London 2012: In it for the Long Run?
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London 2012: In it for the Long Run?

07 Feb 2011

Just 18 months before London 2012, the Olympic legacy is making the headlines thanks to an array of broken promises. Ellie Broughton investigates the successes and failures of the built environment of the next Games.

Hosted in five of London’s poorest boroughs at a time of massive public spending cuts, many anticipate that London 2012 will be a sad “action replay” of the city’s last Olympics. The so-called “Austerity Games” of 1948 left no architectural legacy – the athletes even had to make do with rented rooms.

Over 60 years later, the London bid declared that “magic begins with the venues” and an all-star line-up – Zaha Hadid, Anish Kapoor, Michael and Patty Hopkins, and Peter Cook – was selected to fill the Olympic Park with the best in contemporary sporting venues. Kapoor’s Orbit has already been called London’s Eiffel Tower and the design for the stadium is a compelling 21st-century sporting building.

However, the make-do-and-mend spirit of 1948 threatens to strike again as public spending cuts and lack of external investment dent the Olympic treasury. The initial budget of £9.345 billion took a £27 million hit during last year’s budget, and the Olympic Delivery Authority was forced to spend £702 million from the contingency fund to build the athletes’ village and media centre after private partners failed to come through after the recession.

Even before the cuts, the bid made it clear there was no room for white elephants. Of the 26 Olympic sports, 17 will be left with no built legacy to speak of, thanks to the fact that many events will be held in existing buildings such as the ExCel centre and the O2 arena, or “pop-up” venues that will be dismantled after the Games.

The basketball court and hockey stadium in the Olympic Park, and the equestrian course at Greenwich, will be little more than flat-pack seating. Football and tennis matches will be held in existing venues, and the triathlon will leave nothing more than the smell of sweat in the air in Hyde Park. Many of the sports teams have made public statements expressing their disappointment, and British Shooting has even considered seeking a judicial review regarding its temporary venue at the Royal Artillery Barracks.

“The few building projects that have already been given the green light are largely running ahead of schedule and within budget.”

London organisers have been praised by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) for making sensible, sustainable investments, but Chairman of the London Organising Committee Lord Sebastian Coe’s commitment to creating venues with “an agreed and clear long-term future” has, however, faced a rising tide of criticism. Competing bids for the Olympic Stadium, for instance, have created a fracas between two London football clubs.

Tottenham Hotspur has confirmed that it intends to demolish the existing building if it wins the bid. Chairman of UK Athletics Ed Warner declared that the team’s proposal “completely lacked a tangible Olympic legacy”, while the head of world athletics Lamine Diack attacked the London bid team for reneging on its commitment to an athletics legacy.

Other critics have pointed to the £40 million loan that Newham Council has offered West Ham for its bid, a debt that will take funds away from another of London’s impoverished boroughs. At the time of writing, the Olympic Park Legacy Company is still considering bids from the two clubs.

The green side of the Games

The few building projects that have already been given the green light are largely running ahead of schedule and within budget. So far, one of the Games’ greatest success stories – and one of the greatest assets in its legacy – is its parkland.

The Olympic Park builds on a historic collection of parks and waterways in London’s East End, but the brownfield site also brought with it the challenges of ingrained environmental pollution. Well over a century of industry on the site meant that the developers had to clean 1.3 million tons of soil before it was ready to be landscaped.

Designs were put forward by George Hargreaves’ architecture agency. The firm has international experience in what its founder calls “landscape alchemy”, the 21st-century challenge of creating parks from brownfield sites rather than from scratch. The firm had already designed the master plan for the Sydney 2000 Olympics when it partnered with LDA Design to come up with ideas for the 100ha park for its life after the Games.

“Though the challenge today is simpler, hope for London’s legacy may not have the buoyancy it did six decades ago.”

With over 30 bridges straddling 6km of waterways, the park will act as a “connective” area between major park venues. After the Games, the park will join the “green grid” that connects London’s industrial East End to Hertfordshire in the north and the Thames in the south. The development is currently running on time, and is projected to come in under budget.

The core commitment of the parks project is sustainability: the IOC has already christened London 2012 the first sustainable Games. The Commission for Sustainable London’s (CSL) sustainability plan in 2009 promised a 100% naturally ventilated velodrome, water use across the site at 40% below average, a lightweight stadium design and high use of recycled materials in the concrete of the aquatics centre.

No Olympic development has been more demonstratively green than the parkland. The brownfield site was redesigned to be highly biodiverse, containing over 700 habitats. The park’s biodiversity is not only a nod to traditional UK parks, but also a reflection of the East End’s cultural diversity. Parklands sponsor John Hopkins remarks that there are over 200 languages spoken in the neighbouring boroughs, so the park’s internationalism will be relevant way beyond the closing ceremony.

The park has also been designed to protect its settlements. Its wetland bowls are extremely absorbent and have the capacity to protect up to 4,000 local houses from once-in-a-century flood levels.

Hopkins explains that, from the supply chain to risk management, the commitment to sustainability has been upheld as much as possible: “Half of all the materials coming in and out of the park have come in by waterways or by rail. To meet our sustainability targets we really had to concentrate on that. CSL 2012 has independently assessed the Games’ targets, and we’re exceeding them.”

Is sport sustainable?

However, while sustainability initiatives promise to protect the environment and local housing, the one area in the legacy that may be overlooked is sport. Competition for sports funding has never been fiercer in the UK, with both architecture and building use at risk. Plans for five sports venues in Northern Ireland have been binned after a £50 million budget cut, and sports education funding in England has been completely shut down.

Balance between an affordable Games and a sustainable legacy is difficult to find, even in prosperous years, but in tough economic times, public interest favours the latter. One of the venues used during the 1948 Games, the Herne Hill velodrome, is currently under threat – not simply due to its need for repairs, but because of its latest rival.

“The so-called ‘Austerity Games’ of 1948 left no architectural legacy.”

Local support for the velodrome is strong but in light of the new cycling complex planned around the new Olympic track there may not be enough cash to fund the older venue. Despite the building’s heritage, the struggle to protect the legacy at Stratford may take precedence over the existing legacy at Herne Hill.

The use of temporary venues has still managed to upset those who want to see a bricks-and-mortar commitment to their sport, but there’s much to say in defence of the savings driven by the legacy’s sustainability commitment.

The city’s 1948 Olympics went ahead despite rationing and lack of built-for-purpose venues; in his opening address, the then chairman marvelled at the survival of the Games in the face of global conflict. This time it is banks, not bombs, that have created Olympic austerity, but though the challenge today is simpler, hope for London’s legacy may not have the buoyancy it did six decades ago.