The Global Urbanist

News and analysis of cities around the world

London 2012 Olympics: missing an opportunity for truly sustainable development

Analysis begins at home. London is the world's financial and business capital, an exemplar of the tensions and inequalities besetting all global cities, and the home of The Global Urbanist. Today we welcome Joe Peach, a researcher in sustainable building and communities, who begins a new column exploring the social dynamics of this city.

In this first post, Peach compares the narrow conception of sustainability used in the 2012 Olympic Games developments with the inclusive practice of sustainable community planning used by the Coin Street Community Builders.

Joe Peach

Joe Peach

Cities: London

Topics: Special events, Participatory governance, Sustainability, Community organisation

Throughout London there is talk of 'regeneration' — a buzz-word spun by building firms and government organisations attempting to persuade local communities that their area will be reborn, bringing new opportunities and the potential for affluence and prosperity all round. Whilst redevelopment schemes of varying sizes are being implemented and proposed throughout the capital, East London is experiencing the biggest changes due to the impending arrival of the 2012 Olympics.

The Improvement and Development Agency, (IDeA) a government agency supporting innovation in local councils, states that London was able to win the bid to host the Olympic Games based on "a commitment to regeneration and sustainable development". This is unsurprising considering the prominence of sustainability issues in global politics and repeated criticism leveled at the games for their environmental impact. But even Shaun McCarthy, Chair of Commission for a Sustainable London 2012, acknowledges the vagueness of this statement.

Speaking to IDeA, McCarthy called sustainability "one of those expressions that's actually unique to every single project," a description that fails to commit the Olympics developments to a sufficiently broad interpretation of sustainability. Whilst there is some truth to his statement, the opportunity to set a global standard for sustainable development within an event as notoriously unsustainable as the Olympic games is being lost.

The content of the London 2012 website does a better job of defining 'sustainability', with numerous articles that focus on carbon footprint, land decontamination, and the recycling of demolition waste. In fact, the content of the site and the frequency of articles that highlight building practices show that sustainable construction methods are clearly the priority.

Whilst the Olympics developments involve improving transport links, building thousands of affordable homes, and creating new urban parkland, claims of being 'the most sustainable games' once again rely on construction practices as validation. In his book, Sustainable Urbanism, Douglas Farr explains that viewing sustainability within such a narrow framework results in "an unwillingness to engage a larger, comprehensive agenda," and London's approach to the Olympics seems to confirm this. By focusing narrowly on construction methods, what is being achieved is not true sustainability; it's just sustainable construction.

Comprehensive sustainability takes into consideration economic and social factors. Whilst it is too early to speculate about the economic sustainability of the 2012 Olympics, a recent report by the London Assembly — an elected body that exists to scrutinise the Mayor of London's decisions and spending — raises questions surrounding their social sustainability.

The report, Legacy Limited?, calls for assurances about the community-focus of the regeneration, questioning whether housing developments will be suitable for occupation by locals, and emphasising the importance of maintaining availability of sports facilities for community use once the Olympics have passed.

A recent article by The Times asked residents of Newham, a borough at the centre of the regeneration, about their feelings towards the Olympics bid and its impact on the community to date. Feedback was varied — hardly surprising after the lukewarm response Britain seems to have shown towards London hosting the 2012 Olympics — but lack of community involvement was often raised as a point of concern, with one resident saying:

Nobody asked us about it, asked if we wanted it or not. They might have had a meeting but they knew full well that it was a signed and sealed thing.

The Legacy Limited? report reinforces this impression, calling for clearer targets from policymakers across all levels to ensure local communities are involved in, and feel long-term benefits from, the continuing developments of the games.

Community involvement in planning

The approach taken with the London Olympics is reflective of a bigger problem with London's planning and development. Affordable housing, environmental sustainability and community facilities are often highlighted within development proposals, yet community involvement within the planning process and building design, a process known as participative planning, is rare. Developments that don't implement participative planning run a higher risk of creating a community disconnected from the developments surrounding them, and worse still, a lack of community involvement can result in buildings that don't meet the real needs of the local area.

London isn't famous for having a planning system that prioritises the needs of local communities, but there are examples where this approach has been successful, notably, the Coin Street Community Builders (CSCB) in the central-London borough of Lambeth.

Calling themselves "a social enterprise and development trust which seeks to make London's South Bank a better place in which to live, to work and to visit," CSCB have spent the last 26 years turning a formerly derelict 13-acre site in London's city centre into a vibrant mixed-use community in the form of shops, galleries, restaurants, and artists studios, to list but a few. Densely-built co-operative housing is provided, charging a 'fair rent', with a management culture that encourages tenants to take ownership of the buildings they live in. In addition, childcare, learning facilities and extensive family support are available to residents.

Current attitudes to urban development consider dense, walkable, mixed-use spaces to be highly sustainable, but this hasn't always been the case. In fact, the CSCB's plans were initially met with resistance, mainly due to a now outdated belief that central London is not a desirable place to live. Thankfully, these doubts were overcome and the Coin Street development has gone on to receive praise from architecture and urban planning professionals, and more importantly, residents, with one tenant telling Building magazine:

The use of space has been well thought out both inside and out. It's phenomenal to think how many people live here yet there is no feeling of overcrowding. The finish is excellent.

This attitude to regeneration should be applauded, and acts as an achievable standard for future developments. Sadly, the design and construction of the Olympics developments has progressed so far that community involvement in current constructions is no longer possible, but the legacy of the London 2012 Olympics remains adaptable. Individuals, organisations, and entire communities could feel real benefits from the changes going on in East London, and it's up to developers, local councils and policymakers to ensure that the London Assembly's concerns are answered and that the needs of our local communities are met.

Joe Peach is a researcher at the Royal Institute of British Architects exploring the effects of technologies on cities of the future, and completing a Masters in Sustainable Communities and the Creative Economy. His opinions are his own.