“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.

 
 
 
 

In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 


The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.