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Olympic overview

RUTH SLAVID, Images and Photography LDA Design
The Olympics may be over, but the park that housed the main venues is a lasting and vital part of their legacy.

Dennis Hone, the chief executive of the Olympic Delivery Authority, is, not surprisingly, a happy man. Having delivered a hugely successful Olympic Games in London, he is pleased with every aspect
of the organisation. Yet, he still says, ‘I love all the individual venues, but the landscape is the glue that holds it all together. We have ended up with no ordinary park. We came out with a park with a huge number of sporting venues. I am a fantastic fan of the landscape. We could have dumbed it down. We recognised that it had to be of exceptional quality.’

The reference to dumbing down is particularly pertinent because, until he replaced David Higgins in 2011 in the top job, Hone was director of finance at the ODA. He was determined throughout the project not to compromise on quality, but at the same time to stay within the budget. It is easy to imagine that the park
could have been a casualty.

Now, of course, it is impossible to imagine London 2012 without the park. As the visitors poured into the games, they tweeted, blogged and shared photos that inevitably included the wildflower meadows and the splendours of the 2012 Gardens. Parts of the park were almost loved to death, with special platforms having to be erected to allow visitors to get in among the flowers for photos without destroying the very thing they were admiring.

But if it was the flowers that caught the imagination first, they are certainly not the only element that matters. The Olympic Park is not gardening writ large (although it contains some superb gardens). It is something much bigger. It was a means to create a setting for the games and to kickstart the development of a new part of London, by putting landscape at the heart. It will, when it reopens after transformation, provide an enormous range of facilities to serve the local community and the broader city. It will facilitate the development around its edges by ensuring that it will happen not in the midst of bleak barrenness but knitted into and overlooking a maturing landscape.

And that is not all. It follows the One Planet Living guidelines drawn up by Bioregional (a set of 10 sustainability principles based on an aspiration to only use the resources available on a single planet, unlike the three-planets’ worth currently used in Europe) with ambitious targets for sustainability and biodiversity that it has achieved. It has pioneered new approaches to treating and working with water and with soil. It has alleviated flood risks in surrounding areas, and integrated art in a way that has rarely been done before. And it has done all this from the most unpromising of starts, in an area of polluted ground and choked waterways that formed one of the least appealing environments in London.

The oddest element of the park was how hidden it was for much of its genesis. Early masterplans drawn up by the team led by EDAW (later part of AECOM) were accompanied by CGIs of the park, but since then of course it has been part of an immense building site with heavy security. And although in general terms, like most of the Olympic project, it was substantially complete a year before the Games, areas such as the annual meadows were only planted three months before opening. Even at the London Prepares events in the summer, part of the rigorous programme of testing, many areas were fenced off. As a result, it really was a surprise on the opening days – and a delightful one.

Now it is inaccessible again, as the temporary venues and overlays are removed and it segues into transformation mode, due to re-open partially next year on the anniversary of the start of the games, and fully the following year.

That makes this a good time to draw breath, to look at what has been achieved so far as well as at what is to come. While the Olympics are special in many ways, they also offer many lessons in terms of management, of approach and of technology, which have been recognised in the Learning Legacy, a programme that includes a large number of reports that are freely available, as well as activities such as the series of videos that the Landscape Institute is producing.

This work reflects the fact that, while few professionals in the UK will have the opportunity to contribute to a project of this scale, the knowledge that has been required can be applied and developed on many smaller projects. For the landscape professions there is the additional benefit that landscape has been absolutely crucial at all stages, from winning the games to the projected future development.

Indeed, without the park London may well not have won the games. Jason Prior, who was president of EDAW and is now chief executive of planning, design and development at AECOM, is a landscape architect and urban designer. When the team that he led entered the competition to design the masterplan that would form the basis of the UK’s bid to host the games (a bid that was not expected to be successful), it was seen as an outsider, with the Evening Standard rating its chances of winning at 100:1.

