“What is legacy? Can it even be measured?” On the failings of London’s Olympic Stadium

The day after: work begins to clear the London Olympic Park after the Paralympic Games, September 2012. Image: Getty.

The recent publication of consultancy Moore Stephens’ report into London’s Olympic Stadium has reasserted the importance of the concept of legacy in London’s post-Olympic landscape.

In 169 pages, the report meticulously outlines the various failings in the conversion of the London Stadium from an Olympic venue to West Ham United FC’s Premier-League new home. A sizeable proportion reads as a direct criticism of mayor Sadiq Khan’s predecessor, Boris Johnson, and his questionable decisions about the bidding process to occupy the stadium.

When West Ham were awarded tenancy in the London Stadium (for the second time), it was championed as a great success by organisers who had secured a legacy for the iconic venue. However, we seem to have reached a rather embarrassing point in this ‘secured legacy’. Its publicly owned operator, E20, is losing money with each game played; and West Ham have been granted a very favourable deal at the expense of the British taxpayer. As well as this, West Ham’s first season was marred by fan violence, security issues, and poor performances on the pitch. While this may not officially be a white elephant, it is at least a claret-and-blue one.

The recent revelations concerning the London Stadium have brought the broader problems of Olympic legacy into sharp focus. What is legacy? Can it be measured? Whose legacy are we talking about it? Who is entitled to claim the success or failure of legacy?

From the get-go, the London 2012 bid was oriented around this notion of legacy, and although the promises were subtly realigned over the years, two pillars stood firm throughout. First, was to encourage and increase participation in sport. Second, was the widespread regeneration of a previously “under-developed”, post-industrial part of east London, Stratford.

London’s success in winning the bid over competitors such as Paris lay in its optimistic teleology. Put simply, it explained, legitimated, and planned the 16-day spectacle as a function of its legacy. London was adamant that it would not repeat the failures of preceding games. It would not become a desolate wasteland littered with white elephants, but instead would become a “new piece of the city” stitched into its regenerating surroundings.

Legacy is an immensely powerful concept in Olympic urbanism, but is also incredibly vague. Both its breadth and its haziness explain its allure. It offers up visions of a future city, yet sits uncomfortably with the rest of the Olympic project.


Olympic time is characterised by a rigid linearity. The achievements of its athletes are measured against the clock, all events take place within a 16-day period, and the games run in cycles of four years. So a tension exists between the ephemerality of the games themselves, and the permanence of their effects. The pre-game phase is characterised by planning, deadlines, and most importantly, the date of the opening ceremony. Time is a fixed entity with an immovable end point. The most important consideration for the host city is to deliver the games on time. Compare this to after the games have moved on, where time exists in a much more fluid and uncertain way.

There are also interesting differences between “legacy” and “impact”. Whilst impacts are generally short-term and measurable, legacy is framed as a longer-term issue. The Olympics clearly have impacts on the city, but legacy is an abstract idea, a discourse used to justify hosting the Games.

In 2007, the Greater London Authority named its five legacy promises: increasing opportunities for Londoners to become involved in sport; ensuring Londoners benefit from new jobs, businesses and volunteering opportunities; transforming the heart of East London; delivering a sustainable games and developing sustainable communities; and, showcasing London as a diverse, creative and welcoming city.

Taking the third of these promises – transforming the heart of East London – it becomes clear how vague legacy is. That statement begs a number of questions. What does transformation mean, and how is it measured? Where is the heart of east London? Who decides how east London is spatially defined?

Or, take “developing sustainable communities”. What does a sustainable community mean? Does this imply that previous communities were unsustainable? What does this say about how local people are viewed in relation to the construction of the Olympic spectacle?

The vision: an artist’s imrpession of the London Olympic Park, before construction began. Image: London 2012.

How, then, should we begin to analyse or interpret London’s Olympic legacy? Can legacy ever be achieved and come to an end? If so, when can it be fairly interpreted? Considering the London Stadium as either a successful securing of legacy, or as a pyrrhic victory in the battle against white elephant-ism, nevertheless assumes a fixed point in time. Even if at this specific moment the London Stadium seems to be an embarrassment of failings, this situation may change now it has been taken back under mayoral control.

Any discussion of London’s urban Olympic legacy must consider that it does not exist in a vacuum, but must be contextualised by broader urban histories and contexts. Outcomes and impacts linked to processes beyond the Games become classified as purely Olympic-led urban phenomenon, massively simplifying the ways in which urban space develops.

Because legacy is such a multifaceted concept, how can it be fairly unpacked and re-assembled to make an informed decision about whether hosting the Olympics was “worth it”? Is it even possible to measure legacy?

