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A Critical Assessment of the Contribution of the Olympic Games to the Urban Regeneration of the Host City: A Focus on 2012 London Olympics

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Regeneration, in a geographical sense, refers to the improvement of an area that has been experiencing a period of decline (Imrie, Lees & Raco 2009, p. 132). The International Olympic Committee instructive guideline requires national and city governments to utilize urban regeneration as a part of their vision for conducting the Olympic Games and as both a rationale for and a meritorious component of their respective Olympic bids. As a matter of fact, Evans (cited in Gold & Gold 2011, p. 301) indicates that modern day has seen the hosting of mega-events like the Olympic Games being recognized as urban development stratagems that can offer benefits of “fast track” regeneration infrastructure development, better global recognition of the locality, and a fuel of economic progression.

The rush to host Olympic Games by cities with underdeveloped or wasted regions is justified given the most visible tangible legacies in urban revitalization as the redevelopment and improvement of locations within the hosting metropolis, reclamation or rehabilitation of dilapidated or abandoned to deliver acreages for the development of Olympic locations (International Olympic Committee 2012, p. 34). However, there are some instances where regeneration has not been achieved despite the fact that new buildings have been erected in areas once considered wastelands. These areas are still inaccessible to the general public due to issues of affordability (Bloyce & Smith 2010, p. 165). This paper critically assesses the contribution of the Olympic Games to the urban regeneration concerning London as the 2012 Olympic Games host city. Other host cities will also be mentioned to drive the point home.

 

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Contribution of the Olympic Games to the Host City’s Urban Regeneration

Across the globe, governments are constantly in the process of trying to rejuvenate their cities’ deteriorating parts. The term urban regeneration has widely been used to describe the efforts by governments to recover and facelift metropolitan areas like dock areas, old industrial districts, and ramshackle low-cost housing estates (Imrie et al. 2009, p. 133). Hoye, Nicholson and Houlihan (2010, p. 134) view urban regeneration as urban development, redevelopment, or renewal that embodies the notions of renewal, regrowth, reform, and rebirth. This term captures the intention, if not always, the reality, inherent in government’s involvement in attracting sports events or building sports stadia, to realize environmental, social, economic and spatial objectives. Gold and Gold (2011, p. 303) note that the use of sport as a tool for economic development is not a new phenomenon, nor is the use of sport to market and promote cities and nations.

The use of the Olympic Games to put a city on the ‘world map’ was an approach employed by governments in the early 1900s, as it is nowadays (Watt 2013, p. 105). It is also evident from the host cities application files that the notion of urban regeneration is used as a catch-all for the renewal of previously degraded or deprived areas to the re-imaging of parts of a city to overcoming the social problems within the city’s inner core. The Olympic Games has the power to bring long-term benefits which can noticeably transform a community, regarding its perspective and its infrastructure. Given that the Olympic Games are one of the globe’s largest sporting events, they often act as a remarkable catalytic agent for transformation in a host city with the ability to generate far more than just decent remembrances, once the ultimate medals have been conferred.

According to the International Olympic Committee (2012, p. 34), the heirlooms of the Olympic Games by and large fall into five groups: social, sporting, environmental, economic and urban, and can be intangible or tangible. The tangible legacies include new transport, sporting infrastructure or prettification and metropolitan regeneration, which improves a city’s charm and advances the living standards of the inhabitants. These tangible legacies are in line with how many of the host applicant cities view urban regeneration. It can be in terms of the provision of infrastructure, such as transportation links, green spaces, and road networks; and the renewal of environmentally deprived areas, which would not take place without the capital investment generated by the Olympic Games (Gold & Gold 2008, p. 302).

Based on the perceived ‘urban regeneration’ benefits, hosting the Olympic Games offers an ideal occasion to entitle the deprived regions of a city for regeneration and reuse. In fact, the most visible tangible urban revitalization brought by the Olympic Games are redeveloped and improved locations within the host city’s metropolis. In some cases, dilapidated or abandoned zones are reclaimed and rehabilitated to deliver acreages for the development of Olympic locations. Often these sites are rejuvenated with the development of green spaces and public parks around the venues for communal enjoyment. For example, the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games led to the restoration of roughly 160 hectares of severely degraded land together with the construction of one among the biggest metropolitan parklands within Australia (Hoye, Nicholson & Houlihan 2010, p. 137).

