Has the Olympic legacy lived up to its promise?

Asked by Building Design to be half of a debate on this question

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Sowmya Parthasarathy
Director, Oppidan Design

The 2012 Games promised a legacy of city-building in east London, both physical and socio-economic. A year after the event, its enduring success seems assured.

Two hundred hectares of land has been cleaned and freed from a tangle of pylons, pipelines and scrapyards. More than 30 new bridges and under-passes have repaired a fragmented Lower Lea Valley. New parkland along the River Lea is reopening to the public this month. The first new neighbourhood of family homes (on the site of the Basketball Arena) is well on track to be built starting 2014. Chobham Academy is admitting students this September. The retained Olympic venues have all found new uses, making Stratford a noteworthy London destination.

While the visible icons of legacy are impressive, more modest projects in the wider area, propelled by the Games, have arguably been even more successful. Three Mills Playspace in Stratford; the White Building along the canal in Hackney Wick; public realm improvements along Leyton High Road; and a network of cycle routes, towpaths and walkways forging links along and across the waterways — these are just a few examples. More local and quirky in character, these projects emerge from the heritage and diversity of the area, setting a real example of community-centred city design.

More unseen yet are the socio-economic policies, community sports programmes, accessibility standards and sustainability targets, developed and committed to during the Games, and now embedded as standards.

The vision for east London’s regeneration preceded 2012. What the Games delivered was a forceful boost to the long-term effort of city-building, lifting it out of a possible decade in the doldrums, and leaving an influential legacy for the entire city.


Michael Edwards
Senior lecturer in the economics of planning at the Bartlett

It is impossible to evaluate the Olympic legacy: the promises in London’s 2005 bid were written when the UK was at the peak of its credit-fuelled boom. We won. Then the preparations took place in the early years of our self-imposed crisis, ending under the cloud of austerity, denying the public interest and asserting the dominance of the 1%. The legacy is thus scarcely detectable in the flood of destructive social change.

Hopes of boosted participation in sport were erased by cuts and the near-abolition of youth services. Ambitions for affordable housing were scuppered by pressure to reduce public borrowing, reinforced by Newham Council’s determination to dilute its deprived population with a better class of people. Even the public support for the Paralympic Games has not stopped the coalition demonising people with disabilities.

There was some payoff for construction. At first we wondered how the sector would cope on top of boom-time production but, in the event, the Games kept builders and designers afloat through years which would have been bleak. We got some wonderful buildings and landscapes — though at the cost of serious damage to Greenwich and the Marshes.

The diversion of lottery funds robbed provincial Britain of more museums and theatres but gave us stunning velodromes instead (all in London). Certainly there is no detectable positive legacy for the gypsies, travellers and other residents directly and indirectly displaced by “regeneration”.

We lay on our backs with our legs apart for the IOC and their sponsors. Some of us had a good time. But it’s hard to separate the effects from lying on our backs for financial capital in all other departments of life.


  • Jack G | 22 July 2013 10:42 am
    Sour and bitter hyperbole from Michael Edwards there, who talks in generic terms about broad political issues reeking of proper old school leftist activism. Hints of sexism at the end too. Sowmya Parthasarathy on the other hand makes a rather more convincing argument by talking about specifics of the various developments and the tangible physical (and consequential social) benefits.
  • Michael Edwards | 22 July 2013 9:23 pm
    Do remember Jack that the old leftists like me may be right and the “broad political issues” may be crucial. SP is simply wrong in her re-writing of history in at least two respects: the pylons were removed and the Chobham Academy launched as outcomes of the Westfield shopping mall, nothing to do with the Olympic Games. Hers is a very biased/emotional kind of language, depicting the pre-Olympic landscape as she does. It was also home to a lot of people, now displaced, the site of a lot of business activity and other activities which people valued.

Author: Editors


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