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.
By 2031, this summer's Olympic site should be a dense checkerboard of housing and parkland.
The afterlife of London’s Olympic Park was partially confirmed last week, when officials agreed to plans for the construction of a new neighborhood on part of its site once this summer's games are over.
Called Chobham Manor, the 960-home neighborhood should be ready by autumn 2013, and will cover the current location of the Olympic basketball court (plus, one imagines, a little bit more of the park). It’s just the beginning of plans to cover London’s Lower Lea Valley area with badly needed new housing – four other neighborhoods providing a total of 6,800 homes are also in the pipeline, and by 2031 (yes, they’re giving themselves plenty of time) the former Olympic site should be a dense checkerboard of housing and parkland.
In an area that currently attracts few professionals with children, the new neighborhood aims to be especially family friendly, with four schools included in the blueprints. The plan so far is to have 35 percent of its housing fixed at affordable rents, making some of it suitable for people already living in this lower income area.
In a city where affordable housing is scarce – currently London rent rises are so unchecked that there are calls to introduce “New York Style” rent controls – the project sounds promising. With such a drawn-out delivery schedule, however, there is plenty of time for it to stall or see its goals diluted. This might sound mean spirited, but East London already has many housing plans that have changed or gone awry over time. The area’s Greenwich Peninsula, at the foot of the new Emirates Air Line, was given planning permission for over 1,000 houses back in 2002, but so far nothing has been built. London’s mayor claimed in January that everything would be ready by 2015, but this statement was met with massive skepticism by locals who said they had heard it all before.
Likewise, promises to provide affordable housing can fade under scrutiny. The massive IKEA-backed new neighborhood Strand East, just west of the Olympic Park, also appeared on the scene promising a substantial amount of affordable rental property. In 2010, a British newspaper claimed it would contain “around 35 percent” affordable housing. By April this reported ratio seemed to have slipped to 15 percent. Now, Strand East has no publicly declared percentage set aside for affordable housing, though this might change when plans are fully approved later this month. This needn’t suggest any change of agenda by the developers – the press reports could simply have been unfounded – but it does show that grand claims made at the beginning of schemes don’t always hold much weight.
Chobham Manor won’t just be a source of housing, though. It’s also an interesting bit of social engineering. As this map from The Guardian showing local property values demonstrates, the Lower Lea Valley acts as a chasm dividing rich from poor and supposedly hip from humdrum. To its west lie what are currently London’s "hottest" neighborhoods, where formerly rundown districts are increasingly brimming with self-consciously shabby bars and shops selling complicated bread at £4 a loaf. To its east, London’s neighborhoods remain relatively cheap. As Atlantic Cities noted in March, property values actually fell in this area last year, a rarity in London’s still overheated market. By filling in the gap between these two sides of East London, the new Olympic neighborhoods could provide a bridge for the area’s continuing rebirth, halted until now by the underdeveloped dereliction of the ex-industrial Lea. For better or worse, that would certainly be an Olympic legacy that people would recognize and remember.