The Olympic Effect

Friday 29 July 2016

The London Olympics had a transformative effect on the way the UK capital delivers major projects, providing a ‘bench-strength’ that stretches back through politics to built environment expertise. Now it must adopt that same mindset to tackle sizeable schemes like Old Oak Common and attend to London’s ongoing housing crisis.

Those were some of the key issues to arise from this morning’s breakfast conference on whether or not the Olympics was a catalyst for urban renewal, four years on from the sports event and a week before Rio.

For former AECOM chief executive Jason Prior, a key player in the London Olympics, it was still a little early to see if we had succeeded or not in bringing regeneration to East London. ‘But I have to say the evidence is quite compelling’, said Prior, especially in the light of some 70 attempted masterplans for the area which had come before in the preceding 15 years, fragmented land ownership, and a ‘whole series of uncompleted ambitions.’

But it was the institutional improvements in capability which were key, and the first signs that the team was getting things right came at the CPO inquiry, getting land into public ownership. ‘We CPO’d against the end state, not against the Games itself’, said Prior. This led to London winning from the process whatever the outcome, creating a vehicle to ‘get on with a whole lot of stuff’ not least a redesign of the flood mechanisms at the River Lea and a coordination of emergency services that was ‘light years on’ from what it was. ‘Don’t just look at what is on the ground, but behind and at the way the city is run’, said Prior.

Today the area is attracting major universities and cultural institutions, ‘staggering things’ which may have happened in time but not as quickly as the impetus provided by the Games. ‘The Olympics allowed us to stand back and look at the piece in the round. I’m an unalloyed fan of the power of what the Olympics did for London but we had a bench-strength in the industry to deliver…We should never underestimate what London did to our institutional systems and our capability to deliver projects like this. And I would imagine the ultimate success of places like Old Oak Common when they come forward will be largely be built on the foundations and lessons learned from projects like the Olympics. We’ve come a hell of a long way.’

Rio, by contrast, has had to be cut back from its original ambitious and flamboyant plans because it didn’t have the institutional strength behind London, where politicians and planning ‘coalesced’ around a vision and Ken Livingstone’s view that this was a clear opportunity to transform this part of town, said LLDC executive director of development Rosanna Lawes. Strong, aligned political leadership allowed the vision to be moved on to lasting benefits beyond the games, with an elite sporting mode moving to something more tangible and far more human, Lawes added. ‘Momentum has been our absolute focus.’

London’s latter-day growth needed the ‘strategic underpinning’, agreed Khaa director Kay Hughes, providing the ground work for the growth of London in a strategic, well-balanced way. And one of the messages from LVRPA chief executive Shaun Dawson was to involve the legacy client and owner of facilities from day one. Savills head of London Residential Development Dominic Grace said it was easy to forget the banking crisis that happened just after London won the games, so it was ‘quite extraordinary what we all got done. But the key point was that there was deadline, and we need to adopt the same mindset to approach projects like Old Oak Common and housing more generally. Finally, Atkins Principal Landscape Architect Paul Reynolds said the park is the ‘jewel’ at the heart of the whole scheme. ‘The way it is used today is one of the most beneficial things to come from it’, he said.

David Taylor, Editor, New London Quarterly 

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The Olympics: A catalyst for urban renewal?


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