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.
Two years after hosting the Olympics, London is putting down more cash to build an arts and education facility on the former site. Will the city's poorest residents benefit this time?
In some ways, London’s Olympic transformation is only just beginning. While the games ended over two years ago, only this week did the British government promise £141 ($221) million of state cash to kick-start a large new arts and education complex on the site. Dubbed “Olympicopolis” (after West London’s Albertopolis), it will include new sites for two London universities, a major new space for the Victoria and Albert Museum, and a new dance theatre. Taking its place among a constellation of new mini-neighborhoods already going up around the park, Olympicopolis should ultimately cost $1.3 billion, and scratch the name of the Olympics even more indelibly into the east London soil. The plan does more than just give the city a clutch of shiny new venues, though. It’s another major plank in a London Olympic model that’s proving to be globally influential.
London’s 2012 Olympics could well prove to be the most copied in decades to come. While Beijing’s 2008 games announced China’s arrival as a major power in spectacular fashion, they did so on a lavish scale few other potential hosts are willing or able to emulate. London’s plans were arguably a more attractive template. Instead of shock-and-awe spectacle, they promised more sustainable, lower-cost games, part of a project as much about ongoing urban transformation as the fortnight of contests itself. So with Olympicopolis now on the way, how have London’s claims fared so far?
The key promise made by London’s Olympic organizers was that their games wouldn’t just be a two-week flash in the pan. Unlike Athens, London wouldn’t be lumbered with white elephant venues left to rust and molder once the games were done. By the (admittedly low) standards set by other hosts, London has done well on this. Many venues were planned to be lightweight and temporary. Zaha Hadid’s Aquatics Center, for example, was designed to have its huge spectator stands detached from the building and dismantled after the games to leave a more manageably sized venue. The Olympic Park is now reborn as an actual park, and despite reports of overzealous park keepers regulating visitors' every move, it’s largely well liked. The one significant blot is the stadium, which managed to be both bland and not particularly cheap. Built without a clear future in mind, it won’t get a tenant until 2016, when local soccer team West Ham United moves in. While far from London’s biggest team, at least West Ham’s not quite stellar status means that ticket prices will be more within reach of people from the area.
Crucially, London’s summer Olympics were billed as regeneration games, bringing cash, jobs, and homes to a low-income, often neglected part of the city. This claim is key. Judging by Rio’s example, London’s example may mean that promises of regeneration prove a bargaining chip for future Olympic hopefuls trying to win their host cities over. Here, there’s no doubt that the games brought in plenty of investment money. The Olympic Park area now has a massive mall, a major new housing complex in the former Olympic Village, and many new neighborhoods going up on the ex-industrial land surrounding the park. The games also sped up the (already planned) creation of better transport links to the area. It is now a forest of cranes and with more, higher towers being planned, what’s on the cards now could just be the beginning.
So far, so good. In other areas, early promises went out the window fast. While London’s budget may have looked piddling next to Beijing’s $44 billion, it nonetheless skyrocketed. The end cost, after revenue was deducted, was £8.92 billion, or just under $14 billion—a massive hike from the $4.4 billion initially budgeted for. The big spend still isn’t over, as the final conversion for the stadium will cost another £175 ($274) million. Any potential host city should bear this in mind. If it’s fielded a low-sounding budget estimate, it will probably turn out to be a fantasy.
For locals, the promised long-lasting jobs and drops in poverty also failed to show. In the run-up to the games when the venues were being built, unemployment in the surrounding borough of Newham actually rose, with most contractors coming in from outside. The borough remains within London’s top four for child poverty and unemployment, housing overcrowding and repossessions, a relative position that has shown no change since before the games began.
In fact, when you take rising housing costs into accounts, the Olympics made things worse for low-income locals. With the spotlight on Newham in 2012, the area’s rent increases topped the London league table. Coupled with changing national benefit laws, this created a wave of displacement that forced many of the people the games had promised to help away from the borough permanently. This has created a passionate wave of resistance from local people, one that has had some degree of success in at least publicizing the issue. The “affordable” housing (most locals still can’t afford it) being built around the park will do little to change this situation. Affordable housing percentages have been slashed, and the Olympicopolis project looks set to shave off yet more. For long-term residents, regeneration has not been about a better future, but about freeing up land for investor profits that so far show little or no trickle-down.
So there you have it. Prospective hosts to the games would do well to look to London to see how they can have an effect far beyond their short summer’s lease, creating venues people continue to use and love. When it comes to promises of better living conditions and social uplift, however, they should probably smell an Olympic-sized rat.