Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Olympics Hangover – Part 2

In a continuing post-Olympics review of what the land-use planning world is saying about the London Games, today we’ll look at the housing problems in East London, both before and after the Games and at the sustainability of the Olympic improvements.  Once again, I’ll add a couple of “North Bay Lesson” notes.

A Bloomberg article highlights the housing issues around the London Olympics site.  The chance to address housing deficiencies was a key element of the London Olympic bid.  To show their sincerity, the London Olympic Committee took local residents to a meeting of the International Olympic Committee.  But through the opening of the Games, few improvements have been accomplished.

Instead, the international economic problems and the loss of existing housing to redevelopment have resulted in illegal “sheds with beds”, many of which have plumbing so deficient that the 19th century blight of raw sewage running in the street has returned.

New housing is being built, but much of it is beyond the financial capability of the current residents, raising the specter that “gentrification is likely to be part of the [Olympic] legacy.”

As the director of a London non-profit notes, “London councils are reluctant to set aside land for cheap housing because they earn so much money by selling to developers.  Without cheap housing, people have to move away from their families.”

Ricky Burdett, writing for British Politics and Policy at the London School of Economics, takes the long view of the London Olympic land-use issues.  He notes the depth of the problems to be solved in East London.  The points of concern have long included employment, housing, infrastructure, and public health.  “[The] life expectancy of a man, for example, is five years lower in east London compared to parts of west London.”

Burdett goes on to argue that the land-use process around the London Olympics is generally similar to how London land-use issues are usually addressed, only on a far quicker schedule.  “The project has become an elaborate chess game in time and space that mirrors, in an accelerated fashion, the normal, organic planning process that determines London’s DNA.”

He also noted the higher level of sustainability which London targeted, including the possibility that the velodrome, basketball arena, and other stadiums will be dismantled and shipped to Glasgow for the 2014 Commonwealth Games or to Rio de Janeiro for the 2016 Olympics.  “London has invented a new planning methodology for the construction of the games and what it leaves behind for its so-called “Olympic Legacy.”

Burdett closes with the same warning as many others.  “But all this will only be possible if city government retains control and ownership of the land, and puts in place checks and balances to ensure that land values and gentrification do not push existing communities in the vicinity out.”

North Bay Lesson: Once again, the Olympics are orders of magnitude above any likely North Bay land-use issues, but lessons about creating housing options for all demographic are applicable.  As someone noted at a recent OneBayArea public meeting, those with resources can always find places to live.  But we must remain attentive to the lower-income housing options.

Lauren Parr of the Urban Land Institute describes the London Olympics land-use process as working in reverse, as having a vision of where the future of East London lay and then working an Olympics into the shorter-term picture.  From Bill Hanway of AECOM, “We always knew what we wanted to end up with; we worked backwards.”

Parr notes that making places for education was also important, “Historically, many of the major regeneration projects in London have begun with educational facilities, which are valuable in their contribution to place creation.”

North Bay Lessons: Regardless of the size of the community, visualizing where the community wants to be in twenty years should be a key step.  In California, General Plans fill some of that role, but the question is whether the community as a whole, and not just the 200 citizens who participate in the process, buy into the vision.

 The American Planning Association offers a write-up of the obsolete industrial site, known as the Lower Lea Valley, that existed before the Olympic redevelopment began, describing it as “an unregulated valve where the city could let off steam.”

After an extended word tour of the Olympic park, the writer notes the key design challenge is to avoid making the park look like it was constructed solely for the Olympics.  The goal was to create “the impression of a park in which the Olympics happens to be taking place, rather than a relentless campus tailored to this one-off event. “

The writer then concludes with a worry about the future of the park site and whether it can be made to integrate with its surroundings.  “It relies on the London Legacy Development Corporation – which will manage the park for at least the next ten years – and the nature of the forthcoming neighborhoods to ensure that the place does not become a privatized enclave of gated communities and sponsored mega-events, forever sold off to the highest bidder.  Any sense of the old Lea might have been smothered for now, but it must be allowed to return to give this place the character it needs.”

To close, the Sustainable Cities Collective provides a summary of the sustainability measures met by the London Games.  And the San Francisco Chronicle adds thoughts on the design of the event venues, noting that the 80,000-seat Olympic Stadium will be reduced for 25,000 seats for future uses and that most venues will be dismantled and taken away, so that “a ghost town of sports venues isn’t left behind.”

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (

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