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Case Study: Guy Briggs and the Olympic Park Strategy

Guy Briggs recently shared a first-hand account of his journey inside the decade-plus planning behemoth that delivered the London Olympic Park in the Lower Lea Valley. His presentation made the simplest kind of sense because it spoke about neighbourhoods, not object buildings; about streets as rooms and rivers as roads, and about harnessing global events for local benefit and not the inverse. For these reasons, nearly everything was immediately applicable to the planning and development of Cape Town.

The Olympic Park project was presented from a thematic perspective, explaining that there had always been a triple hurdle that every British pound spent had to cross: justification in terms of the Olympic Games themselves, in terms of the legacy of the site, and in terms of the future of greater East London and the Lower Lea Valley. Planning that could be defended in all three respects had also to be proven green, before the go-ahead was given.

Planning across boroughs

Expanding on the complexities of site, Briggs outlined the contamination legacy of the built world of East London. After being a site of heavy industry for more than two centuries, the site was heavily contaminated in many places – on some erven, acids had been poured straight into the ground; across much of the site, unexploded buried shells from WWII were to be expected. Against images of cars being fished by crane from the local canals, Briggs explained that the institutional and local-governmental hurdles were no less forbidding – of London’s 32 boroughs (which have the real say in planning issues), the site spans four.

However, even in England there was enough of my kind of scepticism for the Olympic Delivery Authority (ODA) to create a strategic planning authority (SPA), like a single-purpose super-borough with a defined period of existence. This was the first of several of Briggs’ points that held immediate interest for anyone with an interest in the future of South African cities: imagine a Strategic Authority for Sanitation across Cape Town’s townships.

Also familiar was the amount of government land lying fallow at prime sites around the city; here in South Africa we are in the many ways in a luckier position than the London planners because so much of these sites awaiting development are owned by parastatals: in SA, their relationship with the state remains a narrower one, more easily finessed into fruitful property transfers, than in the land of Thatcher. Nevertheless, the London site was substantially composed of Strategic Reserve land, which, while guaranteeing lots of lightly-developed green- and brownfield sites into the mix, also came with the burden of demonstrating an adequate value (that is, the return on development versus leaving the sites unbuilt) via the courts. That same abundance of greenfield land, combined with the river that flows through the site (not strictly the Thames, but a tributary of it) also supported a number of very rare bird and wetland species, whose interests and survival of the construction process would provide one of the foundational planning constraints of the process.

Greening or greenwashing?

Guy underlined very convincingly how ‘greenness’ in the construction process went far beyond the merely cute, and took root at the deepest levels of the process. One of the most memorable images of his talk was the delivery of heavy construction materials by barge using the Victorian canals: for once, a truly dignified recovery of purpose, rather than the usual sorry excuse of the ‘tourist water taxi’. These same waterways, so expensively dredged, will allow future water-delivery of biomass (wood chips) for the converted heat and energy plant on site. Another first, in my small experience, was the on-site cement factory that obviated the difficulty of certifying all the cement used to the requisite environmental standard.

But the most thoroughgoing intervention, and the one that most deeply separates this site from the mass of self-proclaimed green building projects, are the many demountable buildings of the Olympic park and sports venues. Far beyond a stopgap measure or a greenwashing exercise, or merely a thrifty savings, the demountability of the venues emerged as a leitmotif for the design that demonstrably informed, and was informed by, the broader London 2012 aesthetic.

Like London ’48, the “Austerity Games”, this Olympiad made a virtue of extreme thrift and utility. This is difficult to do when you’ve invited the whole planet; the line between creative re-use and a feeling of cheapness is razor-sharp when projected on to a stage this size (and no stage is bigger). However, Briggs’ images proved that the idea of re-use permeated the entire Olympics and therefore sidestepped any danger of appearing as cynical pruning off a too-large 2012 budget. The most impressive proof of this is that several of the sports facilities and smaller stadia are to be taken apart and rebuilt in Rio in 2016, thus resolving, with striking elegance, one of the Games’ weakest aspects: securing a future for minority sports facilities. We have all seen photos of abandoned handball courts and velodromes and Judo palaces in former host cities, most dismally in Athens.

