Future City: London’s Olympic legacy

Now that the Olympics have been over for almost three weeks, I think I’m FINALLY over the severe depression that comes after one hell of a party. For two magical weeks, London wasn’t London: People were friendly! The tubes ran on time! Even the weather behaved! Well mostly….

And what a show the city put on – from Team GB smashing the medal tally to permanently high excitement levels and endless cultural activities this was an amazing time to live in the capital of Old Blighty. In short – London delivered. Greg Baum of the Sydney Morning Herald even conceded that London trumped Sydney in 2000 saying, ‘[London’s] Olympics had Sydney’s vibrancy, Athen’s panache, Beijing’s efficiency and added British know-how and drollery.” Jon Stewart dryly noted that London managed to put into the Opening Ceremony the only thing Beijing left out – actual humans.

But taking a step back from the Games, the real dividend gained by London was the culmination of all the capital investment and urban transformation that has taken place in preparation. To look at the London of 2012, is a very different picture to the London of 30 years ago. In the space of my lifetime, this city has become a place people actually want to visit and live in as opposed to a place people feel beholden to come to due to colonial apron strings, financial concerns or because it’s the ‘gateway to Europe’.

Don’t get me wrong, London is still far from perfect. The anger that boiled over in the London Riots last year is a case in point, as are the continued difficulties navigating such a labyrinthine city structure, steep transport costs and high rates of petty crime. And let’s not talk about the weather.

These problems weren’t magically washed away because of two weeks of sporting glory but London managed to leverage the Olympics to not only push through vast new infrastructure with long-term benefits but to also challenge perceptions about how the city functions.

While London is one of the world’s most developed cities, it hasn’t always been one of the most enjoyable. As Pritiker Prize winning architect Richard Rogers’ says, ‘It’s hard to remember how depressing London was in the seventies and eighties.’ He argues that London has returned with a vengeance since the bleak days of Thatcher and if the Olympics represents London coming into its own in the 21st Century, the Tate Modern’s opening in 2000, marked the inception of this new era.*

We all know the amazing story of Tate Modern – How Sir Nicholas Serota took the almost recklessly bold decision to use the location of an old Power Station, in a disused part of town with no tourist amenities nearby. But nobody envisaged just how successful it would be – the Southwark area around Tate Modern has subsequently been completely regenerated and the gallery is set to expand in the future to deal with high visitor demand.

If Tate represents the beginnings of London forging a modern identity, areas such as Kings Cross and Hackney further illustrate the city’s growth and adaptability. 20 years ago, the inner-East suburb of Kings Cross was a rough transport hub notorious for rampant prostitution and drug abuse. Now the Eurostar departs from here, Kings Cross station has been impressively extended, the trendy Central St Martin’s College has moved into a purpose built space and there is still over £10 billion worth of redevelopment slated to take place (such as Google’s new London headquarters).

While the suburb has resembled a large construction yard for the past five years, many of the projects were pushed through to finish in time for The Olympics, and what a difference the lack of cranes makes. Beyond the immediate area of the station are still your manky chicken shops and council flats, but there are now smart urban pathways, chic bars, galleries and gastro pubs making this a place to actively visit, instead of purposely avoid.

In the bidding process for the 2012 Olympics, London had a firm focus on legacy, of putting in a sustainable long-term development plan that would see the Eastern suburbs continue to grow after Olympic fanfare had died down.

The 1992 Barcelona Games provided the model for London. Spanish architect Josep Acebillo, who led the Barcelona Olympic project said: “We were the first Olympics conceived primarily for the transformation of the city. London was influenced by our philosophy.” Of the £10 billion public funds pledged for the Olympics, only 10% went towards new sporting venues, while the bulk was used for improvements to transport, housing and re-shaping Barcelona’s seafront. According to Mayor Jordi Hereu, the Games “were the start of Barcelona going from a local to a global city.”**

London was already a global city, but the pitch here was to go from malfunctioning to modern, to transform the deprived East into a relevant part of the larger city. Unlike post-Olympics Athens and Beijing where the sporting venues have been underutilised or left to gather dust, London has ensured there is a purpose for each venue. West Ham football club will take over the main stadium; the Athletes Village will be transformed into residential apartments. Other venues will be dismantled and sold after the Paralympics end – Rio has already expressed an interest in the de-mountable basketball stand for 2016 but there is no information yet as to what will become of the world’s largest McDonalds….

London also pushed through a huge piece of infrastructure in the form of the gleaming new Overground rail system. This massive commitment to join East to West and provide transport options beyond the beleaguered tube, has opened up whole swathes of the city and made them accessible in a way that was inconceivable ten years ago.

How the Olympic park will knit into the East London community will be the ultimate answer to the Games legacy but the city has already proven that leveraging deadlines based on a global event is the most effective way to raise money, sort out approvals and deliver large scale projects on the ground. The calibre of the delivery is directly related to the vision that has accompanied the project. London has envisioned well and delivered much to be proud of and grow from as it enters a new phase of modernity. In the post-Olympics world, London as a city has a great deal to look forward to.

* For a thorough evaluation of Tate Modern’s place in London – and Sir Nicolas Serota’s role within this –see Calvin Tomkins, Profiles, “The Modern Man,”in The New Yorker
** All quotes about Barcelona taken from The Standard