In June 2008, during the peak of the global recession, London began constructing its Olympic Park in preparation for the 2012 Olympic Games. Creating a successful Olympics village in terms of architecture and regeneration has historically proven to be a daunting task for a host city, and for London the uncertain financial climate only added further pressure.
Almost two years down the line and the construction of the new main venues and infrastructure at the East London site is well underway but the project's progress has not been easy. The £1bn Olympic Park, overseen by the UK's Olympic Delivery Authority (ODA) and designed by LDA Design and US landscape architect Hargreaves Associates, was initially envisaged to be funded by the private sector but the financial slump left the ODA struggling to find investors.
The project has since been plagued by funding issues and could be completely nationalised as a result of the banking crisis. Unsurprisingly, such a move has raised public and media interest in the park's development.
During the 2012 Olympic Games, Olympic Park will host a number of sporting venues and house athletes and officials, before becoming a residential area that will contribute to the regeneration of Stratford in east London and the neighbouring Lower Lea Valley. For more than 150 years parts of the area have remained derelict and in a similar fashion to Barcelona's Olympic Village, which was set up for the 1992 Olympic Games and is widely considered a model example of bringing new promise and purpose to a previously neglected area of a city, the ODA hope to bring a lasting legacy to the community.
As head of design for the Olympic Delivery Authority, Jerome Frost says he believes the vision of the Olympics Park looks far beyond 2012. "We have designed for what is coming after the Olympic Games. This is something London wanted from the beginning and it's also something that with the economic climate we are working within, really has taken on a new importance," he says. "It has also taken on a whole new light since the decision for Rio de Janeiro to host the next games, which is very much also centred on regeneration. I think this idea of a lasting legacy is something you will see from other games. I think London will be a new benchmark because the Lea Valley is an area where we really want to achieve a dramatic change."
Preparing for post-2012
The ODA's primary goal is to transform the Olympic Park into one of the largest urban parks created in Europe for more than 150 years. The site will be connected to the tidal Thames Estuary to the south and the Hertfordshire countryside to the north. Canals and waterways of the River Lea are to be cleaned and widened, while the natural floodplains of the area will be restored to provide a new wetland habitat for wildlife.
The Olympic Village, where athletes and officials will stay during the games, will be converted into homes, many of which will be available for key workers such as teachers and nurses. Further housing will be built within the Olympic Park site after the games, which will also have shops, restaurants and cafes.
"The site has been planned with the core park area running through its centre so that when we remove our temporary facilities, it will eventually emerge into this new piece of city with the parklands at its heart. The parklands are absolutely critical for attracting people to the site and creating a positive image of what they might be buying into if they purchase property in the area," Frost says.
"We haven't tried to predict exactly how the site will be developed after the games but rather what sort of options people might have for it over time. You can plan these sites to death but very rarely do they get developed as the master plans initially portray. I think we can expect the same from our site. What we want to do is build in the underlying capacity for fast changes to be made as the site evolves over the next 100 years."
Connecting the Lower Lea Valley
Vital to attracting new interest and investment to the area is the development of the local transport infrastructure. A range of transport improvements serving the park are currently underway, including increasing capacity on the London Underground's Jubilee Line, upgrading Stratford Regional Station and building an extension to the Docklands Light Railway (DLR).
An Olympic Javelin high-speed train service will also be set up during the games. It will operate between St Pancras International station and Ebbsfleet International station via Stratford International station. The service, which will be operated by UK rail operator Southeastern, will take just 7mins from St Pancras to Stratford, replacing what is now a 40min journey via the Jubilee line.
"Connections from Stratford regional and Stratford international will be second only to King's Cross in terms of the number of destinations reached from one single destination. It will dramatically change the way people perceive Stratford," Frost says. Lower Lea Valley communities will also benefit from new utilities infrastructure, which is being installed across the park to meet the demands of the games and the area's long-term needs. A new energy centre is being constructed in the west of the park that will provide power, heating and cooling systems through a biomass boiler, and a natural gas powered combined cooling, heat and power plant (CCHP).
The facility, along with a new primary substation and pumping station, will also play a central role in helping London's commitment to using renewable and energy-efficient technology.
"This plan helps create a new, more efficient localised energy network that has enough inbuilt power and heating capability to cater for not just the Olympic Games but 12,000 homes after it. This goes back to the idea of designing for the longer term. We have built in for the highest density possible using these power sources, plus there is also an opportunity for new turbines to be introduced if more capacity is needed," Frost says.
Bridging the gaps
Over 30 new bridges are being built to ease access through the numerous rivers and railways that run through the site. A 250m by 40m bridge will provide the main pedestrian access into the park during the games and will also form the roof of the Aquatics Centre training pool.
"We are building 35 new bridges to help get people across this very complex topographical landscape, which has not just occurred because of the railways and canals, but also because the land in the north was artificially created. We have had to invest heavily in bridges to create this incredible movement patterns across the site," Frost says.
A sustainable approach has been adopted for the re-levelling of the land and the construction of venues and facilities. Raw materials have entered the site via bridges, railways and waterways and 97% of soil dugout for the venues will be cleaned and reused across the park. This ethic of optimising the area to its fullest is something the ODA hopes to follow through after 2012.
"About 60% of the Olympic Park being built for the 2012 Olympics will remain in place for our post-games plan. That means we are being incredibly efficient with our funding and will get the park open to the public much quicker than we originally planned," Frost says.