Cities as an Act of Will

Cities are an ‘act of will’ wrote Edmund Bacon, the acclaimed city planner from Philadelphia, in Design of Cities (1976). But whether the building of cities is an act of great imagination or brutal disregard depends on a complex interplay of forces – political, ideological, social, economic, environmental.

As an act of twenty-first-century city building, the 2012 Olympic Games in London created one of the largest urban regeneration projects in Europe, and – to my mind – one of the most imaginative. It offers a unique lens to take stock of the craft of city building. Many may be inclined to dismiss the London Olympics as being an exceptional event that holds few lessons for cities other than those wealthy enough to bid for hosting the Olympics. This would be a mistake. While mega-events are massively capitalised, singular events, it is precisely these unique circumstances of urban transformation on a grand scale and at hyper speed that allow us to observe the dynamic of city-building that would otherwise take decades to realise. How London used the Olympics to further its ambition for urban growth, and organised public and private resources and roles, institutional structures, masterplanning and design processes to align vision and action has applicability to a broad range of urban intervention as these are the ingredients, in one form or another, of urban transformation.

In the current epoch of cities, during which hundreds of new, large-scale city-building enterprises will be required to absorb exploding rural-urban migration and population growth, our understanding of the city-building craft is an urgent matter. How we build cities not only has an immediate impact on the lives of millions of people who are and will become city dwellers, but the morphological legacy and settlement patterns that will be imprinted in the coming decades will have a profound effect on the ability of future generations to meet the challenge of global sustainability and resilience. The space between where ideas for city building are generated and their implementation through political, planning, financial, regulatory and institutional structures is often where there is a disjuncture between theory and practice, between urban visions and political realities, between what is planned versus what is actually built. It in this context that the London 2012 Games become instructive.

London 2012: an aspiration for city building

Despite some vociferous critics, the London 2012 Olympics have been acclaimed as a successful four-week celebration of sport, a spectacular show and a shining moment of British pride. But the more profound, lasting impact will be their role in shifting the trajectory of London’s growth. The regeneration of a 600-acre (243-hectare) brownfield site will join the history of London’s totemic moments of city-building where its pattern of growth was irrevocably transformed. The Olympics have been focused in East London, one of the historically most deprived areas of the city where surveys of urban distress from the late-nineteenth century – the famous Booth Poverty Maps of 1898–99 – are largely unchanged a century later; an area of the city that has suffered the familiar saga of urban deterioration resulting from de-industrialisation, concentrated poverty, and the destruction of the urban fabric through the de-urbanising forces of urban renewal.

Against this backdrop, the 2012 Olympics were merely an actor – albeit a transformative one – in a larger urban narrative the origins of which lie in the last four decades of vision, policy, and tenacity to reverse this declining condition. Through the vicissitudes of markets, politics and changing ideas of urban planning and ‘good urban form’ there has been a determination that for London to successfully grow it must ‘move East’. With vast areas of lower-value land sitting only minutes from central London, its potential cried out to be unlocked through the building of infrastructure and the assembly of land.

The term ‘legacy’, often posited as a post-hoc rationalisation to justify massive investment in sports facilities and infrastructure, was just the opposite in London’s case. Here, the Olympics were the tangible manifestation of a clear vision for urban transformation in search of a means to be realised. Vision, politics, urban ideas, economic realities and the land constraints of a global city colluded to produce the Olympic Park in East London.

While not a scientific accounting, a cartoon version tracing key moments in the lineage of the Olympic Park might go something like this:

  • The 1947 Town and Country Act and the Abercrombie Plan established a Green Belt that circumscribed London’s expansion, forcing inward regeneration when London grows;
  • The development of the Docklands and Canary Wharf throughout the 1980s and 1990s, re-positioned obsolete East London waterfront lands as a new financial centre to secure London’s competitive economic position in Europe and globally;
  • The Urban Task Force, a government study chaired by Lord Richard Rogers in the late 1990s, which advocated for compact urban form, building on brownfield land near good public transport hubs and the value of urban regeneration, especially along the river Thames;
  • The election of Ken Livingstone in 2000 as the first elected Mayor of London represented the beginning of a devolution of power to London that has been strengthened during the mayoralty of current Mayor Boris Johnson. Both supported the regeneration of East London as their highest priority for urban reinvestment, representing a critical continuity of vision and commitment.

