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State of the Legacy Conference: Interrogating a Decade of 'Olympic Regeneration'

Updated: Sep 1, 2023

On the 12-13th September, the Bartlett’s Institute for Global Prosperity (IGP) and UCL Urban Laboratory, in collaboration with the University of East London, Cardiff University (Welsh School of Architecture) and Oxford Brookes University hosted the ‘State of the Legacy Conference’ at UCL at Here East and Timber Lodge. The Conference, which was free and open to the public, assessed the past decade of the Olympic and Paralympic Legacy including the impact of regeneration with insightful presentations and panel discussions.


Day 1

The conference started with a ‘Question Time’ event hosted at Timber Lodge and attended by community groups and university researchers. It was great to see the passion from the audience members who posed challenging questions to the speakers: Mayor Rokhsana Fiaz (London Borough of Newham); Mayor Philip Glanville (London Borough of Hackney); Jake Heitland (Lendlease), Chris Paddock (PRD) and Caroline Rouse (Compost London). The questions followed a presentation by Chris Paddock on the economic performance of the six Olympic Growth boroughs (Barking and Dagenham, Greenwich, Hackney, Newham, Tower Hamlets, and Waltham Forest) from the Strategic Regeneration Framework. From a borough level, growth, employment, educational attainment had improved and had either converged or exceeded the London average. However, low-paid work had risen by 8% since 2015 and net incomes after housing costs was still below the London average. Equally, on social and health metrics, life satisfaction had declined, while childhood obesity and mental health had worsened over time.



Image: Citizen social scientists Twinkle Jay and Terry Regan


Furthermore, another important finding was how large population growth could distort the average figures, and this was evidenced by the fact that the growth borough population had risen over time, but certain economic indicators had declined. This raised the question as to whether prosperity around the Olympic Park is imported. By this we mean whether the improvements in the economic performance are down to genuine improvements or due to the influx of more affluent people into the area.


One conclusion from this session was the evidential misalignment between the Strategic Regeneration Framework data on convergence of the growth boroughs to the London averages, to the everyday lived experiences of local people and communities. The notion of ‘imported prosperity’ resonated with many in the room, in the sense that more affluent people were reaping the benefits of regeneration instead of the local community. There was also an acknowledgement by the panel that the traditional development models based commonly on the idea of “trickle-down” does not work. and that we needed to pursue a different framework, especially due to the ever-changing nature of the economy and transition to net-zero. This has been noticeable in our research in east London and also in Camden as part of the Good Life Euston project. where many people felt that developments and regeneration were not targeted for them or had not considered their local needs or priorities.


The main conference was hosted at UCL at Here East with the first session on ‘Looking Back: Evolution of the Legacy Promise’. Professor Sue Brownill (Oxford Brookes University) and Dr Anna Minton (University of East London) highlighted the major socio-political changes and waves of regeneration across history, principally the rise of a global neoliberal economic regime characterised by Thatcher-era economics in the UK, that gave rise to a drastic shift in planning priorities away from public-led urban development towards practice-led models. Within this model, mega-events like the London Olympics, offered a key development tool based on what they argued to be the erroneous and damaging assumption that prosperity will somehow “trickle-down” to the marginalised masses.


The remarks made by Liz Fenton (UrbanIQ) and Roger Taylor (former Director, Olympic Host Boroughs Unit) about the need for longitudinal studies of regeneration impact, and the lack of appropriate tools to do this were particularly important provocations. This ties in to the work that the IGP is currently undertaking with the Prosperity in east London Longitudinal Study (PieL). From 2021 to 2031, the IGP will track individual self-reported prosperity metrics in 13 post-industrial neighbourhoods in east London (subject to rapid economic and social transformation driven by the regeneration of London's Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park).

The longitudinal study is based on the methodology and research from IGP’s citizen-led Prosperity Index – a 15-factor metric of prosperity based on extensive citizen science research with local communities. The 10-year study aims to provide a long-term assessment of how ‘prosperity gains and losses’ from the regeneration of the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park and it’s surrounding neighbourhoods are distributed across the intersecting lines of class, race, gender and neighbourhood. The importance of highlighting racial and class-based inequalities, as well as a willingness to acknowledge major community losses, was consistently emphasised by community members who responded to the speakers during Session 1.


In Session 3, one of the most important topics in ‘affordable housing’ was discussed. Dr Nick Sharman (Design Council, Hackney Council Representative: LLDC Planning Decisions Committee) highlighted systemic issues that led to a dearth of genuinely affordable, liveable, suitable housing and referenced how private-led development dominated public-led development while there was a democratic deficit

in the sense that communities were not involved in planning processes. It was also interesting to hear Dr Paul Watt’s perspective on the convergence that occurred in rent prices and house prices that exacerbated issues of affordability. The availability of secure and affordable housing is a critical component of our model of livelihood security which came about from the Prosperity Index research in areas of east London.


Professor Paul Watt (Birkbeck, University of London) spoke about the gentrification index in the afternoon session which looked at the housing legacy of the Games. Citing a project by Runnymede Trust published in June 2021 that undertakes a quantitative analysis of gentrification in some London boroughs, there appears to be a distinct absence of local priorities in this analysis. This resonates with some of the provocations made by Prof Watt who stated how many residents felt that the gentrification wasn’t for them and in particular young residents in east London initially felt excited about the Olympic games and the regeneration opportunities it promised. However, much of the housing built was targeted at high-income working professionals and priced far above their means.

