“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.

 
 
 
 

“Stop worrying about hairdressers”: The UK government has misdiagnosed its productivity problem

We’re going as fast as we can, here. Image: Getty.

Gonna level with you here, I have mixed feelings about this one. On the one hand, I’m a huge fan of schadenfreude, so learning that it the government has messed up in a previously unsuspected way gives me this sort of warm glow inside. On the other hand, the way it’s been screwing up is probably making the country poorer, and exacerbating the north south divide. So, mixed reviews really.

Here’s the story. This week the Centre for Cities (CfC) published a major report on Britain’s productivity problem. For the last 200 years, ever since the industrial revolution, this country has got steadily richer. Since the financial crash, though, that seems to have stopped.

The standard narrative on this has it that the problem lies in the ‘long tail’ of unproductive businesses – that is, those that produce less value per hour. Get those guys humming, the thinking goes, and the productivity problem is sorted.

But the CfC’s new report says that this is exactly wrong. The wrong tail: Why Britain’s ‘long tail’ is not the cause of its productivity problems (excellent pun, there) delves into the data on productivity in different types of businesses and different cities, to demonstrate two big points.

The first is that the long tail is the wrong place to look for productivity gains. Many low productivity businesses are low productivity for a reason:

The ability of manufacturing to automate certain processes, or the development of ever more sophisticated computer software in information and communications have greatly increased the output that a worker produces in these industries. But while a fitness instructor may use a smartphone today in place of a ghetto blaster in 1990, he or she can still only instruct one class at a time. And a waiter or waitress can only serve so many tables. Of course, improvements such as the introduction of handheld electronic devices allow orders to be sent to the kitchen more efficiently, will bring benefits, but this improvements won’t radically increase the output of the waiter.

I’d add to that: there is only so fast that people want to eat. There’s a physical limit on the number of diners any restaurant can actually feed.

At any rate, the result of this is that it’s stupid to expect local service businesses to make step changes in productivity. If we actually want to improve productivity we should focus on those which are exporting services to a bigger market.  There are fewer of these, but the potential gains are much bigger. Here’s a chart:

The y-axis reflects number of businesses at different productivities, shown on the x-axis. So bigger numbers on the left are bad; bigger numbers on the right are good. 

The question of which exporting businesses are struggling to expand productivity is what leads to the report’s second insight:

Specifically it is the underperformance of exporting businesses in cities outside of the Greater South East that causes not only divergences across the country in wages and standards of living, but also hampers national productivity. These cities in particular should be of greatest concern to policy makers attempting to improve UK productivity overall.

In other words, it turned out, again, to the north-south divide that did it. I’m shocked. Are you shocked? This is my shocked face.

The best way to demonstrate this shocking insight is with some more graphs. This first one shows the distribution of productivity in local services business in four different types of place: cities in the south east (GSE) in light green, cities in the rest of the country (RoGB) in dark green, non-urban areas in the south east in purple, non-urban areas everywhere else in turquoise.

The four lines are fairly consistent. The light green, representing south eastern cities has a lower peak on the left, meaning slightly fewer low productivity businesses, but is slightly higher on the right, meaning slightly more high productivity businesses. In other words, local services businesses in the south eastern cities are more productive than those elsewhere – but the gap is pretty narrow. 

Now check out the same graph for exporting businesses:

The differences are much more pronounced. Areas outside those south eastern cities have many more lower productivity businesses (the peaks on the left) and significantly fewer high productivity ones (the lower numbers on the right).

In fact, outside the south east, cities are actually less productive than non-urban areas. This is really not what you’d expect to see, and no a good sign for the health of the economy:

The report also uses a few specific examples to illustrate this point. Compare Reading, one of Britain’s richest medium sized cities, with Hull, one of its poorest:

Or, looking to bigger cities, here’s Bristol and Sheffield:

In both cases, the poorer northern cities are clearly lacking in high-value exporting businesses. This is a problem because these don’t just provide well-paying jobs now: they’re also the ones that have the potential to make productivity gains that can lead to even better jobs. The report concludes:

This is a major cause for concern for the national economy – the underperformance of these cities goes a long way to explain both why the rest of Britain lags behind the Greater South East and why it performs poorly on a

European level. To illustrate the impact, if all cities were as productive as those in the Greater South East, the British economy would be 15 per cent more productive and £225bn larger. This is equivalent to Britain being home to four extra city economies the size of Birmingham.

In other words, the lesson here is: stop worrying about the productivity of hairdressers. Start worrying about the productivity of Hull.


You can read the Centre for Cities’ full report here.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites

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