The development and consent for the Stratford Master Plan, spearheaded by visionary developers Stuart Lipton and Nigel Hugill in 2004, before the bid was even won, signalled the potential of this part of East London for major investment from the private and public sector, an area ripe for regeneration.

The salient point is that the decision to build London’s Olympic Park in the East London community of Stratford was taken in the larger context of London’s plan for growth and was a deliberate strategy to rebuild the fabric of a city that had been ruptured. Building a new, compact piece of urbanism on a brownfield site connected to a dense network of upgraded transport infrastructure, with the ambition to integrate it physically, economically and socially with the adjacent communities may seem obvious, but that is not the case in too many new cities that are being built and rebuilt in the rapidly urbanising world.

How was it achieved?

When London was awarded the Olympics in 2005, among the first priorities was to acquire the 600-acre (243-hectare) future site of the Olympic Park. At the time it was largely blighted industrial and derelict land, some of which had in fact been used as the dumping ground for debris from the devastation East London suffered from bombings in World War II. Sitting on top of a dense transport network, the regeneration potential of the area was stymied by the hundreds of disparate freehold interests that needed to be assembled to unlock the latent opportunity. The Olympics provided the political will and capital to undertake the task that had previously been seen as too difficult.

Concomitant with organising the land was the need to establish the institutional architecture to deliver the Olympic Park, both for Games and for their legacy. This seemingly mundane matter would be the unsung hero of the success of the Olympics. The alignment of national, metropolitan (mayoral) and local political interests, and the creation of well-designed, focused delivery structures, was critical to get right from the outset of the project. And there was no time to waste with an immovable deadline looming large for the opening ceremony of the Olympics. Multiple central government ministries, national sports bodies, the Mayor of London, the four local ‘host boroughs’ that owned land or were adjacent to the Olympic Park, and the diverse communities of East London all had to be engaged and, most dauntingly, aligned.

While a vast network of governance and consultation structures were established to coordinate the Olympics enterprise – from the highest level Cabinet Committee chaired by the Prime Minister to local community organisations throughout East London – three principal delivery vehicles were created to deliver the Games:

  • The Olympic Delivery Authority (ODA): the infrastructure company focused on the building of the Park and off-site venues. A time-limited organisation with a board of private and public representatives which received the bulk of public funding from central government and the mayor to deliver the facilities for the Games;
  • The London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games (LOCOG): the organisation charged with staging the Olympic events, securing sponsors and liaising with the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and other national and international sports bodies;
  • The Olympic Park Legacy Company (OPLC), later renamed the London Legacy Development Corporation (LLDC): master developer and landowner of the Olympic Park, focused on the post-Games transformation from event mode to regeneration and attracting investment in the land and venues.

The creation of the OPLC in 2009 (of which the author was its first Chief Executive, eds.) fully three years before the Games, was novel for an Olympic host city and testament to the core regeneration purpose of the Olympics investment. A company jointly owned by the Mayor of London and the national government, and including the representation on its board of the two principal boroughs owning land in the Park – the London boroughs of Hackney and Newham – this unique creation was designed to reflect the delicate balancing of interests and power that needed to be aligned to deliver successful regeneration.

This division of labour among the three entities did not of course recuse the other delivery entities from incorporating legacy considerations into the core of their programme, as this mission was embodied in the ethos of the Olympics enterprise in London. However, the OPLC, with a singular focus on the post-Games agenda of city building was critical to setting and overseeing that vision and ensuring that actions were taken to deliver physical, social and economic regeneration of the Olympic Park, spreading its benefits to surrounding communities. In this way, there could be as seamless as possible integration between the Games and post-Games use of infrastructure, land, buildings and venues.

