The London 2012 Olympics; landscape as a driver of urban regeneration in the Lower Lea Valley.
Natalia Roussou, Architect NTUA, Landscape Architect ΕΤΗ Zurich

In the 1950’s, theatre director Joan Littlewood and architect Cedric Price in an attempt to re-invent the 18th-century Vauxhall Gardens promenade imagine the “Fun Palace”, a model of radical principles in architecture, mobility, openness and public participation in the Lower Lea Valley in London. This “People’s playground” was never realised but some 60 years later the same place is transformed under the umbrella of another major event; the 2012 London Olympics. A six weeks event initiates an urban regeneration process. The landscape that was central to the 2012 Games’ experience has been the driving force in this process becoming the flesh and bones of what is described as the Olympic Legacy for the future generations.

The Lower Lea Valley, formed by strips of common land, canals and marshes was at first a market garden valley and then an industrial area characterised by mills, railways, allotments, and warehouses. Major infrastructure corridors and waterways have severed the site from its surroundings while widely different activities and uses shaped it throughout the years. When London wins the Olympic bid in 2005 the transformation of the site starts with a rather demanding program that is however bringing Landscape Architecture to the forefront of the process.

Remediation of ground and water are critical for this site. Heavily contaminated soil and polluted water are treated in the largest ever soil washing operation in the UK. Re-profiling of the riverbanks and the creation of a naturalised ecosystem of wetlands and riparian vegetation distil new life to the river Lea which was locally reduced to an engineered channel over the past decades. Alongside these, 6200 trees, 9.500 Shrubs and long swathes of wildflower meadows deliver major biodiversity enhancements with the whole proposal managing to restore an ecological network that had long disappeared from the area. At the same time a series of footpaths, boardwalks, bridges, seating areas intertwined with the mosaic of habitats deliver a unique experience for visitors and make it a unique place for both people and wildlife.

Landscape is a dynamic entity constantly changing through natural and manmade processes. These are inscribed as layers on the landscape, accumulating over time and relying upon the future generations to reveal them. The dual nature of the landscape makes it a catalyst for regeneration initiatives and new developments. In the Lower Lea valley, the 2012 Olympics managed to re-activate dormant ecosystems and create major nature conservation value, but instead of revealing the site’s layers of history, they covered it with a pristine “green blanket”. Programmatic requirements for such an event together with the desire to offer a new narrative as the canvas for future development proposals can probably justify this approach. At the same time a series of fringe projects instigated by the Olympics, assume the vital role of stitching the Olympic park to its context while showcasing the rich history of the place.

The regeneration process in the Lower Lea Valley capitalises on the landscape as the juxtaposition of the Olympic legacy and the individual satellite projects. The fence, raised in 2006 to isolate the 300 hectares of the Olympic Park, will fall again in 2014 after having removed a large part of the stadiums and ephemeral constructions and completed the Legacy Park. Only then will one be able to assess whether the operation was successful and if the "new member" can be absorbed into the urban fabric and in return revitalise it. The landscape in this sense becomes a driver of urban regeneration extending to the past and the future by means of its present active interpretation by the people that form part of it.


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Allies and Morrison
Atkins global
London Legacy Development Corporation
Lower Lea Valley: Opportunity area planning framework

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Aerial view at the confluence of the Lea and Thames. Credit
Lea river, view from Three Mills Green towards Twelvetrees crescent, 2008. Credit: Natalia Roussou
Lea river at Bromley by Bow, 2008. Credit: Natalia Roussou
Traces of history and natural processes in the Lower Lea Valley, south of the Olympic Park, mapping 2008. Credit: Natalia Roussou
Allies Morrison, London 2012 and legacy. Credit:
View of the Olympic Park, London 2012. Credit: Tibor Varga
New wetlands on the river Lea, London 2012. Credit: Tibor Varga
Routes through swathes of planting in the Olympic Park, London 2012. Credit: Tibor Varga
Riparian vegetation along the river Lea, London 2012. Credit: Kevin Radford
The golden meadow in front of the Olympic Stadium, London 2012. Credit: Kevin Radford