In 2006, as London bathed in the afterglow of winning the bid for the 2012 Olympics, Sebastian Coe announced: “Legacy is probably nine-tenths of what this process is about — not just 16 days of sport.”
Presented as a benevolent behemoth of fast-track regeneration, the Games were supposed to leave behind a shiny new world of 12,000 homes and 10,000 jobs, set amid the rolling hills of the largest new park in Europe. It would be the miracle cure for the maligned East End, cleansing a swath of the Lower Lea valley — a site conveniently branded as a toxic dumping ground, at the nexus of London’s poorest boroughs.
On Friday, reports were published declaring the legacy to be a triumph for UK tourism, sports participation, volunteering and business. What is the physical reality on the ground? One year on, and with ￡11 billion (US$17 billion) of public money spent on the Olympics, the first part of the park will reopen this weekend. With national cynicism no longer suspended, now that the collective frisson of watching our Lycra-clad heroes has faded, how is the promised bounty shaping up?
Walking down Stratford High Street, along the southeast border of the Olympic park, the signs are not auspicious. At every junction of this roaring A-road sprouts a steroidal tower, each clad in ever more lurid colors, transforming the street into a gauntlet of competing ambitions. Looming over adjacent council estates, these brash totems are a monument to Olympian greed. Marketed with the blandly aspirational names of Velocity, Aurora and Icona, they reach their peak at the purple 43-story shaft of the Stratford Halo. Strip away all the festive colors, though, and you’ll find that these are actually mean-minded silos of tightly packed one-bedroom apartments, mostly sold overseas for buy-to-let.
Like a physical bar chart, their bloated bulk stands as a diagram of the vastly inflated land values whipped up by the Olympic gold rush. Developers swarmed in when the area was earmarked as the sacred site. Paying over the odds, each was determined to build what they imagined would be the ultimate gateway to the Games. Inevitably, they failed. The real gateway to the Olympic park had been determined long before — in the form of a gigantic shopping mall. Westfield represents part of a pre-existing plan for Stratford City, imagined as a glamorous new “metropolitan center” built around the Stratford international rail hub. The plan hit the rocks and was divided into separate hands, split into an inward-looking mall on one side of the tracks and the eastern bloc-style flats of the athletes’ village on the other.
This commercial compromise destroyed any idea of an integrated “city” right from the start. Nor did the financial crisis help: The housing developers had to be bailed out by the public purse to the tune of ￡1 billion, and the results have since been sold on to the Qatari royal family for about half that. The sole precondition is that half the apartments be let for “affordable” rent (80 percent of market rate).
With its wide, tree-lined streets and its endless facades of beige concrete, the housing area, now christened East Village, feels peculiarly soulless. It’s not just the rigid, coarse and repetitive courtyard blocks that rise like 10-story cliff-faces — it’s the gaping boulevards that sweep between them. There’s little sense of human scale. The original plan was to roll out a similar grid of muscular blocks right across the park, like our own slice of Benidorm. Remarkably, common sense has prevailed.