use of dirigisme will also be helpful.
Such development, gaining its strength from spontaneous actions, would indeed be an exemplary new form of urban regeneration. To happen, it would require strong and enlightened leadership from Altman and his company, and the power to set rules for planning permission. It would demand honesty about which parts of 2012’s promises for renewal have a grounding in reality, and which do not. It would need a less prescriptive masterplan—one like the Manhattan street grid, for example, which allows a huge range of freedom within an overall order.
Most of all, it would require a very long-term view about the £900m of public money spent acquiring the land. The Legacy Company has to pay that back some time and encouraging activities as market gardens and self-build housing may not look like the best way of getting a return. But bottom-up development eventually creates value, as those artists’ quarters-turned-yuppie playgrounds demonstrate. If the Olympic Legacy Company is concerned only with recovering the £900m, we will get the same, predictable developer-led blocks we already have too many of. That would be a shocking waste, as no regeneration project in Britain will ever be in a better position to take an imaginative long-term view.