23. Design is for life, not just the Olympics; learning from China

Whenever one hears Ministers or those associated with the 2012 London Olympics talk, you know that mention of legacy won’t be long coming.  Whether to genuinely transform London’s east end or simply to justify what by any standards is a huge spending spurge at a time of recession, the question of the long-term impact of the investment has underpinned the design and delivery processes of the forthcoming Olympic games from the start.  The recent games in Beijing had a very different purpose, namely to firmly announce to the world (if we didn’t already know it) the arrival of a new global super-power – China.

Lauded as a great success at the time, Beijing was by far the most expensive Olympics ever, representing a feat of extravagance and showmanship unlikely ever to be repeated.  For London it will be a hard act to follow, or will it?  In one way I don’t think it will, in design terms.

Those who have travelled to China in the last ten years or so always come away with one impression, one of sheer ore born out of the sheer breathtaking scale and pace of the physical change that is taking place in China’s cities.  Yet this speed is often at a price.  In a recent workshop in Nanning (southern China) this came home to me very starkly, and confirmed the impression I have formed in other cities in the country.

In Nanning (a city of 3 million – a minnow by Chinese standards), the city’s leaders want to modernise their city.  In line with these ambitions they have built in the last few years a completely new CBD on the outskirts of the city, and gradually they are moving many functions of the old city centre to the new location, the next to go will be the railway station.

In their haste, however, they have been unable to decide what to do with the old city centre which contains not only the city’s crumbling physical heritage, but also a long established community, now living in abject poverty, and all the things that make the city special and uniquely Chinese, such as the city’s night markets.  As a visitor travelling to both the new and old centres, I found the latter intriguing and full of interest and life (albeit now struggling) whist the former seemed good for one thing, for ascending to the ubiquitous viewing platform to look out at the old city that was fast being left behind.

Nanning, the communities being left behind

Although not too late to turn things around (indeed that was the focus of the workshop which myself and colleagues had been invited to participate in) one couldn’t help felling that in this place, in the rush to progress, the city had collectively forgotten where it come from and was now busy destroying what remained.

Returning to the Olympics, something similar had clearly taken place in Beijing.  Thus four years ago, when I last visited the Chinese capital, the sight of ancient homes and communities being bulldozed because they looked shabby and not modern, or to make way for the new high-speed highways that were required to serve the site was a distressing sight.  This year, despite the hoards of Chinese tourists who still flock to see the Olympic park, I found a site that in many respects no longer works as a piece of the city.

The Olympic spaces, oversized and uncomfortable

Although the main venues still operate (the Birdsnest stadium and honeycomb-like Olympic swimming pool foremost amongst them) the site is surrounded by roads, parking and fences, and fails to integrate with its surrounding neighbourhoods.  Moreover the key spaces are vastly oversized and uncomfortable in a city with (for much of the year) a very harsh climate, whilst some of the key buildings were beginning to look decidedly shabby (the stadium, for example, was decidedly dirty and already showing worrying signs of rust).  We were told that the sheer rush to get the stadium built on time had led to the cutting of corners, whilst the very obvious design of the park as a place for a one time only four week sports binge (Olympics followed by para-Olympics) was very obvious in what remains.  It certainly didn’t work as post-Olympics place.

UDM23-beijing, the Birdnest stu=adium.jpg
Beijing, the Birdsnest stadium, now looking a little sad

With this in mind the strong emphasis in London on legacy must be right.  The Olympics will certainly give London and the UK a boost, raising our profile in the eyes of the world in the years leading up to 2012, and in the four weeks of the games.  Afterwards, and far more quickly than Beijing (one suspects) it will all be quickly forgotten.  Except, that is, locally, where it must not be if the project is to have the transformative impact that is envisaged for it.  In design terms three simple lessons seem relevant from the Beijing experience:

  • Connect the new Olympic park firmly and seamlessly to its surrounding communities as a genuine and continuous piece of the city.
  • Think about the space as a post-Olymics place, once the fireworks and fanfares have all died away, the park will need to continue operating as a resource for the local community, and as a new heart for the east end.
  • Think about long-term management and maintenance needs, and don’t skimp on the construction quality now or it will cost us far more over the long-run.

This, of course is exactly what the designers, planners, politicians and authorities responsible for the 2012 Olympics Park tell us that they are doing.  Time will tell if they can achieve this difficult feat.  In a context where every penny and every corner may increasing be cut, this may increasingly be difficult to achieve.  Here’s hoping they do!

Matthew Carmona

Professor of Planning & Urban Design

The Bartlett School of Planning, UCL


June 2009