The most critical element is political will. In 2000, Ken Livingstone became the first elected Mayor of London, with executive powers.
Rashiq Fataar: Can you share your involvement in the planning of the London Olympic Park and how this came about?
Guys Briggs: I led the consultant team that prepared the regeneration strategy for the Lower Lea Valley – this is the wider area in which the Olympic Park is situated – which established the spatial and regeneration context for the Games and its Legacy. At the time I was urban design director at design consultancy EDAW (now part of the AECOM group), which was appointed by the London Development Agency to prepare the master plans for the Games and Legacy, after winning a competition in 2003. After initially working as part of the Olympic master planning team, specifically on the legacy planning, I was asked to lead the regeneration team.
Rashiq Fataar: What do you believe to be the key elements that need to come together for the design of a such a large, contaminated and abandoned site, in one of the most deprived areas in London?
Guys Briggs: The most critical element is political will. In 2000, Ken Livingstone became the first elected Mayor of London, with executive powers. With a background on the far left of British politics, he brought with him a mandate to deliver change for working class London, in particular driving investment into the historically disadvantaged eastern part of the city.
The second element is vision. Livingstone decided to bid for the Olympic Games to be hosted in London, not so much because he wanted London to be an Olympic City, but because he needed a Big Idea that he could develop a consensus around. Initially no-one thought London would win the bid – Paris was the clear favourite – but the idea was that the energy galvanised around the bid could then be harnessed to deliver the regeneration as a ‘consolation prize’ after London lost. The announcement on 6 July 2005 that London would host the 2012 Games took everyone by surprise (not just the Parisians). It’s ironic that in some respects therefore the means became the end – i.e. while an Olympic bid was intended to just be part of a broader process of regeneration, after 2005 the delivery of the Olympic Games became an almost all consuming task in itself. However, in the long term the impact of hosting the Games, rather than simply using an unsuccessful bid to galvanise local communities, will be much greater.
Livingstone decided to bid for the Olympic Games to be hosted in London, not so much because he wanted London to be an Olympic City, but because he needed a Big Idea that he could develop a consensus around.
The third element is money. The cost of hosting the Games is enormous. From an initial budget of around £2 billion (around R26 billion) during the bidding stage, revised budgets in 2006 saw costs ballooning to a massive £9 billion (R117 billion). Much of this cash was required to clear the site and develop the bulk infrastructure – transport, energy, waste disposal, etc. – needed to host the Games. The infrastructure will be recycled/reused for the Legacy development that incorporates the Olympic Park back into the surrounding city, so much of the cost is not wasted, however the amount of money required simply to stage the Games is still enormous. One could argue that this is wasteful expenditure, on the other hand had London not hosted the Games, the Lower Lea Valley would not have been the development priority that it became, and it would have taken many more years to bring this level of infrastructure investment into the area, particularly after the 2008 financial crisis.
The fourth element is deadline – an event such as the Olympics provides an immovable deadline. There is no option to push back delivery dates to suit availability of funds or any other convenience. It HAS to happen.
Rashiq Fataar: What was one of the most difficult parts of planning for this site in particular?
Guys Briggs: This was a hugely complex project, not least in scale (the Olympic Park covers 250 hectares, and the wider regeneration strategy covers 1500 hectares). First and foremost amongst the difficulties must be the political geography. Both the Olympic Park and the wider regeneration area straddled borough boundaries*, with the area falling into four local boroughs (Hackney, Newham, Tower Hamlets and Waltham Forest). The planning process needed to achieve the support of each of these boroughs (all with their own particular agendas), as well as the Greater London Authority (GLA), and separate planning applications had to be made to each authority.The physical geography was another major difficulty. The Lower Lea Valley has been an industrial area and waste dumping ground for centuries.
Apart from the extensive ground contamination by acids, oils and other chemicals, the area is divided up by the extensive industrial transport infrastructure required in different industrial epochs – 18th century canals, 19th century railways and 20th century highways. To further complicate matters, two sets of major power lines ran the length of the valley, right across the site identified for the Games – and the power company (National Grid) was adamant that only an Act of Parliament would compel them to put them underground. They were duly compelled …The olympic requirements themselves were no less onerous. Probably the highest concern, and the greatest impact on the planning process, was security – ever since the tragic 1972 Munich Olympics, the safety of all involved in the Games has been absolutely paramount. This raises extraordinary logistical problems, with the movement of athletes and Olympic officials around the park – between venues and the village – entirely separated from movement by the general public. Spectator access and travel is in itself a major challenge – how do you allow several hundred thousand people in and out of the park every day without creating enormous pedestrian traffic jams? Anyone who’s travelled Cape Town’s fan walk for a major game in Green Point (with a maximum of 54,000 spectators) will appreciate how chaotic this can be.
*The political structure of London is made up of 32 local boroughs plus the independent City of London (the financial district). In 2000 the Greater London Authority was introduced with overall strategic authority for issues of cross-borough or London wide significance.
Rashiq Fataar: Ricky Burdett often states that the benefits of the Olympic Park will only be seen in decades to come. He also refers to it as an extension of the city grid. Do you agree?
Guys Briggs: The whole purpose of hosting the Games was for them to act as a catalyst for major change and regeneration in London’s East End. Much of this change will only be seen in future decades, when there are established residential and working communities in the Olympic Park, and the surrounding neighbourhoods have gone through their own cycle of change and regeneration. But there are tangible benefits already. The new transport links in the Lower Lea Valley have massively improved access in and through the area. Acres of derelict and degraded land have been cleaned up, and new development has taken place bringing housing, parks and community facilities into this deprived area. But although there will be many winners in this regeneration process, there are also losers. Many businesses were forced to close down, or relocate – taking jobs with them.
As to it being an extension of the city grid – this also remains to be seen. in any event, Grid is something of a misnomer; unlike New York, London is not famous for being built to a grid. I prefer to talk about the city’s structure.
A long established community of allotment gardeners were displaced from the heart of what is now the Olympic Park. And the extent to which local residents will be displaced by rising property values remains to be seen. But one of the greatest injuries is to the soul of the city. London has lost one of its secret places – a place that the marginal and displaced could call home – and on the evidence of what has been built for the Athletes’ Village, will replace it with a characterless nowhere-land.
As to it being an extension of the city grid – this also remains to be seen. in any event, Grid is something of a misnomer; unlike New York, London is not famous for being built to a grid. I prefer to talk about the city’s structure. Certainly it is the intention that the redevelopment of the Olympic Park after the Games will erase the Olympic Park’s boundaries, and see it reabsorbed into the surrounding urban fabric. This will require that the existing structure of streets and spaces outside of the Olympic Park is extended into the Olympic Park area, with many new bridges over the canals, highways and railways. This was at the heart of the original planning for Legacy – I only hope that budget constraints do not end up cutting out the crucial linkages that have been planned, and so retain the area’s isolation.
Guy Briggs is principal of GB|USPD, an urban design consultancy based in Cape Town. He is an Academician of the Academy of Urbanism (UK), a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts (UK), a member of the V&A Waterfront Design review committee, and Cape Town city representative for the global Council for Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat. Guy teaches at UCT School of Architecture & Planning, and is currently working with Wits University to establish a research network – City-form Africa – focussed on urbanisation and sustainability in sub-Saharan Africa. Prior to returning to South Africa in 2010, he was urban design director at international consultancy EDAW|AECOM, and co-Chair of the Bristol Urban Design Forum.