Crucial to the city-building task was the development of the masterplan that would establish the framework for the GB£6 billion government infrastructure investment to be expended on the site. And key to this were three integrated but distinct phases: the Games Plan, the Transformation Plan (for the transition from Games upon completion) and the Legacy Communities Plan (the long-term plan for the build-out of the site). The strength of London’s approach was to conceive these three plans in exact opposite chronology; that is, planning for the site started from the long view of a vision for the future city and then worked back to the requirements of the Games. The starting point was the vision for the future. And this basic premise has profound ramifications for all that was to be planned and built, the main features of which included:

  • The creation of a central park of over 200 acres (81 hectares) along the River Lea (following the removal of electricity pylons) that formed the central spine of the site and created the armature around which five future neighbourhoods would be built, very much in keeping with London precedents for the integration of urban parks and built-up areas, such as Victoria Park and Regents Park;
  • The building of only those venues that were needed on a permanent basis and would have future uses and constituencies, all other venues would be interim facilities that would be removed to create the sites for the future mixed-use area with homes, schools, shops and places of work;
  • Dispersing the venues throughout the site in strategic locations rather than clustering all the facilities in the usual ‘sports zone’. In this way the sports venues could become anchors of activity and physical icons integrated with the new neighbourhoods;
  • The Olympic Athletes Village, which during Games would host 17,000 athletes, staff and residents, was built to be transformed into the first complete post-Games complex of 3,000 units of housing;
  • GB£1 billion invested in upgrading existing rail and bus lines serving the site, including the building of a new international transport centre to accommodate future connections to Europe and immediate connections to London’s major transport hub of Kings Cross, which makes central London only a five-minute ride and one-stop away;
  • A central energy centre was built with sufficient capacity to service the entire site in legacy as well as having the potential to export energy to surrounding communities;
  • An underground network of new sewers, utilities, and telecommunications ducts was built to accommodate future capacity needs.

These basic and interrelated building blocks of the masterplan, and the investment it guided, resulted in about 75 per cent of the total Olympics budget being spent to create a platform for the future city. While distinctive buildings were certainly constructed, such as Zaha Hadid’s Aquatics Centre and Hopkins Architects’ Velodrome, the main focus of investment was putting in place the prerequisites of a new piece of London.

And this intensity of focus on legacy did not end with the Games: institutions, funding, commercial transactions and community partnerships were established to ensure a smooth transition from an Olympic Park for Games to its post-Games urban life. Importantly, both commercially and symbolically, all of the permanent sports venues have secured future uses, thus removing the fear of ‘white elephants’ that had plagued so many mega-event cities and stymied their future development by standing vacant. The unfolding transition also included:

  • A masterplan and design guidelines that establish the framework (adopted and approved by the planning authority) for the future development of 8,000 new homes and creating certainty required for private sector investment and community confidence;
  • An additional GB£500 million of funding from central government was dedicated to the post-Games transformation of the Park to retrofit venues, prepare sites and build open spaces and amenities;
  • The Athletes Village’s 3,000 units were sold for a mixed-income community, half for affordable housing and half to a private developer for what is now being marketed as London’s newest ‘cool’ residential neighbourhood, East Village;
  • The International Broadcast Centre (IBC) and Media Centre, two buildings that together comprise over 100,000 square metres of space and the length of 7 jumbo jets, are being transformed into a new technology hub – iCity – to house British Telecommunications sports studios, a research and teaching centre for Loughborough University, a data centre and an accelerator space for start-ups.

To oversee and manage this complex interweaving of city-building activities, and the choreography of public and private investment and actions that need to be carefully staged, the OPLC was re-engineered and given powers to ensure that the integration of planning and implementation, that proved so essential in the success of the delivery of the Games, was carried through in legacy.

Through national legislation enabling the mayor to create local development corporations, very much a modern version of the government development corporation in the 1970s that spearheaded the first generation of East London’s transformation in the Docklands, OPLC was reconstituted as the London Legacy Development Corporation (LLDC) under the Mayor of London’s control. It was given not only ownership of the Olympic Park land, but also the planning authority for the Olympic Park and surrounding neighbourhoods under the jurisdiction of local boroughs. This exceptional consolidation of land ownership and planning power, unthinkable in most Western cities too timid to assert such power since the mass urban renewal of the post-World War II era, was agreed to by all levels of national and local government with a common purpose to maintain the regeneration momentum fuelled by the Games. What will be surprising to observers of urban development is that there was virtually no community opposition to the creation of the LLDC and its extraordinary powers.