With obvious enthusiasm, Guy expanded on the demountable aspects of permanent structures. The masterful form of the Aquatics Centre, for example, will attain its permanent dimensions only with the removal of extra seating banks that are never necessary except in an Olympic final. The permanent structure will therefore be easier to clean, heat and maintain and give the venue a far sturdier chance of financial viability. Most satisfying of all was the meandering public concourse that wound through the site. In the long term, its grand scale, which was right when millions used it daily, will be softened by the removal of a demountable central section, exposing the pre-built embankments underneath and leaving two very invitingly-scaled paths fashioned into river banks.

The Olympic site “before”: a derelict industrial site in East London. The river is a barrier; canals and embankments are refuse sites; the precinct is hard to find, hard to cross and hard to leave by any mode of transport.
Photo: aecom.com

Demolition and decontamination: bombs and chemicals are removed, an enormous quantity of landfill is moved, and useless buildings are turned to rubble (which is reused).
Photo: aecom.com

Riverine restoration: the tidal river and its natural wetlands – so unforgiving of human error – are restored first: the ensuing developments will work around them.
Photo: aecom.com

2012: an Olympic Park in the city. The site enjoys an adequate level of movement control and security but the event spills over freely into the rapidly-improving precinct. Crossroutes develop and street-level trade picks up. Shops and cafés abound.
Photo: aecom.com

A Sports Park Embraced by the City: The park is laterally and longitudinally traversed by countless paths at different scales, of which one of the best-used is a cycle route that confers a real speed advantage to bike commuters.
Photo: aecom.com

A legacy to London and future host cities

When it comes to the legacy of the 2012 Olympiad, it is my strong expectation (echoed by Guy) that all games will be planned like this from now on. We have therefore completed the long reversal of the 1960s-1990s perspective – in which the city built the Games – to the current, more sober outlook, in which Games build the city. London 2012 been, as Guy has it, partly a ruse to lend impetus to the sort of ambitious city planning that, absent an immovable deadline, almost never makes it out of the consultation phase.

It is, of course, not just an Olympic site, or even its surrounding borough, that was to be altered by the Games. The plan into 2050 sees the Games site in the context of the entire Lower Lea Valley, representing a substantial portion of the largest city in Europe. Guy underlined that improvements to the region will by multiplied by the quality of this site, but that the site’s harder job is also to disappear, by enmeshing itself seamlessly into the borough.

Because the area in question is a transport desert – excellently served by rail and road connections on all sides, but lacking internal routes and nearly impossible to traverse at speed – there is a risk of the Olympic site developing “cliff edges”. These are the built edges at which an island of great infrastructure meets a sea of hard-to-navigate backstreets, and the threat is a real one. As Guy said, “If development means anything, it means no one must be able to tell, in a few years, where the Olympic Park was”. In aid of this, special plans have been drawn up for all of the precincts abutting the 2012 site. One can only imagine how Green Point might have been different had the 2010 sites been more fully conceptualised in this way.

Along with the drive to conserve the natural environment of the river, the other great driver of form on site, then, was transport – and this, in every case, was about borrowing the new through-routes that would make the borough a neighbourhood and nudging them through the Olympic site, rather than simply connecting an Olympic ring-road into the grid.

I know that I haven’t looked at the Olympic site for the last time this year, and probably I will see parts of it annually for the next long while because my sense is great that this is one of the paradigmatic urban plans of our age – at least for the developed world. Its success – delivered on time, but at vastly inflated cost – was reassuringly dependent on the common sense of harnessing the greatest show on Earth to the needs of a poor part of London, and never the other way around. If this sounds easy, the Olympic planning legacy goes to show that there are few things harder than keeping common sense at the heart of an Olympic bid. With Danny Boyle’s deeply and reverently eccentric Opening Ceremony in mind, it would be easy to subscribe the people-driven, humble aspect of these Olympics to something in the passionate domesticity of the British themselves – easy, and wrong.

Lessons for Cape Town

We South Africans might also, and easily, have built every one of our stadia in the heart of thriving interconnected suburbs rather than as objects marooned in parks, but it will take plenty of humility.

In crowded London, making an Olympic wonderland that put a month’s showcasing over a neighbourhood’s future was not an option, and the graphics Guy provided are fairly convincing of the ease with which Londoners will one day cross this suburb without fully noticing that they are traversing a site of national glory. Few of us, after all, want to live in sites of national glory; we just want liveable neighbourhoods.

All images courtesy of aecom.com

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Brett Petzer

Contributor for Future Cape Town

I’m a tomorrow-city planner, urban journalist and French-English translator, who is damn keen to hear from you at brettpetzer.com