Like many of us I’ve watched hours of the Olympics on TV. Frankly I’ve been getting behind Team GB and getting behind with everything else in equal measure. But this time my cheer wasn’t for another success in the Gold rush. On this occasion I had finally managed to get a ticket via the London 2012 website for an event in the Olympic Park.
It’s funny – only half the team’s Golds have come from events in Stratford, but it is clearly the epicentre of activity, and I wanted to see the Park before the games ended. So a ticket for the women’s handball quarter final match in the Copper Box between Spain and Croatia was perfect.
I had another reason for wanting to go too. I lived and worked in Newham for much of the 1980’s and I wanted to see the place again. The Olympic Park is the biggest regeneration project in Britain so I was of course expecting some big changes. And as I made my way onto the site from Stratford station and tried to orientate myself I began to realise just how big.
As a newly qualified planner for the London Borough of Newham one of my first projects was the Marshgate Lane Industrial Improvement Area. This was a twilight world of Victorian glue factories, galvanising plants and other unmentionables on low lying land along the Bow Back Rivers – a series of streams which make up the course of the River Lea. The area was struggling, but the Planners gave grants to businesses to improve their sites, the Valuers put up new industrial units, and Highways built a new link to the Blackwall Tunnel approach road, and by the time I moved on I thought the place was on the up.
But I’m afraid Marshgate Lane will not be part of my permanent professional memorial – well not unless a team of archaeologists do some digging in a future millennium. The whole area is now buried right under the Olympic Stadium. In fact the Cauldron pretty much marks the spot where I was bitten on the leg by a car breaker’s guard dog, necessitating an afternoon at Newham General Hospital to get a tetanus injection.
The park is vast. It covers a square mile, and this only 3 miles from that more famous “Square Mile”, the City of London. And not one previous building appears to me to have been left standing. But it has certainly created a great backdrop to the Games. The Bow Back Rivers, once muddy backwaters, have been made a feature of the site, with riverside walks a great alternative way of getting from one venue to another, should you wish to avoid the concession stands and sponsors’ pavilions.
But of course the main walkways around the arenas were far busier. Union jacks were everywhere, but with none of the tribal hostility to be found around football grounds at 2 o’clock on a Saturday. A big group of Norwegians were sitting outside drinking beer (one of the very few nationalities who probably think £7 a pint is good value), and then as I reached the Copper Box I saw someone draped in the Catalan flag, wearing an FC Barcelona shirt, and I started to hear Spanish spoken.
In many ways a day at the Olympic Park feels a bit like a day at a music festival – albeit without the mud or the weekend hippies, and with rather more stringent drug testing regimes. The whole place has the same temporary feel, with lots of people milling happily around the tented food concessions, “streets” of traders and branded structures selling the wares of the corporate sponsors.
And much of it really is temporary. Most of the smaller buildings and quite a few of the Olympic venues themselves will be dismantled after the Games. The water polo arena, basketball arena and hockey centre are all intended to bite the dust when the Paralympics close on 9th September. All that will be left will be the Stadium itself, the Aquatics Centre, Velodrome, Copper Box, Media Centre and the Orbit – the striking helter-skelter paid for by Lakshmi Mittal, Britain’s richest man.
In their place will come some 8,000 new homes, covering the vast majority of the Park. And as I walked round I tried to imagine what it would be like to live there. Certainly you can hardly find a place with better rail connections. Stratford is only 10 minutes from the City and Canary Wharf, and on the Javelin it barely takes longer to reach the West End. And the Bow Back Rivers have the potential to provide a series of blue-green corridors which will create an environment unique for inner London. For the Games masses of wild flowers have been planted along their banks and the effect is quite beautiful. And of course with the new Westfield Stratford City right on your doorstep you won’t have to go far to kit out your new apartment and fill your wardrobes.
But I also wondered what it might do for the rest of Stratford, which isn’t exactly one of the most well thought of parts of the capital. So once the handball had finished (Spain won 25-22 by the way – really quite exciting once I had worked out the rudiments of the rules), I left the Olympic Park and set out to inspect the neighbourhood.
Once through Westfield I was back into the pre-Olympic part of town. I remember the Stratford Centre as a tired 1970’s covered shopping mall, and I had assumed that now, with competition from Westfield, it would be like a ghost town. But it wasn’t. In fact it was much busier than I remembered it, and it didn’t seem to be just the effect of the Games. Admittedly the market stalls inside the arcade were doing a brisk trade in flags of all nations, but there were no pound shops or short term lets, and while brands like Footlocker must be relishing the presence of thousands of new Athletics fans in the area each day, other chains are presumably surviving on local trade.
A further two minute walk away is a pub I used to go to every week. The Railway Tavern was the after match venue of choice of Newham Planning FC, for whom I was a regular (if untalented) performer. Our home pitch – a shale all weather surface at Three Mills – was pretty much the only sporting facility in what is now the Olympic Park, and after we’d picked the grit out of our knees we needed a drink. As I walked into the pub at 4.30 pm a dozen people were watching the Olympic action from the velodrome on the big screen. And while I sipped my beer I reminisced with some of them and asked how the Games and the Olympic Park would affect Stratford in the long term.
Westfield was unsurprisingly seen as a big plus. All the top brands, and close enough to the existing shops to be part of the town centre rather than a cuckoo in the nest which will starve the rest out. But people were more sceptical about the new housing – particularly if it is all going to look like the 8 to 12 storey athletes village, which can be seen from the door of the pub. “I call it The Prison,” one man said to me. “We just seem to be going back to the type of flats that went up in the 60s.” Locals will be hoping that the London Legacy Development Corporation comes good on its promise of “modern versions of London’s traditional Georgian and Victorian squares and terraces”.
With the feel-good effect of the record medal haul, and provided the housing market recovers in time, the Olympic Park should be a big long term success. I just hope the developers, planners and decision makers can deliver under pressure when it really matters, and don’t choke on the big day…