Yesterday I spent half my flight back from a weekend in Moscow discussing London 2012 with a stranger. The lady in question was neither British nor a Londoner, but she was just as excited about the Games as if she were. A week after the Paralympics ended, my encounter gives a sense of how London 2012 acted as a showcase, getting people talking positively about Britain across the world. But now the Games are over, there is no time to rest on our laurels. The world’s attention will move on, but the chance to create long-lasting change for London as a result of the Games starts now.
The experiences of past Olympic hosts show that a great Games does not necessarily mean a great legacy. The impressive venues built for Beijing 2008 are now underused, while cities from Montreal through to Atlanta and Athens have struggled to generate permanent benefits from staging the Olympics. London has already applied a number of important lessons learned from previous Olympic hosts, including using temporary venues for many sports, setting up a legacy body early on, and agreeing a Convergence agenda to set social and economic targets. Centre for Cities’ new report, A Marathon Not A Sprint?, looks at further ways in which London can learn from other cities and improve its legacy prospects. Analysis reveals both successes to imitate and pitfalls to avoid.
Three main lessons are apparent from Olympic cities elsewhere. First of all, a legacy depends upon a clear, consistent vision. The regeneration of Barcelona was underway before the 1992 Games, and continued long after. The Games were part of a longer-term strategy for the city, and it took commitment to see it through. In the mid-90s recession, the legacy could have been seen as a failure, but the vision for the city was central to Barcelona’s economic future and therefore able to survive short-term setbacks.
The legacy vision for London 2012 should aspire to the same level of clarity and purpose. During the life of the bid, legacy aims have moved significantly from social and environmental focus to a post-recession economic rationale. With Boris Johnson’s installation as its third chair in the space of a year, the London Legacy Development Corporation (LLDC) needs to publicly demonstrate its clear political commitment to a single legacy vision and pull together the people who can ensure London’s legacy plan is strong enough to survive future political and economic challenges.
The second crucial lesson is that London needs to have a clear and consistent plan for the Olympic Park. A permanent physical legacy on an Olympic site requires political and financial backing over time, as for example in Barcelona where a new business district was developed around the main Games site. London is still agreeing uses for the Olympic venues; the current masterplan focuses on housing, but the Prime Minister and others have suggested that Tech City businesses might also be a part of its future (although Centre for London’s research casts doubts on the likelihood of the latter happening). To deliver results, a persuasive and single vision for future business and residential development is the real priority. The LLDC is the first legacy body to have been set up before the end of the Games; it needs to make the most of this advantage by setting out why potential firms and residents would benefit from locating in the Park.
Thirdly, analysis of past host cities spotlights the challenge of delivering long-term change for East London beyond the Olympic Park. No Olympic host city has used the Games as a tool to reduce deprivation, but the transformation of East London is London 2012’s marquee legacy objective. This will only be delivered with a commitment to social as well as physical improvements, for example increasing skill levels to help local people access jobs. The Olympic Host Boroughs are working closely together to improve socio-economic indicators across their boundaries and have made a good start. However, lasting change will require both Government and the Mayor of London to provide support and resources for many years to come.
The Games are a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for London, and so far they could not have gone better. However, the toughest job starts now, away from the limelight and in the context of squeezed budgets and political realities. Learning the lessons of modern host cities will help London deliver a legacy to match the resounding success of London 2012.