‘Putting the park at the centre was an idea that started in 2003,’ said Bill Hanway, an architect colleague of Prior. ‘Our proposal was about the ability to leverage regeneration.’ Prior said, ‘We didn’t describe it as a grand architectural project. We talked about the East End in 2030. We had to come up not only with a rationale for the Olympics but some very clear themes.’

The concept of the park was therefore present from the beginning, and some of the key work to enable it to happen, such as construction of tunnels to take power lines underground so that the forest of pylons could be removed, was commissioned at an early stage. But the form of the park that exists now, and will in the future, is largely thanks to a collaboration between LDA Design and George Hargreaves Associates, appointed at a later stage as the masterplanners for the park.

‘The masterplan that EDAW did was fantastic in getting the infrastructure and the venues in the right place,’ explained John Hopkins, who was project director for the Olympic Park at the ODA. ‘The role of the landscape architect was to take that masterplan and to do a design overlay. The brief was very challenging to the designer — and LDA and George Hargreaves challenged us right back.’

Annie Coombs wrote substantial sections of the brief, and represented CABE Space and the LI on the landscape architect selection panel. She said, ‘My strong recollection of John Hopkins’ brief to me for the brief for the park’s landscape commission was “make it the most special place”. At times this seemed frustratingly unattainable with all the constraints, complexities and, albeit important, over-riding objectives. Possibly the most important words we wrote were “distinctive, inspiring and beautiful”. Selecting consultants who could deliver this and were prepared to challenge conventional approaches was key; as was tenacious conviction of the importance of high quality design throughout brief, procurement, design and construction stages.

‘It resulted in a stunning backdrop for the Games and I feel sure it will become a great open space for all the local neighbourhoods.’ The first challenge from the landscape architects was the decision to bid to work on both halves of the park, whereas the brief was originally looking for two separate practices. The park is an hourglass shape, and it was always the intention that the two halves would have different characteristics — the southern part more active and busy and better connected, and the northern part more biodiverse and more peaceful — a place for more traditional park activities.

Contracts such as the engineering had already been let to Atkins and to Arup with the park split up in this way. But LDA Design.Hargreaves bid for the entire project — and won it.

The next major challenge was the proposal to shrink the size of the concourses. This was not entered into lightly. Pedestrian modelling predicted that a certain amount of space would be needed, so the landscape architects had a battle on their hands when they argued that this was too much — not least because some of the preliminary work had already been done. The trump card here was held by George Hargreaves, who had worked at Sydney and seen that the concourses, designed using the same modelling, were always relatively empty despite the success of the games.

Neil Mattinson, senior partner at LDA Design, said, ‘The original masterplan didn’t showcase the potential for green landscape.’ Once the landscape architects won the argument, a number of good things followed. The amount of hard surfacing was reduced in Games mode, meaning that there would be less to take away for legacy. But the soft landscape did not just expand — it also changed in character. Waterways that had been forced into virtual culverts were able to have much more natural banks, and the visibility of the water increased greatly as a result. This all assisted biodiversity, and added to the public’s enjoyment of the place.

‘One of the great wins in the North Park,’ said Mattinson, ‘was the diversion of the Channelsea River.’ This had previously been constrained within a culvert, which meant that if there was high water it flooded properties to the north of the Olympic site. ‘Now the water percolates back through the park,’ said Mattinson. ‘It has taken 5,500 homes out of flood risk.’

As a result of these changes, some 350,000 woodland plants have been planted. Habitats have been created for otters, and there are frog ponds and fish refuges. Everything that has been done has a maintenance regime associated with it. There is long-term thinking in, for example, the planting of oak saplings amidst stands of birch trees in the hope that these will grow up and follow the succession that is common in the natural environment.

Landforms have also been created from the recycled material on the site, with gabion walls providing structure. As a result the park rises and falls, creating views out over London as well as more intimate areas.

