Park life: London 2012 and lessons in placemaking

10 Aug 2018

Neale Coleman worked for Mayors of London 2000–2015, advising them on the Olympic and Paralympic Games. Here he highlights the many benefits that the legacy of the Games continues to deliver

This essay is one of a collection of articles created by Lendlease and the Centre For London, written by a selection of built environment experts. These thought-provoking commentaries explore the great power and great responsibility that comes with placemaking – and how to create a city space that enhances the wellbeing of everyone who experiences it.

For all of us working on delivering the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games, the triumphant Sydney 2000 was our exemplar. So in September 2012, as exhausted teams turned their attention to Park reopening and legacy development, it was a big boost to read the judgements from Australia. From the Sydney Morning Herald: “London, you didn’t half do a decent job. These Olympics had Sydney’s vibrancy, Athens’s panache, Beijing’s efficiency, and added British know-how and drollery [...] They were superbly organised. The Olympic Park’s setting, in one of Britain’s poorest boroughs, proved inspired. Some Olympic sites become wasteland after the Games. This one began as wasteland and is now full of possibilities.”

In the colder light of 2016, as the memory of the brilliant Games recedes, we can start to see what is being done to realise those wider possibilities – creating a new, connected London district out of what had been an impenetrable maze of power lines, canals, railway sidings and car breakers’ yards. Judgements will inevitably be contested and mixed, but there is a good story to tell.
The Park reopened on time, a year after the Games – a first. The Aquatic Centre, Copper Box and Velodrome are packed with community and elite users. The long and troubled saga of securing legacy uses for the Stadium – always the most difficult venue, as Beijing, Athens, Sydney and Barcelona can testify – has concluded with 50,000 watching Premier League football, the 2017 World Athletics Championships and the Paralympic Championships, promising to rekindle the spirit of 2012 in the summer. That other legacy conundrum, the Media and Broadcast Centre, is now full of amazing tenants and uses: BT Sport’s huge studios; Loughborough in London, home to 1,000 postgraduate students; the biggest dance studios in Europe run by the world’s greatest choreographer, Wayne McGregor; University College London’s latest work on robotics; and now Here East, a new 70,000 sq ft tech innovation centre.

Two more universities are proposing big campuses: UCL are expanding east out of Bloomsbury and the London Fashion College are planning to bring all London’s fashion colleges together at Stratford. Discussions with Sadler’s Wells and the Victoria and Albert Museum on bringing their culture offer to the Park are also advanced.

The former Olympic Village is now home for more than 2,800 households as East Village, with thousands more affordable and market homes being built in four new neighbourhoods around the Park. Meanwhile, between the buzz of Westfield and the open spaces of the Park, the International Quarter is being built out as a new business district, with headquarters buildings for Transport for London and the Financial Conduct Authority. These will offer the first 5,000 new jobs of a final total of more than 25,000. 

Making plans happen 

Can London 2012 offer lessons for other placemaking, development and regeneration projects? In many ways London 2012 was unique – in scale, in scope and in the sense of national commitment. But the project and its evaluations have highlighted the importance of robust delivery mechanisms, strong public sector partnerships and, above all, the critical role that people play in creating successful places.

Looking back at evaluations of London 2012 – from the Institute for Government’s January 2013 report to the ‘Learning Legacy’ reports prepared by the London 2012 team – it’s striking how much focus there is on people, relationships, transparency and trust. The IfG report quotes David Higgins, the ODA Chief Executive: “The most important thing was never physical things: the most important thing was always people.” Paul Deighton, the Chief Executive of LOCOG: “Projects go well because of the people, not because of the structures.” Seb Coe: ”It’s really about the ability of the people in those organisations to be open and honest and to have relationships that work, and they did in large part.”

This may seem obvious, but it is a critical lesson for leaders and leadership teams about priorities and what to put first every day. 

