For the first time since the five-ringed circus left town, I went for a run around the Olympic ‘park’ recently. I followed a route I’ve used for years, to get a feeling for how things have changed and what tangible improvements might be left behind. In the period leading up to the Games I got used to my running progress being interrupted and diverted while an area I’ve known all my life was dug up. One year on, I had a feeling similar to that I imagine is experienced by parents returning home after a party has been announced on Facebook. As ever (for how long do we have to add this?) the ‘work in progress’ caveat has to be made, but what I saw confirmed some of my worst fears about how vast sums of public money have been misspent on the Houstonisation of Stratford.
Approaching the Olympic stadium from the west, along the ‘Greenway’ (actually the Beckton outflow sewer, but I can see that ‘Brownway’ isn’t a great name) I’m still filled with a sense of disappointment with the nondescript design of a reputedly ‘iconic’ building and irritation that what used to be a continuous three-mile footpath is now amputated by the ‘View Tube’. The view from the tube now consists mostly of bulldozers deconstructing elements of the 2012 facilities. The handball and basketball arenas have already been reduced to steel skeletons and the banked seating is being removed from the ‘Aquatic Centre’ (AKA swimming pool) – to fully reveal what I do think is a lovely piece of architecture, but design aesthetics aren’t really the point. In my naivety, I had imagined the athletics warm up area being kept because a place for Usain Bolt to stretch is a state-of-the-art running track for school kids from Tower Hamlets and Newham and much more useful for school sports than an empty 80,000 seat stadium. Instead, this site, like many others, is being cleared, levelled and tied in a bow for private property developers, at public expense.
The shape of things to come is evident in the road to nowhere landscape around the Westfield shopping centre where the car rules and pedestrians (and, ironically, runners) are literally, pushed to the edge. A haphazard forest of banal apartment blocks has grown like Japanese knot-weed between the cracks of corporate pleasuredomes that now obfuscate a working class neighbourhood. In an area with a desperate shortage of affordable housing, these soulless dormitories are no place like home. Apparently we’ll have to wait for at least another year before the much vaunted first London park in a century is opened. It remains to be seen how circumscribed and conditional this ‘public space’ is, but I’ve got my own legacy yard-stick. There’s a stretch of the river Lea that in my memory, has always been closed off to pedestrians and was effectively a drain for the industrial uses that used to line the river banks. For a brief moment, when nothing was too much trouble for the Games Masters, a walkway was opened up that offered a new stretch for car-free walking/running, linking Stratford to Leyton and Homerton. I wondered if this promise had been fulfiled. No. The path runs for about twenty yards before coming to a an abrupt, overgrown, halt. It’s not in a glamour zone, it doesn’t lead to a shop, I doubt if Seb Coe even knows it exists, but if something as humble as a new riverside walk in a spatial backwater had grown from the Olympic magic beans, I’d have had to eat some of my words. Instead, running around the Olympic (Car) Park reminds me increasingly of Houston, the most dehumanised urban wasteland I’ve ever seen.