London’s Olympic Park is an eco-friendly triumph. But did it have to erase its industrial past so completely?
It’s a cover-up
The Lower Lea Valley, the site of London’s Olympic Park, was once a site of massive industrial production. There were gunpowder mills and small arms factories, ironworks and confectionery makers and noxious chemical plants. The particular blend of edgy, dangerous and toxic works gave the area a slightly sinister feel that remained when it was all but abandoned. Steel pylons towered over tin-box warehouses amid miles of overgrown railway sidings and canals shimmering with swirly spectrums of oily scum. It seemed a place incapable of gentrification, an edgeland resisting development, too big, too poisonous.
The writer and psychogeographer Iain Sinclair was among those who revelled in its dark poetry, this reminder that not everything could be tidied up. But tidied it has been. What were once London’s inaccessible industrial badlands are now its inaccessible, security-obsessed Olympic Park, for years concealed behind a blue wall masking the massive development behind.
Londoners were persuaded to pay huge amounts of money to host the Olympicswith the promise that the city would inherit this rich legacy, an outdoor amenity in a poor urban area notably short of greenery and beauty. So just what have they got?
Even the hardiest of “ugliphiles” would be hard pressed to argue it isn’t a good job. This 250-acre park in public ownership stands on a site that was previously so toxic only huge public intervention could have made it good again. Many arguments for the “Olympic Legacy” have been spurious: stadia no one needs, temporary venues that will be gone in weeks, an Olympic village owned by Qataris. So the park is arguably the most important and most public asset.
It has been designed by the US landscape architect George Hargreaves with assistance from a diverse cast including UK landscape company LDA Design, young British garden designer Sarah Price, scientists James Hitchmough and Nigel Dunnett from the University of Sheffield and a bunch of young, local practices. The aim is to blend horticulture, landscape architecture, science and ecology to create a landscape rooted in a sustainable, bio-diverse, beautifully blooming place. Swathes of perennial meadows will apparently explode into colour. There are reedy wetlands on the banks of canals and a River Lea now unrecognisable from the treacly slick it used to be.
The park is divided into two sectors. South Park, where most of the Olympic venues sit, has been designed to become a more urban piece of park after the games, with childrens’ playgrounds and public facilities. The canal, once concealed in a cutting, has been exposed by huge land-forming. The land around it undulates, curves and slopes, with banks of flowering meadows, plenty of seating and broad walkways. Bridges on the level above will be reduced in size after the games, to make the scale more human.
North Park is more about ecology, a wilder landscape of reed-beds and frog ponds. Land is formed into mounds and embankments that echo the undulations of the velodrome and create hillocks from which to view the site and its London context – for the first time it is possible to comprehend this formerly secretive landscape in the bigger city picture. There are delightful touches: informal clumps of trees; river embankments handcrafted from twigs and sticks; an area of nectar-rich meadows designed to attract bees and butterflies. There are also some exquisite iron bridges, restored to look delicate (and slightly twee) among the greenery.
And that brings us to one issue that niggles me. This cauldron of industrial production has been stripped out to produce a park that is, with the notable exception of the 5km of cleaned-up waterside, a tabula rasa. Nothing survives from centuries of manufacture – it is as if the city is ashamed of its past. Something could have been made of a place of such distinctive character. I yearned for something to remind me that this was a place of work – perhaps small workshops around the edges, an attempt to revive this as a place of production and revitalise an area of high unemployment with something more substantial than a mall.
The thinking about ecology, sustainability and ecosystems has been intense and sophisticated, the thinking about the local economic ecology has been dim – beyond the desire to attract the usual “creative” and “media” companies to the post-games media centre.
However, this will be a lovely park, both as an amenity and as a route through the city for walkers and cyclists. US landscape designers James Corner Field Operations will be commissioned to do some of the post-games planning. They were responsible for landscaping New York’s High Line, perhaps the best-loved urban landscape intervention of recent years, which transformed a piece of defunct industrial infrastructure into a place of escape from the grid of city streets while weaving through them and allowing a different view of the city.
Perhaps in a similar way pieces of the Lea Valley’s industrial archaeology could have been retained in a more imaginative manner to have created a park located in a real, grittier landscape, one knitted more carefully into a complex and still extraordinary piece of city.