“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.

 
 
 
 

How spurious imperial science affected the layout of African cities

Freetown, Sierra Leone. Image: David Hond/Freetown From The Air/Wikimedia Commons.

As the European powers spread across the world, systematically colonising it as they went, one of the deadliest enemies they faced was disease. In 1850s India, one in twenty British soldiers were dying from such diseases – on a par with British Empire casualty rates during World War II.

When Europeans started dropping dead the minute they got off the boat, the scientists of the day rushed to provide their own, at times fairly dodgy, solutions. This era coincided with a key period of city planning in the African colonies – meaning that there is still visible evidence of this shoddy science in the cityscape of many modern African cities.
For a long time altitude was considered a protection against disease, on the grounds that it was far from the lowland heat associated with putrefaction. British officials in India retreated to the ‘hill stations’ during the warm season; this practice continued in the African colonies established by all sorts of European powers in the late 19th century.

So it was that one bunch of imperialists established the capital of German Kamerun at Buea, high on the side of Mount Cameroon. The city still has a population of 90,000 today. Evidence of this height fetish can still be found in the ‘Plateau’ districts of Brazzaville, Dakar and Abidjan as well as the ‘Ridge’ district of Accra.


Malaria, particularly, was an ever present fear in the colonies, and it did much to shape the colonial cities. It’s a sign of the extent to which 19th century medical science misunderstood how the disease was spread that its name comes from the French for ‘bad air’. By the late 19th century, knowledge had managed to progress far enough to identify mosquitoes as the culprits – but views still wildly diverged about the appropriate response.

One solution popular in many empires was segregation. The Europeans had incorrectly identified Africans as the main carriers of the disease; African children under five were believed to be the main source of malaria so they were to be kept far away from the colonists at all times.

And so, many powers decided that the European settlers should be housed in their own separate areas. (Of course, this wrong headed but at least rational response wasn’t the whole explanation: often, sanitary concerns were used to veil simple racial chauvinism.)

The affluent Hill Station – a name reminiscent of the Indian colonies – in Freetown, Sierra Leone was built as a segregated suburb so Europeans could keep well clear of the local children. Today, it’s where the home of the president can be found. Yet despite all this expensive shuffling of Freetown’s urban landscape, inhabitants of Hill Station came down with malaria at about the same as those who lived elsewhere.

 

The Uganda Golf Course, Kampala. Image: Google Maps.

In Kampala, Uganga, a golf course now occupies the land designated by the British powers to protect the European neighbourhood from the African. A similar appropriation can be seen in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of The Congo, where a zoo, botanical garden and another golf course can be found the land earmarked for protecting colonial officials and their families.

All this urban juggling was the privilege of immensely powerful colonial officials, backed up by the military might of the imperial powers. The indigenous peoples could do little but watch as their cities were bulldozed and rebuilt based on the whims of the day. Yet the scars are still visible in the fabric of many modern African cities today.