LONDON — Forget the gleaming Olympic Stadium, the aerodynamic velodrome and the Orbit observation deck that looks like a deconstructed Eiffel Tower. Of all the new buildings going up in this city’s downtrodden district of Stratford ahead of the 2012 Summer Games, the one the locals can’t stop talking about is the mall.
Perhaps that’s no surprise when the mall in question is the largest urban shopping center in Europe, luring 10,000 jobs and the likes of Prada and Hugo Boss to a quarter of East London better known for tough housing projects and Britain’s highest unemployment rate. Located right across from the new Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, the mall is underscoring Britain’s push to use the Games to transform a hardscrabble swath of London nearly one-third the size of Manhattan.
(By Laris Karklis/The Washington Post/The Washington Post) - A map locating the Stratford neighborhood in London, England.
For the Beijing Games four years ago, China rolled out an astounding $40 billion citywide upgrade that saw the rise of architectural glories even as whole neighborhoods were displaced. In contrast, observers say, London’s $15 billion effort is shaping up as the most targeted attempt in a generation to improve life in a poor area of a host city.
The London Games, commencing in July, will also showcase sites far more familiar to a global audience — think tennis at Wimbledon, triathlon at Hyde Park and beach volleyball a spike away from No. 10 Downing Street. But leading experts say the move to concentrate new Olympics-related construction and its longer-term benefits in historically poor neighborhoods will amount to a test case of just how much the Olympics can be leveraged to effect social change.
“The UK is doing several things different from past host cities,” said Joe Montgomery, Europe chief executive of the Urban Land Institute, a nonprofit foundation of developers, architects and urban planners. “They’ve made these Games relatively compact, focusing on one area in clear need of urban regeneration. But they’ve also started planning for the legacy of the Games years earlier than other host cities. This is novel, and London’s approach could emerge as a model for future host cities.”
Shaping a legacy
Still, Olympic legacies — or the marks left on cities after the Games — are notoriously hard to predict, with examples ranging from Barcelona’s remarkable rebirth of a derelict waterfront in 1992 to the piles of debt and abandoned stadiums left after the 2004 Games in Athens. And there are substantial challenges to the push for long-term change in East London.
Just a 25-minute ride on the London Underground from Big Ben and Westminster Abbey, Stratford still feels a world away. A densely packed neighborhood of immigrants, the elderly and the British underclasses, it experienced only drops of the rapid gentrification that swept over London in recent years as the city became the preferred playground of Saudi sheiks, American bankers and Russian oligarchs.
By relying partly on collapsible stadiums to be removed after the closing ceremonies, London is moving to avoid the damaging white elephants left after the Games in Athens and even Beijing. But there may be at least one: Stratford’s spanking-new international rail terminal, where planners once envisioned direct links to Paris on the Eurostar bullet train.