The people who drove the project forwards were supported by strong institutional and partnership structures. One of the most obvious successes of the project was the creation (and subsequent performance) of the Olympic Delivery Authority (ODA) as an arm’s-length statutory body to deliver the infrastructure and venues for the Games. 

The powers given to the ODA through the London Olympic and Paralympic Games Act were vital for the delivery of the Olympic Park. Creating the right special-purpose vehicle with focus, clear objectives, responsibility and limitations on day-to-day political interference is often a critical factor in the success of large projects – provided of course that the body has the necessary powers to deliver. 

These days there is no single best model to recommend. However, local authorities are breaking new ground in long-term development partnerships with the private sector, and new models of urban regeneration and economic development company (such as the Birmingham Curzon URC and Solihull Urban Growth Company – both established to plan and deliver regeneration around the HS2 stations in Birmingham). The forthcoming mayoral election in the West Midlands may well lead to them morphing into Mayoral Development Corporations in the same way that the Olympic Park Legacy Company became the London Legacy Development Corporation. 

Standing behind the ODA was a robust mechanism for political oversight, the Olympic Board. This brought together the Secretary of State, the Mayor of London, and the heads of the LOCOG and the British Olympic Association to review progress and thrash out some of the genuinely difficult issues on scope, budget and timescale. The fact that these arrangements – and the legacy development corporation that succeeded them – have survived under three different Mayors and four different Prime Ministers is a testament to the shared will to make it work, and the understanding that big projects cannot be delivered in single electoral cycles.

Land and housing 
The Games were only made possible through one of the most complex public land assembly tasks ever undertaken: there was a compulsory purchase order (CPO) to manage, advice on relocations and the usual negotiations over price and compensation. Major issues included the relocation of travellers, allotment holders and three major bus garages. To the great credit of the London Development Agency (LDA) team that led this work, it was completed in time to allow the ODA to get on site early in 2007 – laying the foundation for both Games and legacy. 

Few things cause more problems for major projects in London today than issues with land assembly, land banking and land trading. The complexity of CPO processes and the frequent delays – both in getting inquiries underway and in getting Ministerial decisions taken – are big barriers. The Olympic project shows it does not have to be like that. The Olympic CPO was made in November 2005 and, despite its scale and complexity, had been through inquiry and confirmed by December 2006. It should be a priority for national and London government to resource and support CPOs (and their associated decision-making) to make land assembly easier and quicker for local authorities.

The Olympics also broke new ground in direct public-sector delivery of new housing and new affordable housing. Following the crash in capital and property markets in 2008, the plans for private sector delivery of the Olympic Village had to be abandoned. The project to house 17,000 athletes at Games time and provide 2,800 homes in legacy was nationalised, with the ODA taking the development risk. 

This has had good outcomes, enabling the project to go ahead during the worst financial crisis for a generation, when major projects were stalling across London. The development now known as East Village has won several awards for the quality of its design and management. Half the homes have been delivered at below market rent or as shared ownership properties. The private housing is now the biggest Build to Rent scheme in London and again has broken new ground: no fees, no agents, high-quality on-site management, and a choice of one-, two- or three-year leases with resident-only break clauses and rent rises limited to CPI. As one housing expert said: “That many homes have never been delivered that fast in my lifetime.” 

It may be hard to match that pace, but the public sector should be working more with partners to build, market and manage a mix of market and sub-market homes for rent – especially where public land is involved. Government is supportive, and the latest Supplementary Planning Guidance from the Mayor of London provides a strong frame- work for existing and new private players in the market to follow suit and overcome some of the barriers to delivery within the traditional housebuilder model. 

People, education and jobs 

It is people who are today remaking Stratford and the Olympic Park. One of the striking features of the ongoing regeneration and economic progress around Stratford is the critical role of education and higher education developments. An early partnership between Newham Council and Birkbeck led to the creation of a new dedicated campus next to Theatre Royal, Stratford. This has increased the local uptake of higher education – not just in Stratford, but also at Birkbeck’s original home in Bloomsbury. A similar Birkbeck initiative has now started as part of the regeneration plans for Tottenham. 

