Realising park ambition

The quality of the masterplan for London's Olympic Park beyond 2102 is widely acknowledged but it is unclear how arrangements for managing the legacy will pan out.

Games legacy: plans for the park include homes, schools and hospitals
Games legacy: plans for the park include homes, schools and hospitals

The Olympic Park provides an opportunity to transform east London. The site masterplan unveiled last week gives some idea of how this vision will be brought to life over the next 25 years.

The plans have generally been praised, but with such a long-term project there are many potential difficulties ahead.

The Olympic Park Legacy Company (OPLC) has put together an ambitious proposal for what will be renamed the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park.

With work due to start in 2014, the project aims to deliver up to 11,000 homes, commercial developments and facilities including schools, nurseries and health centres sitting in 100ha of open spaces.

In a change from the original masterplan announced last year (Planning, 13 February 2009, p2), there will be an emphasis on family homes. Forty per cent will have three or four bedrooms in a bid to balance high-density developments in the area.

Some will form modern versions of Georgian and Victorian squares and terraces while others will be riverside properties alongside 3km of water.

"Not since Georgian England has London seen such an ambitious and comprehensive vision for a new district. Our plans seek to combine the classical best of this city with the greatest benefits of modern urban living," says mayor of London Boris Johnson, whose Greater London Authority is about to assume a more prominent role in planning the post-games legacy.

While it is impossible to know how successful the project will turn out to be, the masterplan has received a positive reaction. With facilities such as schools and hospitals built in among the residential properties, the park seems to be planned as a self-sustaining community.

However, its proximity and links to the heart of London are an added benefit and it is hoped that these features will provide attractive opportunities for investors.

The mixture of architecture and different types of housing is a key strength. Grainger development director John Beresford, whose role focuses on strategic land holdings, praises the plans to create mixed communities with low-rise residential development at its heart. "Having a mixture of housing types, including family housing, is key to building successful communities," he contends.

"A community with family housing brings in longer-term residents rather than a transient population, creating a stronger sense of community. Making a place desirable to live in is the silver bullet for meeting the longer-term aims of regenerating an area.

"Along with a good mix of architectural styles which will appeal to a wide range of new residents, this part of London could be a really attractive place to live."

Realisation has dawned since the slowing of development during the recession that an emphasis on high-density blocks of flats is unsustainable, says Barton Willmore partner Dominic Scott.

"There was a fear that this was going to happen at the Olympic site, but I'm really impressed by the quality of the thinking," he says. He agrees that variety is important and argues that drawing inspiration from streetscapes and building forms that are distinctive to London, while keeping some areas of high-density housing, is a sustainable way forward.

While the response to the masterplan has been generally upbeat, it faces potential pitfalls in implementation. Now that the structural make-up is set, the next stage is to look at ensuring quality. Scott sees Poundbury in Dorset as an example of a development in which the high standards set during the initial stages were not maintained.

"The first projects will undoubtedly be of very good quality, but the promoters need to consider how to keep that up," he argues. "They need to ensure that the mechanisms are in place to maintain standards."

BNP Paribas Real Estate associate director Burnetta Van Stipriaan stresses that market considerations will have to be central to decision-making and these could affect what it is possible to deliver. "Developers will need to take into account the viability of any schemes," she explains.

"The principal ideas being proposed, such as more family homes, are to be welcomed but there needs to be realism that development must respond to the market."

Questions have also been raised about the merging of the OPLC into the mayoral development corporation (MDC) and what this will mean for the plan. "It's interesting that this is being proposed," says Van Stipriaan. "With the mayor taking on these additional powers, there are questions over how it fits in with the coalition's wider ambitions. This could mean that he becomes the most powerful mayor in history. There is a tension with the government's aims of giving power back to local people."

More power could go to local residents through the proposed devolved delivery agreement, but it is impossible to be sure what effect the MDC will have on the Olympic Park plans and local consultation.

The MDC's ability to deliver the plans effectively and the extent to which market forces will interfere with the vision set out by the OPLC will only really become clear as the project unfolds over the next 25 years. "It remains to be seen what is going to happen. The devil is in the detail," says Van Stipriaan.

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