The final session looked at employment, jobs, workspaces and training as well as wider issues pertaining to displacement.


Day 2

On the second day of the conference, our attention was turned to a community’s-eye-view of the Olympic Legacy. In presentations, responses and conversations, speakers and conference participants generally coalesced around a shared sense of Legacy failure. Paul Dudman and Mona Matharu (University of East London), who gave the first presentation of the day, succinctly demonstrated this through contrasting quotes and images of official versus community narratives in the London Olympic archives. Where the former centred on sporting triumph and regeneration success, the latter centred on unaffordable housing and limited support for local business & communities. Dr Mara Ferreri (Northumbria University) and Dr Kim Trogal (University for the Creative Arts) echoed this sense of Legacy failure in their thought-provoking ethnographic research on the mental and physical exclusion of communities from the park – a deeper symbol of how private-led regeneration inevitably leads to community exclusion. They detailed how material acts like fencing off the area, constant park surveillance and bizarre regulations imposed by the park’s private developers – the LLDC, effectively rendered the park a “private-public park”.


Echoing Dudman and Matharu’s commitment to rebalancing the Olympic archives in greater favour of community narratives, Graeme Evans & Ozlem Edizel emphasised the importance of holding space for community voices through Participatory Action & Arts research. Their examples of community mapping, infrastructural co-design and intergenerational knowledge exchange with communities around the Olympic Park offered glimmers of the positive possibilities offered by a different approach to research and planning. Dr Flaminia Ronca’s (University College London) presentation on UCL Sport East’s existing and upcoming plans for community-engaged sports research, education, and service development, provide further hope of a different research model. The IGP’s Citizen Science Academy, a newly-launched initiative to deliver practice-led and community-based education, training, and recognition for citizen science – an approach which aims to redress traditional power imbalances in knowledge production by enabling citizens to lead research, offers another instance of a more democratic approach to research.


Through the lived experiences and intimate voices of community members, the following session - “Connectedness: Thriving Communities”, offered a clear demonstration of this approach’s merits. Luke Billingham (Hackney Quest), in his heartfelt reflection on growing up and working with young people in east London, laid bare the poverty, powerlessness, pain and pressure that have been the true Olympics legacies –unaffordable housing, schools asking parents for donations to afford writing paper, 48% of children growing up in poverty in Hackney, and, over half in Tower Hamlets. Twinkle John and Terry Regan, pioneering graduates of the IGP’s Citizen Science Academy and dedicated citizen social scientists working on the Prosperity in east London 2021-2031 Longitudinal Study, further emphasises the economic, social and sporting failures of the legacy as seen in the daily struggles and realities of their community – increasing child obesity, poor investment in school sport, more people accessing food banks, volunteers being treated like extra labour, locals being priced out of their homes and shops. Dr Farjana Islam (Heriot-Watt University) traces the disproportionate burden of such painful realities on the lives of racialised groups and women. In particular, she demonstrated the participation gap between BAME and non-BAME residents using Arnstein’s ladder of empowerment, with BAME residents having no real access to participation post-Olympics and non-BAME residents at least being involved in tokenistic consultation, in part due to inequalities in digital literacy and linguistic barriers.


In the final session of the conference and the subsequent Inclusive Housing workshop, community perspectives of loss, memory and failed promises were intermingled with hopeful projects of community creation – a poignant reminder of the resilience and agency of communities. Dr Emma Dwyer’s (Museum of London Archaeology) research on pylons as alternative heritage landscapes within the Olympic area, and her exploration of community-led projects to re-imagine their relationship with these, spoke to the constant making of history, identity and heritage. Dr Phil Cohen (Livingmaps Network) extends this idea in his examination of the layered and living histories that make up the Olympic Park – regeneration trauma from unfulfilled legacy promises, WW2 bomb material and relics of industrial degradation, intertwined with ongoing projects in memory-making and commemoration by builders of the Park or nostalgic members of the community. These threads of loss and commemoration, disappointment and hope were similarly echoed in Dr Joy White’s (University of Bedfordshire) examination of the violence endured by young black people in east London and their sonic resilience, resistance and creativity in the form of Grime and Drill music – a theme that Büşra Turan Tüylüoğlu (Istanbul University/Royal Holloway University) echoed in her research on cultural creativity in Waltham Forest.


In the final set of presentations by Rachel Bentley (Centre for Local Economic Strategies), Oliver Bulleid (London Community Land Trust), Paul Regan (Applecartlive), Focus E15, Prof Paul Watt, Dr Anna Minton, Alex Gilbert (Hackney Wick and Fish Island Community Development Trust), and Dr Eduardo Alberto Cusce Nobre (University of Sao Paolo), we were reminded of the power of community activism and the need to support collective organisation. No better way to wrap up this message of community power, than with the day’s closing activity – an invitation for community members, activist groups, community housing organisations, and researchers present at the conference to think together, pen down and share what housing inclusion meant to them and what it should look like. As Paulo Freire reminds us in the Pedagogy of the Oppressed, “Knowledge emerges only through invention and re-invention, through the restless, impatient, continuing, hopeful inquiry human beings pursue in the world, with the world, and with each other.”

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