In a session at the 2009 ASLA Annual Meeting in Chicago, London’s Development Agency and EDAW AECOM presented the London 2012 Olympics master plan, and asked whether the new Olympic games site can really help regenerate an environmentally damaged and economically depressed urban community?
London’s Development Agency expects one million new residents by 2020. Over 25 percent of this growth will occur in three percent of its already dense urban area. There are two major growth corridors: one leading north out of the center of the city, and another heading east. The east side, which includes the Lea Valley, the site of the future Olympic site and village, was predominately used for heavy industry before its shift to residential use.
The planned Olympic games site in Lea Valley is some 600 acres, and covers marshland that has been occupied for more than 3,000 years. The marshes were filled in to combat cholera. Later, WWII building rubble was poured into the site. “It’s basically landfill.” Underground there are also surprises — unexploded bombs, deeply contaminated soils, and critical utility infrastructure. “It’s an industrial archaelogical site.”
It’s enviromental state also matches current social conditions. There is 25 percent unemployment in the area, and the city’s residents are in the bottom 5 percent for most indicators.
According to London’s Development Agency, the Olympic games site needed to offer a design program that could solve the environmental, economic, and social issues in an integrated manner. The games site needs to restore the ecological balance, improve access to rivers, and extend the “landscape infrastructure” across existing river systems. Futhermore, the city has to deal with embedded site pollution. London’s Development Agency asked: Do we restore to current conditions, or develop for future sustainability? The more radical approach — to unearth and replace the green infrastructure — was taken and approved by involved environmental organizations. “We have to take everything out of the ground, clean it, and put it back in again.”
London’s planners said they are also creating a place to live. There will be 12,000 new homes built in the Olympic site, mostly affordable family housing. The city is also examining how to improve the school and health infrastructure, and increase employment opportunities so the economic and social infrastructure match the revamped green infrastructure. The wider zone may include some 70,000 new homes. Developers and city officials are working out what types of housing will be included. Developers have been more interested in single studio apartments that can be created in greater volume. At USD 4.5 million per acre, developers are looking for return on investment.
“You can’t just plug in landscape infrastructure, you have to plan for it,” noted London’s Development Agency. Additionally, open space is one of the “greatest assets” a community has, and a key “determinant of how a community feels about a site.” Neighborhoods need to be walkable — the 600 acre Olympics site will be broken into walkable community components. Increasing the appeal of the new Olympic games site to the local community depends on improving access to water. Currently, the community is cut-off from the water. Boats and canoes will become easily accessible, creating a water-oriented urban environment.