In summer 2005, the contest to be the city to host the 2012 Olympic Games was narrowed down to London and Paris. On the July 6th, against all expectations, London won. Unfortunately, the euphoria lasted less than 24 hours as the London Underground was bombed the next day, so the mood of pragmatism about the responsibilities and financial burden set in earlier than it might have otherwise. To get a more detailed perspective, PingMag talked to Eleanor Fawcett from Design for London, the brand new governmental ‘urbanism and architecture team’ for projects in town — while sitting inside London’s City Hall, the Norman Foster designed glass egg near Tower Bridge.
Written by Ashley Rawlings
Eleanor, what is your role within Design for London?
The main area that my part of the unit is working on is the Thames Gateway, and then within that I’m most focussed on the Lower Lea Valley and the Royal Docks, where the Olympics are going to be held.
So you were working on these areas before the Olympics were announced?
Yes, for over three years. The Lower Lea Valley has always been a really dysfunctional area, because it’s on the boundary between four boroughs. Borough councils tend to care less about the edge of their territory, so you can imagine that having four of these areas side by side with nobody looking after them made it all into a real mess. It has always been a very industrial area: London’s electricity gets generated there, and the sewage gets processed there, so the land is pretty poisoned.
Before London even started bidding for the Olympics I was working on a project to pull together a plan for that area. Being so close to the Canary Wharf business district meant that people were already looking at it as the next area for regeneration.
London seems to be regenerating at a pretty fast rate already, regardless of the Olympics…
Yes, and my department is trying to steer that change. Particularly because the housing market is doing incredibly well at the moment, there is a massive rate of change going on of its accord anyway, led by the private sector. So we have to try and harness that investment and make it in to something good rather than something rubbish, which is generally what would happen — not because of individual developers are bad people, but because unless there is some kind of overview of how it all fits together you don’t get the parks and inter-area links and it ends up as dysfunctional.
The Stratford area has been undergoing some massive change recently, hasn’t it?
It’s one of the areas right around where the Olympics is going to be and ever since London was awarded the Olympics, bland tower blocks have been springing up. It’s a shame, because our strategy wasn’t quite finished by the time those developers started buying up the land and building on it, so it just happened. Hopefully now that our plan is underway there won’t be too much of that happening again.
How has the successful Olympic bid changed your plans?
Well, we had never expected to win! The whole idea was that this urban regeneration project would be launched when we lost the bid, so that that there would still be good news for the area even if the Olympics didn’t come. Then we had to start reworking our plan – but with the Olympic infrastructure in the middle of it!
And it had quite a big impact. Rather than the stadiums, we were originally planning on retaining a fair number of the industries that London needs, like waste processing and that kind of thing. It has been an unbelievably long and drawn out process to keep having to change everything the whole time. But it’s probably one of the first times there has been a project in England that has concentrated effort to sort out a particular area.
What kind of things do you have to think about to making this new development sustainable?
We have the luxury in London that because the market is so strong we don’t have to worry that much about whether anything will get built, because we know that developers are really eager to build. So we can afford to ask ourselves about the extras that will make the Lower Lea Valley happy, sustainable place to live in, and a lot of that is centered on creating open space that incorporates a really good park.
The Lower Lea Valley is a really long, thin strip of land with canals and rivers running through it that all the industries used to use for all their barges and so on. At the moment, these canals are very beautiful but desolate waterways, so one part of the plan is to tie together all the new developments with a network of parkland that runs up the waterways and throughout the whole area.
What are the practical aspects of that?
Making a park out of land that isn’t currently a park involves fairly major issues of buying and negotiation. There are some massive gasworks and we’re trying to persuade British Gas that they really want to decommission them so that can use that land for the parks.
A lot of the logistics need to be planned well in advance. We don’t want the park to be full of saplings when the Olympics start, so we have to find out how many tree nurseries in the European Union can provide trees, and start growing them off site now so that they will look right in time for 2012.
The Lower Lea Valley is a pretty large area? How many people will this regeneration affect?
There will be 40,000 new homes placed in the area, bringing in around 150,000 new people — something like the size of a small town. That means a lot of basic infrastructure is required. There will be new schools and the support that they need.
We have to consider how people move around in the area, so that it feels like a part of the city and that it is easy to walk or cycle to the supermarket. A lot of new developments suffer from being so unconnected that people practically have to drive to get anywhere. We have to make sure the waterways and railway lines have enough bridges because otherwise they are just barriers to movement.
Won’t the regeneration mean that a currently poor area will suddenly see an influx of rich people and the increased rents will drive the original inhabitants out?
We do have to make sure that the new population doesn’t just become one of yuppies living in expensive one-bedroom flats; it’s important to avoid the split between the really poor people who live there now and the yuppies who will eventually move in, so we are trying to encourage a lot of family housing. Of course, the developers prefer to build 40 storey towers and say no to family housing because it’s more profitable for them. We do our best to force them because it’s very important for the area to have a balance.
Will the Millennium Dome finally be put to a good use?
The Millennium Dome is a good building, it’s just been put to bad use over the years. It’s been renamed the O2 and is being regenerated as an entertainment venue, with the Scissor Sisters and Justin Timberlake playing there in July. I think it will end up being a success: it’s already in such a good location. During the Games it will house the gymnastics and judo and as long as it is used well in the run up to the Olympics, then it will fit in well with the overall Olympic project.
What will happen to the main facilities after the Olympics?
The main stadium will house 80,000 people during the Olympics, but will be downsized to one third or one quarter of that size afterwards. We’re aware that we mustn’t leave these oversized Olympic-size facilities behind and make them more suited to their use after the Games have finished.
Thank you for your time, Eleanor. Good luck with everything until 2012!