27 July 2016 | By Paul Reynolds Community

Avoiding white elephants

As the world prepares for the Rio Olympics, what of the legacy from London 2012? 

For some of us, the extinguishing of the Olympic Cauldron on 12 August 2012 marked the beginning of the hard work, not the end of it.

After the “white elephant” Olympic Parks of Beijing and particularly Athens, the promise of a legacy of regeneration for this swathe of East London along the River Lea was significant. Delivering new homes and jobs, and ensuring that the benefits were felt well beyond the boundaries of the park itself, would be integral to London being seen as a successful games in years to come. And Atkins has been working with the London Legacy Development Corporation (LLDC) since the games, to ensure that this promise is delivered.   

As an urban designer, the almost blank page that was presented at the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park gave an opportunity to consider the fundamental shifts in how people live and work in the 21st century, and to explore how their physical environment can support these changes.

For example, more and more people are now looking to so-called “third spaces” to work. These are spaces that sit between traditional corporate offices and the kitchen table at home. They are spaces where you can come together with others for meetings or solitary working, but where the use of the space is more fluid and informal. The precise nature of them varies, and while there are now specialist providers of flexible workspaces, many people just choose to use the local coffee shop or even hotel lobby.  

This demand is driven by a change in people’s attitude to work and a blurring of the boundaries between work and play. People want to be able to live, work, and socialise in a more localised area, as the ever lengthening commute that is required to get between city centre jobs and affordable housing on the edge of town has little appeal.

Lessons in regeneration

In Stratford there was a real chance to use the park as an anchor to create new neighbourhoods that were designed around the way we live and work today, and importantly to tie these into the surrounding communities where many of the changes were already manifesting themselves – with shared workspaces and makerspaces emerging in the former industrial buildings on the fringes of the park, such as in Hackney Wick, Leyton and Walthamstow.  

These areas offer quirky and low-rent buildings in close proximity to affordable housing and once you add in independent cafes, restaurants and bars you have the kind of authentic and distinctive neighbourhoods which people want, and in which a sense of community identity can develop. Very often this authenticity is then borrowed by the developers of more corporate offices and expensive housing, risking the vitality of the very areas they are trading on. Striking the balance between the two, so that new development can be brought forward but the affordable workspace and independent stores can be retained, is therefore vital.  

From observing the evolution of the Queen Elizabeth Park and neighbourhoods around the fringes then, we learnt three clear lessons:

  • Look outside the boundaries – the existing communities around the site need to be considered and integrated as they will be under greatest pressures for change, and can help to inform what the area becomes;
  • Create flexible frameworks, not rigid plans – spaces should respond to the changes in the way people want to live and work, and be able to blur the traditional boundaries between the two;
  • Mix Uses – rethink traditional separation of land uses to deliver more mixed communities which allow people to work and live in closer proximity. This reduces reliance on transport, and ensures that workspace is affordable as well as housing.

We will now use these lessons to inform the development of the next major regeneration projects at Old Oak and Park Royal to the west of London, and along the Thames corridor and Royal Docks to the east.