The creation of this level of biodiversity in a managed landscape is revolutionary and rare. But it would not be enough for a park where many visitors will expect a zing of excitement from flowers. There is therefore extensive planting, and while much of it is as bright and visually exciting as in many municipal parks, it is a world away from it in concept and execution. Much of this is down to the efforts of James Hitchmough and Nigel Dunnett, planting experts at the University of Sheffield, who worked as a subconsultant to LDA Design. Hargreaves. They combine a creative attitude to planting with great scientific rigour. While they subscribe to an environmental agenda, they also believe in pleasure. ‘Our perspective is that we want to do environmental good,’ said Hitchmough, ‘but we recognise that it has to appeal to ordinary human beings. We were originally shown pictures of happy people walking through fields of nettles and thistles. I wanted people to say, “this is extraordinary” ’.

Put simply, LDA Design. Hargreaves decided where the planting would go. Hitchmough and Dunnett worked out the detail of the planting and, in the case of the 2012 gardens, Sarah Price of Sarah Price Landscape determined the precise planting pattern. But, like almost every aspect of the Olympic Park, collaboration was a key to success, and so these demarcation lines became blurred.

What was not blurred was the need for speed. Part of this is due to our changing expectations. ‘When Regent’s Park and Hyde Park were laid out,’ said Mattinson, ‘they were very empty grassy spaces with a few avenues of trees. It has taken generation after generation to build up to what you see today. In the 21st Century, everybody expects instant results.’ This pressure was enhanced by the needs of the Games. Not only did results have to be fast, but the many wild flowers that were used, which would traditionally have peaked in mid summer, had to be tricked into waiting and making their show as the games opened. In this way, and only this way, there was an equivalence to events like the Chelsea Flower Show, where growers persuade plants to behave to a different timetable from the one that they would follow naturally.

There are beds of planting throughout the park, with herbaceous meadows and also ‘lenses’ of planting set into the landscape in the North Park. The greatest excitement was however reserved for the South Park, which will be the more densely occupied and the less ‘natural’. This is where the golden carpet of flowering annuals was created with the stadium as backdrop. It was one of the most successful but also boldest moves since, just three months before the Games opened, it was nothing but bare earth. Hitchmough and Dunnett had however, here as well as elsewhere, done everything possible to ensure that nothing could go wrong, carrying out trial planting in advance, and making contingency plans for the vagaries of the weather. They sourced seed from Germany since, sadly, the viability of British seed is far inferior.

In transition these annual meadows will be replaced by perennial meadows, a type of planting that also exists in the South Park. Here too the plants had to be given some help. The problem was that they needed a shot of nitrogen to make them flower in 2012, but without permanently enriching the soil, which would have led to them being overtaken by coarser species. ‘We used ammonium nitrate,’ said Hitchmough. ‘It makes them grow like crazy, then stop. There is no more phosphate or potassium in the soil than when we started.’

The naive might see these meadows as somehow having occurred naturally, and they should be largely self-sustaining. But nobody could ignore the magnificent artifice that went into the making of the 2012 Gardens, a showcase of plants from four parts of the world from which UK gardeners have drawn plants over the last 600 years. They are, in chronological order of influence: Western Europe, the Mediterranean and Asia Minor; the temperate Americas; the southern hemisphere and temperate Asia. They are in some sense then an educational resource, but one that communicates through the splendour of its visual experience. Like every other part of the park, these gardens are working hard, serving more than one purpose.

There are physical layers within the park, from the electric tunnels through the engineering base, to the hard and soft landscape, the buildings and the (temporary) overlay for the games. But there are also layers of function, offering relaxation, exercise, entertainment, biodiversity, communication links and a spur to development. What is so admirable is that these are all mixed together, seen as complementary and not competing. In transformation mode there will be new buildings, new facilities, and new areas of temporary and permanent planting. The park that was created for the 2012 Olympic Games was merely the first chapter in a story that will be well-worth following.

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Olympic Review

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