Mega events, urban regeneration and environmental sustainability: London 2012 Olympic Games and the Lower Lea Valley.
Urban and Environmental Planner, Town and Country Planning Association, London.
[Cover: aerial view of the Olympic Park, taken during July 2015. Source: London Legacy Development Corporation-LLDC]
Recent decades have been characterized by the worldwide growth of globalization and urban competition. These trends led Institutions to rush towards an increasing emphasis on the regeneration and modernization of urban centres, especially in post-Fordist cities where the relocation of industries and outsourcing economy have led to a physical, economic and social emptiness.
In this context, the Olympic Games, thanks to the huge economic resources that can ‘unlock’, represent an urban policy tool capable of driving synergies towards the implementation of pre-existing and new plans, the improvement of infrastructures, environment and services, as well as a potential stimulus for urban economy, employment growth and technological and social innovation.
Although the Games are potentially able to create conditions which enable long-term benefits, as argued by Chalkley and Essex, these events remain nevertheless extraordinary, concentrated in a limited period of time and with high costs. In fact, in absence of a shared urban strategy, especially for the legacy phase, and of inclusive governance capable of managing the entire lifecycle of the event, the host cities could be exposed to several risks. Huge debts, missed reuse of Olympic venues, poor economic spin-off and lower level of employment than expected, as well as gentrification and negative environmental impacts, are some of the most common risks. Regarding the environmental-related aspect of the Games, since the 90s, this has taken on increasing importance for the International Olympic Committee (IOC).
In 1995 the IOC established the environment as the third pillar of the Olympic Movement, alongside sport and culture. In addition, it has appointed the Sport and Environment Commission, whose task is to suggest environmental sustainability policies, and has adopted the Olympic Movement’s Agenda 21, which introduced new guidelines for sustainable planning of these events.
More recently, the Olympic Games Study Impact (OGI) has been introduced in order to monitor, using a set of environmental, socio-cultural and economic indexes, the impacts of the Games from the pre-event phase to the legacy-phase.
The introduction of these innovations, despite their difficult implementation, has certainly stimulated the adoption by the host cities of environmental policies and innovative solutions for the planning of the Olympic sites.
However, as noted by Furrer, the actual Olympic Games development process remains in contrast with the concept of sustainability. In fact, even though from Sydney 2000 onwards, all the host cities have placed at the heart of their Olympic bid the concept of “Green Games”, often the environmental concerns remained rhetoric.
London 2012 and the Lower Lea Valley
[River Lea after the restoration. Source: author]
London has bid to host the Games in order to use the mega event as a tool for urban regeneration of the Lower Lea Valley (LLV), a brownfield land in East London characterized by social, environmental and economic deprivation, but with a strong strategic value. In fact, this area is located along one of the national development corridors, the Thames Gateway, a large-scale urban regeneration project which aims to revitalize this ‘region’ through the building of residences, services, infrastructures and investments.
In addition, within the Thames Gateway, the Olympic site is integrated in others urban regeneration programs with high environmental value: the East London Green Grid (ELGG) and the Green Enterprise District.
The ELGG aims to enhance the network of multifunctional open spaces as a link between urban centres, transport hubs and peri-urban areas, pursuing benefits in terms of mobility improvement, mitigation of climate change effects and preservation of biodiversity and cultural heritage.
The Green Enterprise District, instead, is a strategy oriented to develop a low-carbon economy in East London by investing in renewable energy, the reuse of waste for energy production and the development of alternatives fuels.
[Olympic Park Legacy Masterplan. Source: Design Council.]
At the urban scale, the Olympic plan is part of the strategic vision of the London Plan to develop, over the next 20 years, a polycentric and resilient metropolis, in which the regeneration of brownfield sites, the strengthening of public transport and enhancement of blue and green infrastructure are the priorities, in line with the compact city and zero consumption of land model inspired by the national urban reform law of 2004, the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act.
The existing plans for the LLV have eased the task of London to use the event to boost and extend the regeneration process that were already underway in East London and also, the integration of the Olympic plan with the ordinary planning system show a strong will to extend the Games’ effects in the long-term through a legacy-oriented approach.