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In the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, practically, 2,000 trees were planted in Atlanta’s downtown area alone, and a redevelopment of Centennial Olympic Park together with a number of other metropolitan parks within the metropolitan area was done (Bloyce & Smith 2010, p. 167). The Athens 2004 Olympic Games also had another aspect of urban regeneration. According to the International Olympic Committee (2012, p. 33), before the Games, the organization dubbed “New Look for Athens” was founded with the aim to make the city beautiful through overseeing the renovation of decaying construction facades. In the Vancouver Olympics, the Olympic village was constructed on the last undeveloped waterside in the city. This former industrial site’s regeneration ensured that the waterfront was preserved for public use and that the historical buildings were refurbished (Bloyce & Smith 2010, p. 168).

When Barcelona hosted the Olympic Games, over 100 hectares of what had been industrial acreage was redeveloped to include suburban housing in the former Olympic Village and communal facilities. As part of the city’s long-term vision, the seafront was cleaned up, and chief ring roads together with other conveyance infrastructure were established for the Olympic Games. Apart from regeneration, renewal and beautification of urban areas that often results from a city hosting the Olympic Games, this event also provides the facilitation for the construction of new urban areas on industrial badlands, abandoned dockyards, or derelict railway patios.

Analysis of the Contribution of the Olympic Games to London’s Urban Regeneration

According to the UK Government and Mayor of London (2013, p. 33) report, the London 2012 Olympic Games preparations envisioned one of the largest urban regeneration project ever experienced in Europe with the construction of the Olympic Park in what was previously London’s most deprived areas. It was proposed that after the Olympic Games, the newly built sports facilities will be adapted for use by sports clubs, elite athletes, and local communities. Playing fields located alongside the facilities will be adapted for community use. The Olympic Village was to be converted to provide nearly 2,800 new homes, whereas transport improvements will connect the regions to other sections of the city. Moreover, shops, riverside housing, cafes, and restaurants will provide the community with new amenities.

In the London 2012 Olympic Games, a former industrial land site was transformed into 100 hectares of parklands to create one of the globe’s biggest modern European parks for more than a century. The constructed Olympic Park provided new habitats for biota, counting wetland areas, open river banks, and moorlands. Additionally, the design of the Park incorporated all habitat and wildlife features outlined within the Biodiversity Action Plan and built ecology into a reachable and operational space for the civic.

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According to the UK Government and Mayor of London (2013, p. 33), the organizers confessed that the regeneration of East London was at the heart of the bid to host the 2012 Olympic Games. Moreover, this major sporting event has been lauded as a major illustration that the strategy of using sport as a catalyst for urban regeneration is not limited to developing countries, but, rather, it is an established strategy of major developed economies. The 2012 Olympic Games and the development of the Olympic Park were seen as a catalyst for revitalization of the Lower Lee Valley, a region of multifaceted rejuvenation challenges at the core of a select of the UK’s most disadvantaged communities (Power 2013).

The Lower Lee Valley and the Eastern End of London, specifically Borough of Newham, had been experiencing decline brought about by de-industrialization, a process whereby factories close down as a result of a drop in demand for products or an increase in production costs (Bloyce & Smith 2010). This area had been a region of social deprivation and brownfield sites that were once the scenes of traditional manufacturing industries, railroad yards, and docks (see figure below). For over 200 years, the East End of London was synonymous with discrimination and poverty. As industries got abandoned, they gave space to brownfields process of deindustrialization which never followed any planes of urban restoration or any venture with the exception of Canary Warf. As such, London’s East End had the biggest area of brownfields, contaminated former industrial land, and largely industrial derelicts (Bloyce & Smith 2010).

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There have been initiatives based on renewing East London since 1980 with a focus on Docklands and the greater Thames Gateway and Canary Wharf. According to Power (2013), the 1980 development were an ambitious scheme to expand London’s financial center eastwards by emulating the success of the 1960’s Manhattan development in New York. The London 2012 together with the wider Thames Gateway project reflected the ‘state-focused’ approach as opposed to ‘self-organizing’ mode of urban regeneration. A combination of these initial regeneration projects saw hosting of the 2012 Olympic Games and its sporting benefits as an enhancement of the existing regeneration agenda. Hosting the games was also viewed as an important catalyst for the programs of urban regeneration and economic development of the recent decades. London’s bid was viewed successful, based on its focus on urban regeneration, with its vision being not only the celebration of sport, but a force for regeneration (Imrie et al. 2009, p. 141).

