a landscape lover's blog

garden tales from a Brit at home and abroad

The London Olympic Park

The start of the World Cup tomorrow has been overshadowed by concerns about the readiness of the infrastructure, and hostility from many Brazilians to their government spending so much money on sport, rather than healthcare or public transport. Even bigger problems lurk for the 2016 Olympics, due to take place in the same country.

The costs and benefits of hosting such events are controversial. Beforehand, governments will claim long-term advantages for their citizens from being host. Afterwards, legacy arrangements are often disappointing. Here in Delhi, the 2010 Commonwealth Games brought mixed benefits, with the wonderful new metro system probably its lasting success. The ruthless eviction of slum-dwellers in places likely to be seen by visitors was a less appealing aspect of Delhi’s role as host. And four years later the stadiums themselves now sit largely unused and falling into disrepair.

So it was interesting earlier this summer to visit the newly reopened site of the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games in East London, and see how far it had been adapted for the long-term benefit of Londoners. Before it was chosen for the Olympics, the site was an industrial part of the Lower Lea Valley. It was characterful and much-loved, or bleak and noisome, depending on whose view you seek.

Pre-Olympic Lower Lea Valley, photograph from the Guardian

Pre-Olympic Lower Lea Valley, photograph from the The Guardian

There are more photographs here of the area in its pre-Olympic days.

Now named the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, the site is costing about £300m to convert from its short-term stint as a Games venue into a “new piece of London.”

The new park is  at the centre of a splendid array of public transport links, with rail, tube and bus complemented by cycle paths, pedestrian walkways, coach and car parks. Unsurprisingly then, it was packed when we visited during the Easter holidays. Around 50,000 people were apparently at the park during its opening weekend.

Although it is enormous (about 250 hectares), the park is surprisingly difficult to find from the nearest train/tube station, at Stratford. In fact you have to walk though the adjacent shopping centre (taking an escalator up and “bearing left past the Cow pub,” according to the park’s website). Once at the park, signage is plentiful but some of it is out-of-date and all is in need of some clear “You are Here” stickers to help people navigate their way around.

Olympic Park17

Other people are better placed than I am to comment on the planned re-use of the various stadiums and other venues. The park itself has been developed by big names such as Dutch master plantsman Piet Oudolf and US firm James Corner Field Operations (probably best known for their work on New York’s High Line). It is divided into various areas, from the more touristy features of the southern end, including the mad ArcelorMittal Orbit sculpture, to the meadows and wetlands further north.

Olympic Park04 Olympic Park18 Olympic Park26

The quality of much of the work is apparent, with beautiful high-end benches and a mass of well-designed pathways and fences.

Olympic Park05 Olympic Park20

The wonderfully inventive playgrounds are a real feature. These have clearly been designed with kids’ wishes foremost – featuring much sand, water, climbing and risk-taking, and very little that is staid or controlled.

The planting is generally excellent, creating distinct characters for various parts of the park. There are swathes of large pine and birch trees (although perhaps too many Betula pendula) with interesting ground cover, large patches of rough meadowland, and beds of fancy grasses and bold perennials.

Olympic Park09 Olympic Park16 Olympic Park19 Olympic Park13

Some of the areas are only recently planted and it is too soon to judge how they will fare, while others were suffering from (hopefully) temporary overflows from the kids’ water play.

Olympic Park23Less successful were the central walkways, which were dauntingly wide and very exposed, especially in hot weather.

Olympic Park15I was also sad to see no obvious reference to the area’s previous industrial past. It feels like a brand new place, sprung fully-formed from the earth.

Much more development is planned around the site in the next few years, including office space and apartment blocks. For the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park itself, currently new and rather splendid, the key of course will be whether sufficient funds and expertise are allocated to its future maintenance. It will be fascinating to see how it fares, and if all that legacy work really does produce a new and sustainable piece of London.


2 comments on “The London Olympic Park

  1. Jardin
    June 11, 2014

    A really informative tour. It’s going to be interesting to see how the planting, and the park’s usage, develops.

  2. Patterson Webster
    June 11, 2014

    I agree with ‘jardin.’ The post was very informative, much more so than other pieces I’ve seen recently.

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