The Olympic Games And Neighborhood Development: How Will Residents of London’s East End Fare After The Athletes Have Gone Home?

8.2.12 | Seems like the whole world has Olympic fever this week. My six-year-old was even gripped by the archery competition, though I thought it didn’t compare to Michael Phelps’ 19th Gold Medal.  And even the urban studies blogs are getting into the games with a series of interesting posts about the effects of the Olympics on neighborhood development.

Over at CEO’s For Cities, Catherine Bittar examines the goals of London’s 2012 Olympic Park venues. She unpacks the visions of planners and architects who aimed to use the project to regenerate the parks of East London, and to provide jobs, mixed-use development, and housing to the area. In addition to the sports complex, the city has built shopping malls, parks, and made major improvements to transit infrastructure, including the new Stratford International Station that after the games will connect Stratford to other parts of Europe, becoming a stop for Eurostar trains.

Atlantic Cities has an interesting piece on how London’s air pollution may affect athletes, and an essay by Richard Florida who took a look at the geography of Team USA. By examining the hometowns of America’s athletes as well as where they live now he finds that Team USA does cluster around training facilities, a finding in support of his creative class thesis.

“Mirroring the talent clustering that defines so many other dimensions of economic and social life,” Florida writes, “they [American athletes] also gain from training with, competing against, and being around each other.”

That said, he also acknowledges that the finding runs somewhat counter to a recent piece in The Wall Street Journal about our decentralized system of developing young athletes compared to other countries.

But it’s the piece by Gregg Scruggs at Next American City about the urban development legacy of the Olympics Games and what’s going on in East London that was the most gripping. I’ve never been to London, but the story of the city’s East End is a familiar one to me. Poverty, post-industrial decay, public housing, and years of neglect are some of the issues facing the increasingly diverse population of residents there, where over 100 languages alone are spoken in the Borough of Newham.

But in London today, the story of this neighborhood is taking place in a global context, in a metropolis that is by most counts thriving, despite tough economic times. According to a recent article in The Economist, London has pulled through the recent recession relatively unscathed. Steve Varsano writes:

A city that a generation ago was on the skids has become a place where the world meets to study, work, create, invent, make friends and fall in love. It is Britain’s economic and cultural powerhouse, Europe’s only properly global city and a magnet for rich and poor, from anywhere and everywhere.

Much has been written about the Olympic legacy of neighborhood renewal, too often displacing poor residents to build fancy sports complexes (ask residents of Seoul in 1988 or Beijing in 2008 or residents of Rio de Janeiro who are being pushed out to ready for the 2016 games). In London, as the economist piece points out, labor from immigrants, many of whom live in the East End, have helped drive the city’s  economic success in the global marketplace. And despite the Olympic project’s sustainability development goals, Scruggs asks how these residents will fare when all the athletes have gone home. “Is putting the Olympic Games in their backyard going to solve those inner-city ills overnight?” he asks.

“[W]ill the spillover effect of a mall impact the Indo-Afro-Caribbean-Pakistani mix of bangles, mangos and bindis on Newham’s Green Street, which successfully fought off a chain supermarket to preserve its local market? This is Jane Jacobs activism with a Robert Moses-esque highway looming on the horizon — in the form of an Olympic master plan.”

The full story at Next American City is worth a read.

Photo/ Olympic Park London

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