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The Olympics and the tricky process of regeneration

The London Olympics got off to a flying start. The British people’s feelings about the Games had been mixed, with more talk about increased congestion on the tube than a sense of pride about hosting the games.

Yet, as happened for the Queen’s Jubilee celebrations, it seems that the hosting country is warming to the games now the show has got going. While I do not intend to ruin the party, this is a good opportunity to discuss the local community that lives around the Olympic Park and the mixed effects they are going through due to the Games.

When you listen to both what the representatives LOCOG and the local residents have to say about the efforts the authorities have made to ensure positive outcomes for local residents, it becomes clear that opinions differ greatly and that the regeneration of the area is a very controversial topic.

For one, Ricky Burdett, Chief Advisor of Architecture of the London Olympics, suggests that LOCOG has been committed to creating a new part of the capital, however, some local residents of social housing units say that the construction sites led to a break-down of local networks and communities that had existed for decades.

Andy Altman, the former CEO of London Legacy Development Corporation – who resigned unexpectedly before the start of the Games – had made assurances that the areas have been developed in order to attract more business. But, one wonders whether the local residents will benefit from the types of business that will choose to base themselves in the area post-Olympics.

Moreover, Stratford has become a mega hub of public transport and at last gave East London easy access to other parts of the city. Inevitably, better public transport access pushes up property prices as well as living costs, as rather luxurious supermarkets are more likely to pop up and replace the more affordable shops.

Altman also assured that 35% of the Olympic Park would be turned into 7,000 units of affordable housing – but is that enough? Many buildings will be mixed housing, which as a concept is democratic, but lately I have started to think that it does not benefit the low-income communities unless this type of housing is offered in areas where the poor did not live before, or the portion of private housing is kept significantly lower than the portion of affordable units.

Lastly, in 2008, the UK government agreed to commit to eradicating homelessness by 2012, in cooperation with an organisation called Homeless. One of the projects was Operation Poncho, whereby the homeless are woken between one and three o’clock in the morning to remove them from the streets and given advice about hostels, drug and alcohol services offered in the area.

There does not seem to be any evidence of a positive outcome from this operation and it has been criticised for being the main cause of Brighton’s dramatic increase in rough sleepers and homeless in recent years. That said, there has also been a concerted effort to involve the homeless in the Olympic celebrations, by organising an event in the Royal Opera House called With One Voice, where 300 performers who have experienced homelessness performed.

The council of Newham, where the Games are taking place, is the fourth most deprived local authority in England and Wales and is one of the most ethnically diverse areas in Britain.

When one looks at the site from that perspective, the efforts to regenerate the area look like potentially running the risk of pushing these communities away from the city centre. However, the main discrepancy is that the developers and authorities responsible for the legacy of this area look at the space as ‘large empty lands with little residential area’, as it was claimed in the talk about the London Olympics at the London School of Economics in May.

The question about whether, in the near future, the benefits of hosting these Games will outweigh the costs for the local communities remains a mystery. Unlike what some critics claim, I believe those responsible for the London Olympic sites have made a concerted effort to make sure that the Games would be transformed into a positive social project and this is proved by the fact that the London Legacy Development Corporation was formed three years prior to the event.

Although we are looking at a different scale, it would be interesting if perhaps London could follow the example of the public library system that was formed in the deprived neighbourhoods of Medellin, Colombia, where the modernist architecture of these libraries attract tourism and yet the libraries are for the local residents. There have been no signs of an increase in property prices or living costs in the areas.

We should keep a close eye on the legacy of these Games, but for now let’s enjoy the show, because all various criticisms, the Olympics are an excellent occasion to celebrate and we should be happy to be sharing our city with the world.
Ayako Iba

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