In our second segment of Thinking Past Day 17 – our series examining the larger implications of hosting the Olympic Games – we explore social issues London must address while creating the necessary infrastructure for the Summer Games.
The forty-five minute proposal London presented to the International Olympic Committee in Sinagpore was filled with amazing flyovers of natural terrain depicting the most challenging obstacles, walk-throughs of state-of-the-art athletic facilities, and planning overviews of accommodations for athletes amidst a city speckled with old and new cultural offerings. When the final votes were counted and London won the bid, it was time to turn those glossy virtual images into reality.
Of course, we are accustomed to the blankness of a site transforming into the awesomeness of a dynamic rendering, but an entire city? Where is all the available space coming from as London is the most populated municipality in the European Union with 8.17 million residents? And, more importantly, what was on the land before the Olympic transformation?
More after the break.
Preparing for the Games
An important component of London’s Olympic proposal was the notion that most of the buildings required for the Games would utilize existing venues – an intelligent move from a sustainable point of view and planning perspective. But, no matter the number of existing facilities, the demands of hosting the largest athletic event in the world still require some amount of new construction.
London focused her energy for new construction on developing the 500 acre Olympic Park in Stratford, as the site would hold the new Olympic Stadium, the Aquatic Center and the Athletes’ Village. By marketing the Games as an opportunity to redevelop an underutilized area of the city, London demolished existing buildings under the pretense of exploiting the greater potential of the sites for the Games.
The existing facilities are already part of the city’s fabric and have worked well at an urban level prior to the Games – and, thus will work well after the Games. Will the same be said for this new “regenerative” plan of Olympic Park? Of particular concern is London’s Athletes’ Village, as the post-Games’ hope of urban assimilation may not be as successful as anticipated.
So, exactly how much “planning and development” was needed for the 2012 Games? Although there was limited construction, preparation still included the demolition of 200 buildings which displaced scores of residents to “regenerate” urban communities. In an effort to take advantage of development opportunities for the Games, residents were encouraged to move to alternative dwellings nearby. After the Games, a portion of the Athletes’ Village housing will be deemed affordable, allowing residents to take up a new home within the backdrop of Olympic Park.
However, does this “regenerated community life” pitch for after the Games make up for displacing residents? And, will the Olympic Delivery Authority truly complete the transformation of the Village – a potentially isolated cluster of residences within Olympic Park – into proper functioning housing with the promised educational and health facilities after the Games?
Perhaps we should examine the case of Carpenters Estate – a council housing estate located in the northeast corner of the Borough of Newham. Of the 500+ units Carpenters contains, only around 80 will remain, as most of the blocks have been marked for demolition to make way for the Olympic Park developments. Joe Alexander and Osita Madu, advocates of Carpenters Against Regeneration Plan, consistently bombarded Mayor Wales with questions pertaining to the demolition of their homes. “We’re not some kind of social ill or blight on the landscape that needs help,” says Madu. “Somehow Newham council thinks we’re a social problem that needs to be addressed.”
But, Mayor Wales has assured the community that plans for the future will be advantageous. ”It’s always a balance if you want to do something for an area,” Wales says. “What is the wider community getting at the expense of the inconvenience caused to local residents? People in Carpenters are concerned. I would be too. I completely understand that.”
The Social Clash
The argument of inconveniencing a few for the good of the whole stands to reason; yet, the problem lies in the fact that those being inconvenienced are some of the most needy in London. The people being displaced are those struggling with a shrunken Welfare system, shortages in affordable housing, and income inequality.
It seems as though the poor are being pushed farther and farther from the city.
“It is, in many ways, an archetypal urban regeneration conflict between local authorities on a mission to improve, and those on their patch who fear they only stand to lose,” stated Dave Hill for the Guardian.
The biggest fear is that although units in the Athletes’ Village may be deemed affordable, the residents currently residing in places such as Carpenters Estate will not be able to afford the new housing. How can the residents be reassured that they can continue to live in their regenerated neighborhood, post-Games, from a financal and functional point of view?
“Twenty years ago no one was even thinking of redeveloping the Estate. Now they are determined to sell it to the highest bidder,” says David Richards, vicar of the nearby St. John’s Church. “What it says about the Olympic legacy is that Stratford will not be a place for the people who live here at the moment.”
The Reality of the Future
London is not the first Olympic host to have such ideas for transforming the Village into affordable housing. Most recently, Athens and Vancouver had similar ideas for their Olympic Villages. In 2004, Athens’ Village marked the largest single property development, and hundreds of thousands of families entered a lottery to buy homes after the Games.
Prospective families were attracted to the idea of raising children with nearby schools and recreation facilities, in a community of mixed business opportunities and cultural offerings. But, the promised additional amenities were never built, and the existing Olympic facilities fell into a state of disrepair.
“We had some very good plans, well-laid plans,” said Athanasios Alevras, former deputy minister of culture in the run-up to the Games. “The idea was to build sites that could be then converted to benefit the lives of Atheneans afterwards. The Olympic Village was a great plan to regenerate an area. We promised infrastructure and facilities that then weren’t delivered. The plans were not respected. Basically, it’s a disaster.”
“It isn’t just that we ran out of money but that the administrative system just wasn’t prepared to do what was needed,” continued Alevras.
But, perhaps, Athens may be an exceptional case due to their precipitous economic downfall in the years following the Games. So, let’s look instead to Vancouver – the host of the 2010 Olympics. Their Olympic Village originally called for two-thirds affordable housing and was designed to be an “inclusive, socially sustainable community.” In fact, Vancouver’s Olympic Vision was very similar to London’s bid – both offered proposals committed to bringing sustainability on a variety of levels to its citizens far after the games. In Vancouver, the land for the Village was once an industrial zone, just like London’s, and the Games would take advantage of the underutilized urban space to create a successful regenerative project. The Vancouver Village would assure an “affordable housing legacy” by providing 4,000+ units of affordable housing to alleviate those suffering from urban displacement.
The Village in Vancouver, which campaigned on affordable housing and ending homelessness, now functions as a luxury waterfront complex.
“The ‘experiment’ of the Olympic Village, however, which was supposed to strike a balance between businesses and residents, instead placed them in a battle. Sadly, in retrospect, it is clear that the social sustainability side lost in that battle. Despite the fact that it was the green technologies themselves that caused the project to go over budget, only the social and affordable housing was placed on the chopping board: over 620 units of social housing were cut from the project,” explained Sean Antrim, co-editor The Mainlander.
What is intended to come about and what will happen is a mystery for London’s Village. It is important to note that the residences at the Athletes’ Village can still be deemed “affordable” with rent as high as 80% of local market rates. If this is implemented, there is no telling how the displaced residents will make ends meet.
“I think we need to remember there was quite a big promise made to the communities in east London about the houses being affordable. I think it’s one they are not going to forget…I think Londoners are desperately short of affordable housing. It’s definitely short of good-quality social housing . If we mean what we say about needing to house all of our key workers, we need to house lots of people in lower-paid jobs who make this city work then, yes, I would say moving to 80% of market rents will cause some of those people not to be able to afford properties,” concluded London’s outgoing Olympic legacy chief, Margaret Ford.
What a sorry ending for the citizens who used to call the new “Olympic Park” home.
Stay tuned for the last of our three parts series, Thinking Beyond Day 17, as it addresses sustainable issues and offers new ideas for hosting the Games.
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