Press Release

The Growth of Olympicopolis

It has been a busy week when it comes to announcements about the regeneration of East London. On Wednesday plans for developing the Royal Docks were approved, whilst today further plans for a £3.5bn scheme for the Silvertown Quays site were submitted.

Further north too there has also been significant news – Transport for London has redesignated Stratford a Zone 2 station (something for which Centre for London called earlier this year), cutting commuter fares in a move to bring business east. The intervention is a small one, but indicative of the will at all levels to make a success of the Queen Elizabeth Park and games legacy. Stratford’s future looks promising, but development can only be considered truly successful if it meets the needs of both London as a whole and the local people.

Stratford and the Lower Lea Valley have always had an edgy character, which is not surprising given their history. The Lea was the treaty boundary between Danes and English in the 9th Century, and remained – slightly less dramatically – the eastern edge of London until the borough re-organisation of 1965.  This perception of the Valley as a place on the margins has persisted. Before the bulldozers moved in to prepare for 2012, the Valley was an impenetrable lost world of canals, carbreakers, goods yards and allotments. When I was working at London Legacy Development Corporation in the run-up to the Olympics, you could guarantee that pretty well any visitor from central London would be 10 or 15 minutes early for a meeting. Stratford was a lot nearer than people realised.

The recent rush of investors and businesses to East London shows how much has already changed. The Financial Conduct Authority and Transport for London have announced plans to move into The International Quarter, alongside Westfield shopping centre. And the rezoning announcement came alongside the launch of a design competition for the Mayor’s ‘Olympicopolis’ plans, which propose a new cultural and educational sector comprising the Victoria and Albert Museum, University College London, Sadlers Wells and, according to this week’s reports, the Smithsonian (USA’s national museum).

Olympicopolis is intended to encapsulate and push a dramatic uplift in ambition for the Olympic Park legacy, compared to the pre-2012 plans, which were essentially based on building housing alongside the retained sporting venues and parkland. In the afterglow of the successful 2012 Games, leisure, cultural and commercial investors suddenly started showing an interest.

But rather than reactively accepting the first credible proposal that came in, the Mayor looked westwards and backwards for inspiration – to the network of educational and cultural institutions on Exhibition Road, which includes Imperial College, the royal colleges of Art and Music, the Royal Albert Hall, and the V&A, Science and Natural History museums. These were all built in the late 19th Century on the site of the Great Exhibition of 1851, a celebration of the high tech of its day led by Queen Victoria’s consort Prince Albert – hence the ‘Albertopolis’ tag picked up by the Mayor and awkwardly transferred to ‘Olympicopolis’.

Since the Mayor and the Legacy Corporation began promoting the project a year ago, enthusiasm has snowballed, not least after the Chancellor pledged support in the Autumn Statement. The Mayor sees the project as a way of creating a dramatic shift of image for East London, a magnet for new investment (particularly in the knowledge-intensive industries that flourish around universities and cultural institutions), and a tangible civic legacy to match the sporting legacy of the venues in Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park.

Making Olympicopolis happen will require investment by Government, as well as further fundraising, but the signs are encouraging. The challenge will be making sure that the opportunity really does make a difference for East London, rather than building an island of excellence that leave its surroundings unchanged. Three areas will be critical.

Firstly, the Legacy Corporation and their partners (both the new institutions and the local boroughs) will need to make sure that the new developments dovetail with East London’s economic, political and social landscape, transforming the area through enhancing and connecting with what is there, not sweeping it away. The area may lack West London’s rich mix of major cultural institutions, but the V&A will find, in Hackney Wick, one of London’s liveliest cultural districts, with hundreds of artists’ studios sandwiched between the Lea Navigation Canal and the A12. Similarly, the area has a growing profile in higher education, with Queen Mary University of London and University of East London recently joined by Birkbeck and – from 2016 – by Loughborough University’s London outpost.

Olympicopolis should also set a new benchmark for the quality of development in East London. For too long the area has been dogged by the architecture and planning of low aspiration – what a colleague of mine once described as a “somebody fancies me; let’s get married at once!” attitude. East London must go beyond making something happen, to make the right thing happen, if it is to fulfil its potential. Coincidentally, the same week as the Mayor’s latest announcements, planning permission was granted for a new commercial centre in the Royal Docks, and plans unveiled for a further phase of development, albeit both triggered as much by the imminent arrival of Crossrail as by the Stratford effect. If these proposals create the high quality urban environments that they promise, the faltering progress of the redevelopment the Royal Docks, which closed in 1981, will have been worthwhile.

Finally, sustained work and investment will be needed to make sure that as many local people as possible will be able to access 10,000 jobs forecast from Olympicopolis (including knock-on impacts for local businesses as well as jobs in the new institutions themselves). The first phase of East London’s reinvention – the redevelopment of Docklands – was criticised for its uneven and limited impact on some of the most deprived communities in the UK. The financial services jobs that migrated to Docklands were not occupied by the people already living in Poplar, Bow, Canning Town or Woolwich; the bankers, brokers, lawyers and journalists who filled the new towers continued to commute in from the richer southern and western boroughs.

Again, there are positive portents; the Legacy Corporation’s programme for construction apprenticeships has worked well, albeit with small numbers, and local employment in operating the legacy venues is high. In addition, London is facing skills shortages in creative and cultural businesses, so growth in this area presents an opportunity – to link local young people with the jobs that will be created on their doorstep. Centre for London has looked at how these issues can be tackled for digital industries (Connecting Tech City, 2014), and we are exploring a similar project for creative industries.

Planning needs to start now to give local young people the skills they need to become Olympicopolis curators, researchers, lab assistants, lecturers and gallery attendants in 2020. Perhaps their first task will be to find a better name…