In 2012, after seven years of careful planning, design and construction, a forgotten patch of London was transformed to host the Olympic and Paralympic Games. Five years on, we look at the legacy of the games and the role of design in transforming East London.

It is fair to say that back in the early 2000’s, that part of London was in need of some TLC. Largely forgotten and lagging behind other London Boroughs in almost every social and economic milestone, the area needed attention and regeneration.

Long before the bid to host the games, Ken Livingstone, then Mayor of London, and east London council leaders were busy drafting plans for the re-development of Stratford and the surrounding boroughs. Locally, people wanted to see a change that was more than just a build of new, fresh beautiful buildings. Passion was running deep in the area long before a bid to host the Olympics was even submitted.

Ken famously said at the time that he didn’t bid to get three weeks of sport. He bid because “it was the only way to get billions of pounds out of the government to develop the East End – to clean the soil, put in the infrastructure and build the housing”. A core ambition of the winning bid to host the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games was to create a platform for a sustainable legacy of social, economic and physical regeneration.

And everyone was behind that ambition. The London Development Agency at the time said that hosting the games in east London would ‘create the unique conditions in which real and effective regeneration was achievable: an injection of public money, a focused and committed public sector organization, a fixed development timescale and a ‘catalytic event’.

When London won the bid, it was a surprise. Quite suddenly, east London was presented with the biggest opportunity it had ever had, but no major project of this scale had previously been planned and delivered in the UK in such exceptional circumstances on an inner urban brown field site. The extent of the site, cost, programme and delivery constraints presented a unique set of challenges in master planning, design and construction.

The magnitude and complexity of the task was matched only by the enormous potential for lasting change. Finally, the people of east London would get the investment they needed to deliver change. From the beginning, there was a conscious effort to avoid the mistakes made by previous host countries. Regeneration didn’t happen in Athens and Beijing and they failed to deliver a positive legacy for their people. This was the first Olympic park designed for legacy and not just for Games.

With the world watching, London had to deliver a construction project at speed, to a non- negotiable deadline, on a large-scale on a previously intractable site, with fixed public funding and uncertain future ownership – under intense scrutiny. They also had to create a positive legacy – a project that could deliver long term benefits to the area long after the dismantling of the hurdles and the final batten had been passed.

From the start, all those involved sought to create an inspirational Olympic Park with a lasting sense of place. The challenge for any regeneration project is to bring about positive and major change and, at the same time, root the emerging development form in the identity of the local area and people.

Design excellence had to be delivered within budget. Like all host countries, the planners, commissioners and designers wanted a park that the world envied. The Olympic Delivery Authority (ODA) prioritised design and artistic excellence in its design team selection criteria. This was an important step towards ‘overcoming the misconception in parts of the construction industry that ‘good’ architects design expensive and complex schemes’. Creating a Park with a coherent and relevant sense of place was considered central to delivering a platform for a sustainable legacy of social, economic and physical regeneration. They knew it wasn’t all about looks.

And it is perhaps this vision that has safeguarded London from languishing in the low legacy stakes alongside Beijing and Athens. The Olympic Delivery’s (ODA) overarching commitment was to meet the long-term needs of all people who will use the Park during the games and post the games - long into the future. They embraced the core belief that ‘design adds value rather than cost to a project of this entity, ambition and scale’.

Design was prioritized. The ODA focused early in the process on delivering exceptional sustainable and inclusive design standards from the start, and good design proved crucial to realising their objectives through the masterplan and projects that followed. The Design Strategy: “Designing for Legacy”, identified seven core objectives to assess design quality: value for money; on time; for purpose; legacy; environment; health and well-being; safe and secure; inclusion.

The focus on the broader social, community and environmental benefits of the London 2012 Games proved critical to securing political and stakeholder support and, ultimately, reduced the risk of delay or planning refusal. It also helped to create what we see today – five years on. The athletes’ village is a leafy park. The stadium, often a white elephant after the Olympic Games are over, has been leased to football team West Ham United. University College London is planning a campus near the stadium, the Victoria and Albert Museum and Smithsonian Institution are looking to build galleries and dance theatre Sadler’s Wells is planning a new 550-seat auditorium near the new V&A.

The challenge for a scheme of this sort is always to persuade large office occupiers that the Olympic Park after the Olympics is a viable location. Not a problem for London. The International Quarter has turned the Olympic Park into a genuine employment destination. Four million square feet of offices is on the way and will house 25,000 employees in jobs. Transport for London, The Financial Conduct Authority, Cancer Research and the British Council, are reported to be taking up office space in the East, and in 2021 the London College of Fashion will open a facility. When it’s all completed in the 2020s there will be 30,000 people working every day in the park area and 60,000 people living in homes in and around the park.

One of the most challenging assets to convert after any games is the broadcast and media centre, given the technical infrastructure and specific nature of the building. But it’s design has enabled it to become Here East, a successful hub for digital and creative organisations including Studio Wayne McGregor. And even the not universally loved ArcelorMittal Orbit by Sir Anish Kapoor and Cecil Balmond, a 115-metre-high public artwork has a long-term purpose long after the burning of the torch and includes slide by artist Carsten Holler that people can use at £16.50 a go.

Economically, £9.3bn was earmarked to the Olympic project in 2007. Measuring the return on this big investment is tricky, but a report last year by the mayor and central government predicted national increases in output within the wide range of £28bn-41bn by 2020. It’s good news.

But some of the design principles set out in the early days will not stand the test of time. Art was physically integrated into the landscape and buildings across the park in the design of lighting, way finding, bridge surfacing, retaining walls, and infrastructure enclosures – and what a difference it has made. The projects were also initially designed to minimise the long-term environmental impact and to be accessible for the convenience and enjoyment of everyone. But now some of this is changing with plans to demolish some artist space in Hackney Wick for a new walking and cycling bridge and a new road and car bridge. The upshot will be new routes for drivers coming from the Blackwall Tunnel, with potential rat runs created through the park – not exactly a vision of a less car-reliant future. Less art and design equals less enjoyment for all.

The bid for the Olympics in 2004 also promised to boost nationwide participation in sport. Elite participation and success has been good but, according to Sport England, it has proved hard to shift the public from the sofa, despite an extra £300m being pumped into community sports since 2012.

The impact on people and behaviour change is a little harder to measure and five years is just a drop in the ocean. Parts of east London still host some of our most deprived communities despite the huge investment. There is no doubt that the investment in social, movement, transport and green space infrastructure is generating value, attracting further investment and improving the life opportunities of local communities but like all places, we need to keep working at it.

At a time when it seems a less attractive proposition to have an Olympics in your city, London has begun to make good on its promise of creating a thriving new district on the former Olympic Park and the example set by those involved in planning and designing London 2012 – then and now – shows just what is possible to achieve, even on the most constrained project by putting design and people front and centre.

Download the Lessons learned from the London 2012 Games construction project report

Read the full Lessons from masterplanning and designing London 2012 report.

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