The potential legacy of the London Olympic Games was a major feature of the original bid, and one of the important elements that contributed to its success. It has been claimed that London’s legacy proposals are receiving more attention in the period before the Games than in any other previous host city, but will the expectations be realised? Although we can learn from previous Games, we can only speculate until after London’s have taken place. However, Andrew Thornley argues that the whole issue of legacy is so vague and difficult to assess that we are never likely to get a clear objective conclusion.

Can legacy be defined  and measured?

There is a long history of cities using the Olympic Games to obtain some lasting physical benefit for their city. The early examples such as Rome (1960) and Tokyo (1964) focused on transport facilities. From around 2000 the International Olympic Committee itself began to get more interested in the impact of the Games on the host cities and has introduced a detailed system of indicators and monitoring. However, the concept of legacy remains extremely vague and encompasses many different aspects. At a broad level, legacy is discussed in terms of how the Games can change the image of a city, or indeed the country, in which it is located. This can be in terms of allowing a city to escape from an image based upon an outdated industrial past (such as Barcelona), or enabling a host to demonstrate its modernity and managerial proficiency (such as Beijing and China). Even so, the success of such an image change will be particularly difficult to quantify in precise terms.

Credit: Andy Wilkes (Creative Commons)

A second dimension of legacy that attracts considerable attention is employment generation. This comprises the short-term jobs in the construction for the Games and the longer-term benefits from changes in economic activity such as tourism. Estimates of the employment impacts of past Games have usually been controversial as they are difficult to determine with accuracy.

Then there is the physical legacy, which can encompass the actual venues and transport facilities as well as the broader notion of area regeneration. In discussing legacy it is therefore necessary to specify what aspects are being included. In this case we will focus on the physical aspects.

It is necessary to acknowledge that there will also be some negative aspects of legacy – sometimes called the “dark side” . These are often ignored and they are particularly difficult to quantify. For example, there is the issue of the concentration of resources on the Olympic site which generally involves a shift away from other potential projects and locations. Sometimes, as in Athens, this can create regional hostilities as development resources are diverted to the Olympic programme. The eviction of existing communities also evokes hostilities and needs to be analysed in the legacy assessment.

Most Games have also been the catalyst for a process of gentrification – either through the use of the Athletes’ village or through the upgraded image of the surrounding area. In many cases this can be regarded as the most prominent physical legacy. This raises the question of value judgements. For some, this legacy would be regarded as an indication of a highly successful urban regeneration impact as the whole area is transformed with higher quality housing and services, while others would see the process in negative terms, focusing on the dislocation of the existing communities. Thus any evaluation of legacy is likely to be partial, only covering certain aspects, inconclusive, due to difficulties of measurement, and value laden.

The Games in broader context

Another difficulty in assessing the Olympic legacy is that putting on the Games takes place within a broader ongoing financial and planning process. There are interactions between this broader process and the Olympic project, and it is difficult to identify the exact impact of the Games as a discrete entity. One of the lessons of past Games is that in nearly all cases the materialisation of the legacy that has been promised depends greatly on the budget conditions. Nearly all Games underestimate costs at the early stage  –  perhaps in the hope of improving the chances of winning the bid or pacifying citizens who may not be happy with high expenditure. Then, as the preparation years progress, increasing financial problems arise. The common approach to at least partially solving this problem is to sell off assets after the Games to the highest bidder. This has again and again meant that promised social and public benefits have not materialised.

Another contextual issue that makes it difficult to assess the extent of the urban regeneration legacy is that some or all of the infrastructure construction and other projects might have occurred regardless of the Olympics. Thus, it can be difficult to isolate the direct impact of the Olympics per se. In some cases, the Olympics can be seen as a way of unlocking an existing plan (Barcelona), but in other cases (Beijing) the state would probably have transformed the area anyway. The difficulty in extracting the impact of the Olympic Games project from the broader urban processes and investment means that any assessment will be approximate and open to interpretation and political influence.

The London case

How many of these issues are likely to arise in London? What do the portents look like at this stage? There have been a number of legacy plans over the last five years alongside many institutional changes. In the official bid document, the legacy aspect focused on the urban regeneration of an impoverished part of East London, the creation of a major new park, and 4,300 housing units inherited from the Athletes’ village.

The London Development Agency then commissioned the Legacy Masterplan Framework to provide more detail, and this was published in 2007. The framework proposed removing many of the venues after the Games but retaining the velodrome, the swimming complex and the main stadium. The last would be reduced in size and continue in use as an athletics venue. The framework also included suggestions to transform the media centre into commercial space, to create a secondary school and sports academy in the main stadium, to open an Olympic University, and to construct primary schools and a further 10,000 homes across the site in addition to recycling the Athletes’ village.

Since then, however, we have had the financial crisis of 2008, a new London mayor, and a new national government with a programme of public sector cuts. The original plan for the Athletes’ village was that it would be built by a private company but that after the Games
50 per cent of the housing would be allocated as “affordable” under the policy of the then-Mayor, Ken Livingstone. But because of the financial crisis the company could not raise money for the development and the government had to underwrite it. The underwriting has been done on the basis that after the Games the housing can be sold on the market to recoup public expenditure. In addition, the new Mayor, Boris Johnson, is not pursuing the affordable housing strategy. Thus London would seem to be following the pattern of past Games in which the promised social legacy becomes lost in the budget calculations.

Meanwhile, the institutional arrangement for the legacy has also been changing. In 2009, a new organisation was set up called the Olympic Park Legacy Company, which is half controlled by central government and half by the Mayor. The new company has been reviewing the Legacy Masterplan Framework; it wants more family housing and is seeking private sector offers for the main stadium. This process saw two bidders for the stadium: West Ham and Tottenham Hotspur. The decision of the Olympic Park Legacy company went to West Ham as they proposed retaining the athletics track. Tottenham are currently appealing this decision. It is also presenting the post-Olympics park as a London-wide attraction and suggesting that it could become a major tourist attraction. Some will detect in all of this a shift in the legacy approach – from one that focuses on public housing and urban renewal to one that focuses on market forces and gentrification.

Boris Johnson, meanwhile, has proposed a new authority to take over the legacy function – the Olympic Park Legacy Company would become the Mayoral Development Corporation, which he would control. He has suggested to central government that this should form part of their decentralisation strategy. One of the key tensions over legacy in the coming years will be between the authority responsible for the legacy of the Olympic site itself, whether the Olympic Park Legacy Company or the Mayoral Development Corporation, and the authorities responsible for the regeneration of the wider area – the councils that run the five host boroughs. The former will be focused on making the most of the assets, while the latter will be more concerned about the impact on the poor communities around the site.

At the end of the day, the urban regeneration of this part of London will have less to do with the Olympics than other plans and decisions that have been taken. The plan to regenerate the area preceded the award of the Olympics bid. The area has undergone a massive change in transport facilities and accessibility, including the Jubilee Line extension, Docklands Light Railway, high-speed rail, and Crossrail. These have had a huge impact on the attractiveness of the area for investment and development. For example, the Stratford City development which gained its planning permission in 2004 – a year before London won the Olympics – has been described as one of the largest development projects in Europe and will include a vast amount of office space and the third largest retail centre in London.

So what can the Olympics add to this transformation? There will of course be the retained venues and the park, but it could be said that its main contribution will be to the process rather than to the actual physical legacy. The Games will have ensured that all the agencies and levels of government worked together and that land acquisition and reclamation were pursued in a speedy fashion. It will also have ensured that the resources continued to flow to the project even against the background of economic crisis and changes in political leadership at both national and London level.

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This article first appeared in the Spring 2011 issue of LSE Research Magazine.

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