So should the overall legacy of the games be judged on the recent stadium report? Or should it be measured in line with the stadium’s recent Instagram post, celebrating the fact that the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park is the UK’s fourth-most instagrammed sports location this year? Sadly, the latter increasingly seems like a desirable metric by which urban regeneration schemes should be assessed.

While legacy was originally championed to get hesitant members of the public onside and promise them vague visions of a future over which they have now control, legacy discourse now serves to legitimate significant decisions and smooth-over failures in planning large-scale urban regeneration projects.

So far, if 2012 has taught us anything about Olympic legacy, perhaps it is how flawed the idea of promising legacy is. What begins as a vague discourse inevitably becomes transformed by political cycles, and in this instance, the 2008 financial crash and subsequent years of austerity.

Despite the problematic nature of this legacy discourse, this does not mean that east London would have been better off had it not hosted the Games. However, regeneration could certainly have been managed far better to channel the benefits of Olympic urbanism to those impacted most by the games.

This positive-negative legacy dynamic pervades most areas of Olympic urbanism, and makes it very difficult to decide whether hosting the Olympics is positive or negative for cities. All in all, the opaque nature of Olympic legacy adds to its mythic nature and enduring urban appeal.

Benedict Vigers is a postgraduate student at the University of Cambridge, currently studying an MPhil in architecture & urban studies.

 
 
 
 

A warped mirror: on gentrification and deprivation on London’s Caledonian Road

The London Overground crosses Caledonian Road. Image: Claude Lynch.

Capital cities are, more often than not, a focal point for the stark divide between rich and poor – places where the most economically deprived meet the most economically empowered. In London, these divides can be more than stark: they can be close, even intimate, and there are districts where crossing the street can be like entering a different world. One such street is the Caledonian Road.

Known local as “the Cally”, Caledonian Road runs for about a mile and a half, from Kings Cross to the Nags Head junction in Holloway, and was built in 1826 to provide a new arterial route to the north from the West End. At first, developments on the road were sparse; among the first notable buildings were the Royal Caledonian Asylum, which gave the road its name, and H.M. Prison Pentonville.

For some time, the northern half of the road was seen as far removed from central London, which stymied development. It wasn’t until the latter half of the 19th century residential development really got going. By the time Caledonian Road station opened on the Piccadilly line in 1906, the area was flush with Victorian terraces.

These, though, mainly lay on the eastern side. To the west, the proximity of King’s Cross prompted the development of heavy industry, particularly the clay kilns that were helping to build Victorian London proper. The divide had begun:  the east side of the street, the area known as Barnsbury, was notably quieter and calmer than the west side. Ever since the 19th century, the ‘V’ formed by Caledonian Road and York Way has been known for a high incidence of gang violence and social problems.

As in many parts of London, the end of the Second World War brought a chance to start from scratch. Many of the slums to the west of the Cally had been bombed to smithereens, and those that remained still lacked gas and hot water.

But this was the era of municipal dreams: Islington council cleared the slums and constructed the Bemerton Estate. Instead of reflecting the industrial history of the area, the estate reflected Barnsbury back at itself, treating Caledonian Road as some sort of warped modernist mirror. The square gardens of Barnsbury were reimagined as the spaces between the highrises of Bemerton, and this time, they were actually square.

The estate was immediately popular, its open design prompting a renewed sense of community in the west. But it didn’t last.

Square gardens on one side, not-so-square on the other. Image: Google Maps/CityMetric

As far back as the 1950s, Islington had already become synonymous with gentrification. Forty years later, before moving to Downing Street, Tony Blair’s London residence was Barnsbury’s leafy Richmond Crescent. House prices in the area have gone through the roof and now Barnsbury is mainly home to a the professional elite.


At the same time, though, Caledonian Road’s warped mirror has given Bemerton the exact opposite: in spite of attempts to rejuvenate it, downward spiral of deprivation and antisocial behaviour have blighted the estate for some time The promise of inviting square gardens and communal living has been inhibited by crime and poverty; the gardens lie empty, while those in Barnsbury thrive.

The disparity of wealth across Caledonian Road is regrettable. That’s not just because it speaks to a wider segregation of London’s rich and poor – a phenomenon exemplified last year by the Grenfell Tower fire in Kensington & Chelsea, the richest borough in Britain. It’s also because, in the Bemerton Estate, planners had thought they saw an opportunity to offer more Londoners the idyll of square gardens and leafy streets, often reserved for the richest.

It might be too much to claim the estate as a failure; events such as the Cally Festival aim to bring together both sides of the road, while other council programmes such as Islington Reads help to foster a greater sense of neighbourhood.

Road should never divide us; rather, they should unite those who live on either side. The spirit of Caledonian Road should cross the gap – just like the railway bridge that bears its name.