The Olympic Games were focused on transforming one of London’s poorest and most deprived areas and create thousands of homes and jobs. The site selected was the Lower Lea Valley, Newham Borough (New Town Ward and Stratford) and East London. The focus of the regeneration was: (1) Olympic Park site in much of the polluted brownfield 500 acre site which is to be cleaned and used to create Europe’s largest urban park; (2) Cleaning of Lea Valley’s polluted waterways and the creation of new wildlife habitats; (3) the creation of close to 12,000 new permanent jobs in the Olympic Park together with other temporary jobs; (4) spending £17bn on infrastructure and road improvements including extensions to East London rail lines and the Dockland Light Railway; (5) a focus on new housing with the Olympic Village being converted into affordable housing after the end of the Olympic Games, with over 9,000 new homes being built; and (6) construction of new amenities with five of the new sports venues remaining for use by the local community (Royal Geographic Society 2012).

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To some extent, the 2012 Olympics achieved the purpose of facilitating London’s urban regeneration. However, this regeneration came at a cost. Firstly, there is the aspect of the cost to the broader community with the Olympic Games costing over £9.3bn through tax funding, contingency funding, and security. Secondly, 212 local businesses in the East London area were forced to move away from the area. Thirdly, the local residents (elderly and vulnerable groups) were also affected, despite the offers of £8,500 compensation and alternative accommodation (Watt 2013, p. 99). In essence, the 2012 Olympic Games’ notion of urban regeneration is defeated by the removal of present locally available jobs, genuinely reasonably priced community facilities and housing, which profited lower-income East Londoners, but which stood in the way of physical revitalization for the Olympic Games (Watt 2013, p. 106). Opposite to the notion of regeneration, 400 homes were destroyed at the Clay Lane Cooperative Housing country estate in Newham, and the dwellers dispossessed as a result of a compulsory purchase order (RioonWatch 2016).

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Stratford, Clay Lane and 2012 Master Plan

According to Watt (2013) (quoting an interviewee), the changes taking place in Stratford before the 2012 Olympic Games were linked to re-balancing and shifting class relations of Stratford in a manner that did not include the local low-income earners. This shift was move to do away with the poor people as the future of Stratford does not require the type of people living there at that time, who were low-income earners. In their place, the city will be occupied by well-to-do people with money from London’s affluent parts in a gentrification process. This notion is echoed by Kim (2011, p. 581), who observes that the government’s efforts in trying to encourage a communally mixed and socially maintainable community and an improvement that will benefit the local residents, is usually the opposite of what actually happens. The urban regeneration in London’s East End will result in the eventual displacement of low-income residents by more affluent ones as gentrification takes its course, making the local residents suffer harsh economic and social consequences (Kim 2011, p. 580)

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Power (2013) questions the regeneration legacy of the 2012 Olympic Games, especially the affordability of 2,800 new homes that were converted from the athlete’s village. The poorest households of Newham cannot afford these homes, even though, they have been marked as “affordable new housing.” A third of all the children in the East End borough live in jobless homes, and their families will be practically and unquestionably excluded. This issue is specifically problematic, given reforms to the manner in which the government sponsors housing. Affordable housing is currently priced at 80% of market rent, which is a 10% increase from the rate under labor. In London, this infers that many households are priced out.

Conclusion

The long-term impact of the 2012 London Olympic Games on the communities is yet to be fully realized, given that it is now four years since it ended. However, this sports event has regenerated East London, through the creation of 9,000 new homes within the Olympic Park with at least half being low-cost affordable houses, building new community centers and schools to accommodate Newham’s added residents, clearing up of large brownfield sites, and the creation of one of the largest urban parks since Victorian times. Other benefits include improvement of transportation, creation of new and permanent sports facilities to be enjoyed by local residents and athletes, moving of 13km of overhead power lines underground, and the cleaning up of River Lea, which previously ran underground and was heavily polluted. Despite these urban regeneration benefits, there are concerns that the whole process was more of a gentrification as local low-income and elderly and vulnerable residents were evicted from the region.

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There are concerns that new housings in the Olympic Park will not be affordable to the local residents, and in their place, affluent people will move into the region and occupy the place. In essence, it appears to be a shift focused on tuning the East End region into a more upper-class region, and the locals are not a part of the plan. Besides, the regeneration process involved demotion of more than 450 homes, relocation of over 300 businesses, and destruction of 500 trees, among other unpleasant events. However, in the spirit of regeneration, which is the improvement of an area that has been experiencing a period of decline, the 2012 London Olympic Games contributed positively towards regeneration, renewal, and redevelopment of London’s East End notably the Lea River, Lea Valley and the Brownfields. In place of the derelicts and wastelands, now stands the Olympic Park, the Olympic stadium and an improvement on the existing transport and infrastructure system.

 

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