A tour around the Olympic park in Stratford gives instant proof that east London has avoided having its ambition trampled by the blight of many past Olympic legacies
This week marks four years since, with a burst of flame from Thomas Heatherwick’s cauldron and a musical tour de force from the Beatles to Britpop, the 2012 Olympics began in London. It is also 11 years since, in a convention centre in Singapore, Britain’s pledge to create a “legacy Olympics”, with both a lasting impact on the UK’s sporting culture and much-needed physical regeneration, saw it named as host of the tournament for the first time in more than 60 years. So, with the Olympic torch days away from arriving in Rio, completing the handover of the role of Games host from the UK to Brazil, just how far has that promise to revive the built environment been met?
A tour around the Olympic park in Stratford gives instant proof that east London has avoided having its ambition trampled by the blight of many past Olympic legacies - the dreaded “white elephants”. The aquatic centre, its full swooping form now revealed free of the temporary “wings” that housed extra seating for the Games, has become, at £4 a swim, one of the UK’s most popular public pools. The former broadcast centre, an enormous shed with clear potential to succumb to elephantitis, has been reborn as a bustling commercial hub thanks to the persistence of the legacy committee in seeking tenants. Even the venue which has had the most troubled conversion from Olympic to legacy use, the Olympic stadium, is now just weeks away from a new life as the home of West Ham Football Club; albeit with a far greater price tag than originally envisaged.So, as the most direct snapshot of Olympic legacy, the park is replete with triumphs. And yet the real test of whether post-Olympic redevelopment has not just navigated potential pitfalls, but delivered meaningful improvement to the built environment, lies in the impact on the wider neighbouring communities of Stratford, Newham and Tower Hamlets.
Here, the huge planned educational and cultural district - Boris Johnson’s Olympicopolis - is set to become a vibrant addition to the original vision for the area, with development agreements with UCL and, hopefully, the London College of Fashion poised to drive a cultural resurgence akin to that under way at King’s Cross. But the most critical factor in assessing the impact of the Olympics on the surrounding boroughs is also the most contentious - the provision, affordability and quality of new housing.
There is no doubt that the Olympics has driven development of swathes of much-needed homes in the region
There is no doubt that the Olympics has driven development of swathes of much-needed homes in the region, with the 3,000 homes on the former Olympic village site just one tranche of those planned or under way. Crucially, and laudably, these homes have been designed to promote social communities, with the plans for the park redesigned in 2010 to eschew the high-density towers that characterised parts of post-war east London, and isolated many residents used to terraced East End neighbourhoods.
However, the keenness of the legacy committee to avoid potentially alienating high-rise, high-density design has contributed to a sizeable drop in the targeted number of homes to be delivered - from 10,000 promised back in 2009, to today’s target of 6,800. In addition, the original promise of 50% affordable housing has been dramatically cut back, with the first two major areas of residential development outside the village, Chobham Manor and East Wick and Sweetwater, set to deliver only 28% and 31% respectively.
This drop in affordable properties is obviously disappointing and has rightly drawn concern from local councillors. But when viewed in the context of everything else that has happened in those 11 years since the bid was won - the global economic recession, the near-collapse of the UK’s housebuilding sector, and the political backdrop of three different governments - the progress on the site still looks distinctly more one of achievement than failure. And the revelation this week that new mayor Sadiq Khan’s electoral promise of 50% affordable housing is leading the LLDC to revise its plans for as yet-undeveloped areas of the site to hit those levels offers a hugely encouraging sign that this achievement-in-context could yet turn to outright victory.
The big new risk to the housing legacy, and to the wider development of Stratford, is of course the fallout from the Brexit vote. But the greatest strength of the Olympic regeneration project so far has been the ability of those driving it to adapt to changing market conditions, without either losing the project’s momentum or compromising its original purpose: to create a thriving community in a largely impoverished area of London.
This combination of agile delivery and unwavering vision has seen the project through a string of challenges since the curtain came down on the 2012 Games. As the sporting gaze shifts to Rio, in London the next of those challenges is now beginning.
Sarah Richardson, editor