As the flame lights up Rio de Janeiro’s Maracanã stadium to celebrate the start of the world’s biggest sporting event, the focus is very much on what’s going on in the next two weeks.
Big questions remain, however, over what the Games will mean for Rio, not just when the final race is run but also in the years to come.
The legacy question is one that London, host of the 2012 Games, has grappled with. Four years down the line, it has successfully integrated many of the specially created sports buildings and spaces within its wider regeneration plans and draws both locals and tourists to discover more of East London.
But redevelopment projects are still ongoing and the long-term legacy is still a work in progress. “It works on many different levels,” says Katie Kopec, JLL’s head of development consulting who worked as part of the London 2012 team. “Infrastructure is one piece of the legacy but it continues today with the Olympic Village still being the largest PRS (Private Rented Sector) scheme in the UK. So a new type of tenure was pioneered as a result of the games happening.
“From a work point of view, we have new business districts being established in the International Quarter in Stratford and at Here East. This means you have diversity, from small companies to large occupiers, so it is a proper business space.”
Changing perceptions of London
Prior to the games, one of Stratford’s problems was that the perception of its distance from Central London did not match reality. A skewed vision of the city and Transport for London’s (TFL) zoning maps had the area out in the wilds, but a solid, growing transport network serving the area meant that was far from the truth. The prospect of seeing the world’s sporting superstars in action ensured people made the journey eastward.
“I was working for The Legacy Corporation in Stratford a couple of days a week and people were always early for meetings,” says Kopec. “They had obviously allowed far more time than needed, as the Central Line is just so quick. I just don’t think people had appreciated how easy it is to get to.”
The 2012 Games didn’t kick-start the regeneration of East London. It was already attracting attention from developers as soaring property prices pushed more people and businesses out of the central zones. In fact, Stratford was set to grow whether or not the London bid was successful, with the vast Westfield shopping center signed off before the Olympic committee made their decision.
However, the Games provided an additional incentive with the prospect of more money flowing into the area more quickly – and fuelled development even during the global financial crisis of 2008-2009.
“Because we were in the deepest global financial crisis, all the venues were delivered by the public sector,” says Kopec. “In a way, that helped make sure it was done to a certain standard, on time and on budget. It gave a common vision where you could curate and control the Games and their legacy. It’s a hard act to follow for Rio and Tokyo, but they are certainly looking to learn what steps were taken in London.”
Kopec cites the growth of nearby Canning Town, the continuing use of the Olympic Stadium by football club West Ham United and the coming educational and cultural quarter as further examples of the legacy. Improved housing, leisure facilities and education in the area also make it more attractive to new residents, creating deeper talent pools for nearby businesses to draw on.
There is always more that can be done. “Do you ever step back and say ‘we’ve achieved a vision’?” says Kopec. “I think you have to keep refreshing it. Stratford International really needs to live up to its name and the stadium legacy could certainly have been sorted a bit sooner. Although the fact that we have a multi-purpose stadium now is a learning that we really haven’t come to terms with yet. It can be done.”
For Rio, and Japan who will host the Games in 2020, there are valuable lessons to learn not only in terms of how to plan a legacy but also how to deliver it in a way that minimizes cost and maximizes opportunity.
“I think looking at the stadiums and what you will do to use those again is important,” says Kopec. “The opportunity is to put Rio on the world map. London recreated itself, whereas Rio is creating itself. You have to remember that last year was the biggest tourist year for London and that is somewhat down to corralling the messaging around London, in terms of tourism, education and business. That put London on the map on many different levels, which really helped.”