The Convergence Agenda

London is spatially and socio-economically unequal: it has an affluent West and a more deprived East. Life expectancy drops from 80 years to 73 years as you move eastwards across the city. This dramatic statistic captures the disparity in many social and economic indicators between East London and the rest of the city. The Olympic ‘host’ boroughs have historically been among the worse off in England. To counteract this grim reality and leverage investment for the Games, local mayors developed the concept of convergence as they key driver for change amongst their communities. Convergence establishes an aspiration that East Londoners’ life chances and opportunities should, at a minimum, be on a par with the average of all of London. Far from being modest, this simple aspiration established bold and comprehensive goals in improving employment, health, education, housing conditions and all the indices of life chances and circumstances that would help ensure that the conditions documented by Booth’s Survey a century ago were ameliorated beyond the artificial confines of the Park. And, importantly, it recognised that for genuine regeneration to occur beyond the traditional ‘bricks and mortar’ of the Park, there had to be a more comprehensive programme of investment and change.

Translating the Convergence Policy to the Olympic Park was as much of a mindset as it was a legislative matter. Every piece of the building of a new piece of city needed to be understood as an asset through which mixture and diversity are promoted. Too often this perspective is compartmentalised as a separate ‘programme’, as opposed to being a core part of everything that is delivered. To address this, the OPLC adopted an inter-related set of policies to promote convergence, such as:

  • Requiring affordable housing (35 per cent of all new housing built on the Park);
  • Proactively creating local employment and small business opportunities generated by the venues, such as the Aquatics Centre, so that they are operated by small business enterprises;
  • Setting affordable rates for the sports venues for local residents so that the poorest of residents could swim in world-class facilities or attend a football game in the Olympic Stadium;
  • Using the International Press, Media Broadcast Centre facilities as a resource to diversify the economy of East London by actively creating a technology hub and connecting this to local community colleges and training for opportunities in the new economy;
  • Creating community programming for future activities in the Olympic Park so that the Park would be first and foremost a park enjoyed by local communities, and not solely for tourists;
  • Working with Westfield, the largest urban shopping centre operator in Europe, to support of a ‘retail academy’ to train local residents for service jobs, which has resulted in the majority of positions being filled locally;
  • Constructing bridges to connect the Park over canals, roads and railways that divide the site from adjacent communities.

Ultimately, the London Legacy Corporation has significantly been able to extend its remit beyond the Olympic Park itself, to ensure the integration of the Park with surrounding communities. On reflection, the role of the agency has been to bridge between vision and action, ideas and institutions, and the integration of the physical, social and economic aspects of diversity and mixture essential to realise successful urbanism. In this case, without the Convergence Agenda the Park could easily become an elite island unto itself, rather than part of an integrated whole: a new piece of London.

What does this mean for Rio 2016?

Imaginative city building, and the marshalling of forces necessary to achieve it, is a complex task that too often occurs in silos. The London Olympics story may sound too perfect in attempting to rectify that divide and create the platform to connect imagination with the fine grain of urban form. Time will be the ultimate judge as to whether the foundation will work. Affordable housing and employment policies to ensure diversity could be eroded; design guidelines intended to ensure diversity in the built environment could be discarded at the behest of capital; land could be sold too quickly, in too large swathes for revenue which would obstruct a more diverse city created by many hands over time; the institutions created to steward this precious asset could be prevented from taking the longer view. And, of course, we will look back at today’s statistics of the fortunes of East London to measure whether they have genuinely ‘converged’ or deprivation has simply been pushed further out of sight.

For Rio de Janeiro, as it is mobilises to deliver its legacy of the 2016 Games, the questions of how the investments will lead to greater integration or further segregation of the city are paramount. Will Porto Maravilha evolve to reflect the dynamism of Rio’s urbanism, its lively streets, mix of uses and pedestrian-oriented street culture, and not simply become a platform for capital? Will the new, important investments in transport help to heal the North-South divide or serve to further greater sprawl? Will the recent investment in the favelas lead not only to improved conditions but greater economic and social integration with the dynamics of Rio’s growth?

Hopefully, London’s recent experience offers insights for debate.

Andy Altman is Visiting Senior Fellow at LSE Cities, London School of Economics and Political Science. He was Chief Executive of the London Legacy Development Corporation, 2009-2012.