Moreover, the innovation of the London’s planning approach lies into the incorporation of sustainability along the life cycle of the mega-event, in order to ensure the development of the Olympic Park according to the slogan presented during the bid phase “The most sustainable Olympic and Paraolympic Games“.
For the purpose of delivering sustainable Games, London 2012 has collaborated with Bioregional and WWF elaborating and adopting the document Towards a One Planet Olympics, which set criteria relating to five priority areas of action for the planning and design of the Olympic Park: climate change, waste, biodiversity and ecology, health living and inclusion. This document, promoting sustainable living, is aimed to make an implementation link between the Olympic Movement’s Agenda 21 and the OGI.
These principles were then translated in the Games’ sustainability strategy for the development of the Olympic site, started with the remediation and clean up of the soil, polluted with heavy metals and chemicals, the restoration of the ecological status of blue and green infrastructures, in particular the River Lea and the channels network connected to it, and the improvement of the public transport system, especially the railways and the pedestrian and cycle paths. Sustainability targets were adopted to build all the Olympic venues, referring to the building materials used and the adoption of innovative solutions to ensure a reduction in water and energy demand, though not all the targets have been achieved.
The Olympiad has transformed the LLV from a derelict brownfield land into a multifunctional sub-centre, where the Olympic Park has been realized as an extension of the existing park system to the River Thames, with six permanent Olympic venues, the Olympic Village, transformed in residences after the event, and the Media Centre, then converted into a business place.
Besides, the Legacy plan outlines the construction of five new neighbourhoods in the surrounding area of the Olympic Park, and aims to build 7,000 dwellings by 2032, with a 20%-30% affordable housing built considering sustainable standards aim to meet the government’s 2016 Zero Carbon definition, even exploiting the already built decentralized energy system connected to two CCHP energy centres and the wastewater recycling plant to provide cooling water for the energy centres.
These projects have been integrated with policies aimed to reduce the waste produced, to retrofit existing buildings and commercial spaces and produce of local food, reflecting the will of the organisers to implement a long-lasting sustainable development based on resilience, green economy and new technologies.
London has proposed an innovative legacy-oriented approach for planning of a mega event, with sustainability as a key concept of urban development. It has established a positive benchmark for future Games edition, but on the other hand remain the negative impacts on local communities, caused by gentrification and lack of inclusiveness in the decision-making process, and the economic risks derived from the public investments of £9.3bn. Furthermore, the media and environmental associations have expressed several concerns about the environmental sustainability of the regeneration process, especially with regard to the clean-up of the land and the supply of energy centres with non-renewable sources (biogas). As stated by Newlands, this is typical when a ‘brand’ announces the intention to pursue ambitious actions with environmental aims, because they run the risk of being accused of greenwashing.
Currently, the challenge is to implement legacy plan maintaining the focus on sustainability, although the legacy promises to make reference to economic growth and regeneration rather than sustainable development and the economic austerity policies outlined by Conservative party, that threaten the building of the new neighbourhood meeting the environmental standards defined in the pre-event phase.
 Essex S., Chalkley B. 2007, “Mega-events as a strategy for urban regeneration”, Dialoghi Internazionali, n.5, Mondadori, Milan.
 Furrer P. 2002, “Sustainable Olympic Games: dream or a reality?”,Bollettino della Società Geografica Italiana, serie XII, 7, Rome.
 LDA, 2010, “Green Enterprise District, East London”, Report, London.
 Smith A., 2013, “De-risking East London: Olympic Regeneration Planning 2000-2012”, European Planning Studies, London.
 London2012, 2005b, “Towards a One Planet Living: achieving the first sustainable Olympic and Paralympic Games”, London.
 Turner J., Edgar J., 2013, “Sustainability in numbers”, in Journal of Institution of Environmental Sciences, vol. 22.1, London.
 Newlands M., 2010, “Green Britannia: Deconstructing ‘Team Green Britain’ and the London 2012 Olympic Games”, The International Journal of Sport and Society, vol. 1, n.3.
 Sharon Beder coined the term ‘greenwashing’ to describe “public relations efforts to portray an organisation, activity or product as environmentally friendly”, when in reality such organisations are “trying to cover up environmentally and/or socially damaging activities”.