London 2012 - A start or a finish
Before this summer, I had never felt the need to refresh a web page a hundred times a day, hoping the tickets would be released.
I had never lost my voice cheering in an athletics stadium. I had never seen everyone in my office stop work to watch a cycling final. But all these things happened to me and to many others during the Olympics. The London Games were a runaway success and the whole city – perhaps the whole country - caught the Olympic bug, even the sceptics.
Yet these three and a half weeks cost £9.3 billion of public money. If the Games are to achieve their full potential and be remembered as an event that changed London over the longer term, the story of London 2012 is just beginning.
The experience of previous Olympic cities show that a successful Games does not guarantee legacy success. Los Angeles 1984 was a highly memorable event but was never intended to leave a permanent mark on the city. Beijing 2008 took the Olympics to a new level, but landmark stadia were showpieces and are now semi-abandoned.
Yet the likes of Barcelona and Sydney show how Olympic fever can be transmuted into city-wide economic benefit. Centre for Cities’ recent report, A Marathon Not A Sprint?, sets out how London can learn from the successes and failures of cities that staged Olympics in the past
A one–size-fits-all road map to legacy success does not exist because the aims of the Olympics varied so much. The Barcelona Olympics demonstrated the impact the Games could have on city wide regeneration and infrastructure upgrades. The Sydney Games show how the Games can promote the image of a city, and facilitate business networks.
Yet what these cities do have in common is a clear understanding of why they needed the Games and a clear vision of what the Olympics could deliver for them in the long run. For example, the pre-Olympic renovation of Barcelona’s coastline was part of a public space-centred development strategy that began in the early 1980s. After the Games it was followed up by significant investment that, among other successes, helped to establish 22@BCN – one of the most successful business districts in Spain. The Barcelona Olympics succeeded because they were a first part of Barcelona’s long-term development strategy.
So how does London compare?
London has already sought to learn lessons from its predecessors. The London Legacy Development Corporation is the first ever legacy body to be set up prior to the Olympics and it is working hard to ensure a long term plan is in place that will deliver both economic and social benefits.
The Olympic park itself provides huge opportunities. The planning and delivery are best practice. The site has plenty of development land, it is well connected and has all the infrastructure required. The Park has the potential to become a new vibrant residential neighbourhood. Its success could change perceptions of the area, unlock housing construction and help London meet tough new housing targets. It can also become a new location for businesses. Flexible office space, digital infrastructure and transport links could attract both small businesses and large corporations.
Yet there will be challenges to delivering the legacy. First, London’s legacy vision has never been set in stone. During the early stages of the bid in 2003, increased sports participation and a “feelgood” factor were the main legacy targets. After the credit crunch, attention shifted to the economic growth opportunities that the Olympics present. Clarity to the public about the final legacy vision will be important in the weeks, months and years ahead.
Second, to make the most of the opportunities in the Olympic Park, all the different plans for East London – from residential housing in the Park and Tech City to the Royal Docks Enterprise Zone – need to be brought together to help achieve a shared legacy vision for East London and London as a whole.
And that’s the third challenge – delivering for East London. One of the legacy ambitions has always been to breathe new life into East London. But addressing the needs of the local people requires a policy focus on local skills and provision of better access to jobs.
Historically the Olympics have a poor record when it comes to social benefits. Thousands were evicted prior to Beijing Games, while in Seoul organisers removed all street stalls, preventing locals benefiting from tourist spend. Even in Barcelona and in Sydney, the Games have gentrified areas around Olympic venues. Experience shows that Olympics alone are not the ideal tool for targeting social problems. London will need to ensure it continues to invest in skills and education to channel the benefits of the Games to residents of the East.
So far, London has achieved a great deal, but there is a great deal more to be done. While the Games are over in just seven weeks, their legacy will take decades to deliver, and will require political nerve, commitment, support and resources to see it through. Perhaps in that way it’s not so different from the challenges facing the athletes themselves – and they’ve certainly risen to the challenge. Let’s hope Team GB can do it again, this time with the legacy.