The Newham-Birkbeck partnership can be seen as blazing a trail. Autumn 2016 saw the exciting launch of Loughborough in London in the former Media and Broadcast Centre, supporting 1,000 postgraduate students, partnering with local schools, offering a bursary scheme for local people, and bringing new life and activity to the area. 

And there’s more: UCL, which has already taken space in Here East, will open a new campus from 2019–20 in the Olympic Park, covering 11 acres and providing 125,000 sqm of space. The University of the Arts’ London College of Fashion will take up a 35,000 sqm site in the Park – a fantastic boost for economic development and east London’s historic strengths in the fashion industry. 

It is a marker of success that, in around 10 years, Stratford will have gone from having no universities to having four – with all that this means for jobs, innovation, reputation and opportunity locally. 

However, the education story from the Olympics and Stratford is not just about higher education. Alongside the Olympic Village built for the Games stands the Chobham Academy, a new all-through school rated outstanding by Ofsted and whose first A Level results this year saw three-quarters of students getting A*– Cs. In September 2016, with support from Hackney Council, Mossbourne Riverside Academy opened next to Here East, supporting the successful development of the next legacy neighbourhoods at Eastwick and Sweetwater. Work has now started on another all-through school, the Bobby Moore Academy, right next to the Olympic Stadium. 

Getting education provision in place at the same time as new neighbourhoods are developed – and using it to benfit existing communities as well as newcomers – is fundamental to placemaking. Rapid economic change dictates that a focus on education, learning and innovation should be at the heart of all similar projects. 

From the start, the London 2012 project has had a keen focus on employment and skill development opportunities for local people. Real commitment and delivery in this area is vital – particularly in overcoming scepticism and cynicism about whether change and development have anything to offer local people. The local authorities in the area, with Newham at the fore, established a joint job brokerage service to support recruitment of the LOCOG contractor workforce at Games time. Some 20,150 previously workless Londoners secured Games-time employment, of which up to around 15,000 were estimated to have been secured via the brokerage.

Similar successes were achieved by Newham, working in partnership with Westfield, in creating a specialist retail academy which recruited more than 2,000 previously workless local people to the new stores at Westfield Stratford; and by the ODA and LLDC in outperforming all previous similar projects in recruiting and upskilling local people for construction opportunities in the Olympic Park. 

A critical element in the success of all these initiatives has been a strong partnership with employers and the supply chain. The employment and upskilling of local people was not seen as a benevolent charitable endeavour but a partnership piece of workforce planning, forecasting and training that equipped local people with the range of skills employers need. The Legacy Corporation has ensured that a very high percentage of all those working in the legacy venues were recruited locally, but it has also developed digital apprenticeship programmes with Here East employers, and worked with the V&A Museum to enable a local candidate to access its prestigious Assistant Curator Development Programme. 

Everyone currently involved in placemaking and regeneration would emphasise that the field is now all about people, not just place; they also recognise the dilemma of trying to ensure that increases in land value and other changes do not marginalise or, in some cases, displace existing residents. Public authorities will be expecting their development plans and their private sector partners to demonstrate real social impact, to consider people-focused outcomes, and to help communities benefit from investments in place. That will mean they need to be still smarter with their procurement approaches, challenging the private sector to demonstrate innovation, and to commit to contracts that penalise a failure to deliver the social outcomes and impact specified. 

This article was written by [Neale Coleman] (“Author”) (independent of Lendlease) and originally published by the [Centre for London]. The opinions, views and representations expressed in the article are those of the Author. Lendlease has not independently verified any of the information in the article nor sought to confirm any underlying assumptions relied upon therein by the Author. Unless otherwise indicated, information contained in the article is current only as at the date it was originally published. Neither Lendlease, nor any member of the Lendlease Group, accepts any liability for any loss or damage suffered, howsoever arising, as a result of the use of any information in the article.