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Setting the context: the role of design in the realisation of the Olympic Legacy

Setting the context: the role of design in the realisation of the Olympic Legacy

13 February 2018

By Kathryn Firth.

The great strength of the 2012 Olympic Games was to create the Legacy, the piece of the city the Olympic Park would become, at the same time as creating the Games-time masterplan. This required those involved in the design of this area to think beyond a 4-week sporting festival and imagine how a collection of iconic sports venues should relate to a parkland surrounded by new housing and the community infrastructure required to support neighbourhoods.

The other stroke of genius implemented by the GLA was to widen the jurisdiction of the Olympic Park Legacy Company by establishing a Mayoral Development Corporation (MDC) that encompassed the land immediately adjacent to the Olympic Park irrespective of which borough it lay within. 

As the Legacy Corporation takes over the role and function of the previous Olympic Park Legacy Corporation, it gains an expanded remit to increase the geographical focus into the fringe areas around the Park and additional planning and plan making powers; resulting in a unique opportunity to drive the regeneration and growth of the diverse communities that have experienced discrimination and exclusion for decades.

LLDC Design Quality Policy 2012

The fact that the London Legacy Development Corporation (LLDC) remained the landowner of the development parcels within the Olympic Park empowered those of us charged with ensuring and enforcing a high level of design quality. This power inherent to an MDC should not be underestimated. The design team’s major responsibility was the use of effective tools to introduce and implement best practice design. While the MDC provided leverage for the design team, some of the methods employed are not dependent on this political configuration.

The design team established a service level agreement with the Policy Planning Decisions Team (PPDT), to provide design advice and guidance on planning applications. Once the bid to host the Games was won London property owners rushed to develop land they had let lie dormant for years. Responding to planning applications presented an opportunity to improve standards of design quality and create well-integrated and sustainable neighbourhoods. Indeed, this model is similar to the remit of Public Practice, the agency placing young planners with design education in local government. The design team also worked alongside PPDT to produce a local plan for LLDC, seeking to create a plan that clearly articulated the priorities of LLDC and helped streamline the application dialogue and process.

It was agreed with PPDT that a requirement of the planning application for the Legacy master plan (or the Legacy Communities Scheme, as it was called) would include the establishment of a design review panel. The LLDC Quality Review Panel makes direct recommendations to the LLDC Planning Committee and deliberately includes experts in engineering, development, sustainability and inclusive access as well as the design disciplines. Thankfully the benefit of design review panels has gained traction over recent years as evidenced by the number of local authorities putting them in place.

Design quality tools were embedded in the procurement process, and in addition to the creation of a design services framework, the design team collaborated with the development directorate to write briefs for the public realm, infrastructure, architectural and urban design projects. The most complex and involved of these was the competitive dialogue process employed to select a development partner for the new neighbourhoods. The LLDC design team engaged in the review of each of the proposals put forth by the urban designers, architects and landscape architects on the developer-led teams. Once a developer team was selected regular workshops were held to guide the scheme through to planning application, referring directly to the LCS approved permission, its design codes and the Design Quality Policy produced prior to the games. Most large-scale regeneration or development schemes will likely take many years, if not decades, to realise, and design guidance and codes not only provide assurance for the local authority but provide the developer with benchmarks. The challenge, which hopefully was achieved at the Park, is to strike a balance between codes that embed high-quality design and those that stifle innovation.  

Having an overview across a sizeable piece of the city can ensure that the types of public spaces and public realm provided cater to both existing and projected residents and visitors. At the first neighbourhood to be realised on the Park, Chobham Manor, typologies cater to larger households. This neighbourhood can take advantage of its close proximity to the amazing Tumbling Bay playground, but the need for even more local play was clear. Acknowledging that neighbourhood profiles are not static playable landscapes are integrated into the public realm rather than captured in specific play areas. These landscapes – the public realm – also serve the wider area. Their visibility along a desire line and the fact that they are framed by housing and often a commercial or community amenity ensures they are naturally surveilled. Adopting a broad perspective, both geographically and temporally, hopefully, contributes to the long-term relevance of a place without sacrificing the evolution of neighbourhood character.

The realisation of the Olympic Legacy is not without its tensions. LLDC is a body essentially charged with both doing public good and engaging in profit-generating development. While these objectives are not inherently at odds, it can result in a culture that is generally risk-adverse. This played out in a few ways. In the first instance, it was seen as imperative that planning permission for the full area was submitted all at once. The Stratford Waterfront and UCL projects highlight the fact that cities and politics are dynamic as a considerable portion of the original permission is no longer valid. A further insight, worth sharing with future Olympic Games hosts, is that the planning permission for the stage between the Games and Legacy, ‘Transformation’ (see plans on p24 in report) should only be submitted once the Legacy masterplan is finalised – not surprisingly, as the Legacy masterplan was refined strains between the plans arose (e.g. streets and bridges in inappropriate locations). 

Public sector procurement is not generally tailored to small practices. The design team found itself interrogating the procurement system to allow younger designers to tender for work and we strongly encouraged development teams to include emerging practices. Slowly the public sector is recognising that procurement cannot take a one-size-fits-all approach.

Other tensions are evident, for example, a palpable resistance to explore unconventional development models (i.e. custom-build housing or co-housing) in the midst of an affordable housing crisis. In those instances where the MDC or developer is not under intense scrutiny to reimburse the public purse for an Olympic Games, it is hoped there will be more of an appetite for experimentation in this realm.

London won the 2012 Olympic Games in no small part on the promise that “within 20 years the residents who will have hosted the world’s biggest event will enjoy the same social and economic chances as their neighbours across London.” Even if the International Olympic Committee did not see this as critical, the citizens of London continue to do so. While design alone cannot realise this important ambition, it has a key role to play in urban regeneration that should never be underestimated.

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