Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
The Games have provided an unprecedented opportunity, not always welcome, for companies to attach their names to parts of the city.
Once the Olympic Games have passed, 2012 may be remembered in Britain as the year East London got branded. London’s Olympic year has certainly given major brands unprecedented chances to attach their names to redeveloped sections of the city.
The most glaring example of this is Emirates Airlines’ recent naming of two new stops – Emirates Greenwich Peninsula and Emirates Royal Dock – on the London subway map. The Dubai-based carrier has managed this by ploughing £36 million into a new transport link, an aerial cable car crossing the River Thames in London’s Docklands. Called the Emirates Air Line, the cable car saw its first test runs last week and should open before this summer’s games.
It will ferry visitors between two major sporting venues during the games and provide views across one of the most impressively broad (if not the prettiest) stretches of London’s river ever after. A tourist-friendly new river crossing in bridge-free East London is no doubt welcome, especially one that links a major concert venue with an exhibition center.
Dissenting voices, however, point out that the strained public purse has also paid out £30 million, all for a non-essential and possibly uneconomical new link (it will only cut a subway journey time of 10 minutes by half) that turns the subway map into an advertisement. Fretting about a mere map may seem trivial, but the Tube Map is a British design icon with talismanic status for many Londoners. Despite recent line additions that make it more intricate, it largely retains from its original 1931 incarnation the pristine clarity London itself rather lacks.
For people unaware that many historic London developments – Downing Street, Russell and Grosvenor Squares, for example – are named after the landowners and moneymen who bankrolled their construction, blazoning Emirates’ name on the map feels rather like painting a Nike Swoosh over the face of Big Ben.
Emirates isn’t the only major brand staking its place around London’s Olympic Park. Furniture giant IKEA is currently building Strand East, a new neighborhood rising on a brownfield site near the Olympic stadium. A mixed-use residential/commercial development pleasantly threaded with waterways, it will be a largely car-free, bike-friendly district, though it’s unfortunately located next to London’s most notorious cyclist death spot. It will also support small businesses by permitting no outlets for major chains – not even an IKEA superstore. Strand East’s housing remains unfinished, but the neighborhood’s landmark has just arrived, a rather charming 130-foot part-wooden tower that, true to brand, look like it’s been put together with a giant Allen key. Strand East’s plans look promising, although it’s ironic that one of the few areas of London where major chains are not welcome will itself be the product of a major chain.
Happily, smaller grassroots projects near the Olympic Park are also creeping in amongst the big brands. The Yard Theatre, a small venue near Strand East, is a fine example of these. Constructed using recycled materials (many of them dumped when developers cleared the Olympic Park’s site) this former warehouse has mixed new drama with a genuine commitment to involving local communities since it opened last summer, linked to both Britain’s National Theatre and residents of the housing projects surrounding it. Recognizing that this independent venture is just the sort of thing they want to foster, the Olympic Legacy body LLDC has recently granted the Yard funding to upgrade its facilities and boost its outreach program. If more modest projects like this thrive among the big brand big hitters, the games’ legacy may win over London’s still large body of Olympic agnostics.