London's field of dreams

The Lea Valley Olympic proposals are a paradigm for regeneration projects, says Michael Durham


If London hosts the 2012 Olympic Games, the huge sporting complex planned for East London will provide an unrivalled opportunity to develop new approaches to sustainable development that will set the standards for urban living for years to come.

If London hosts the 2012 Olympic Games, the huge sporting complex planned for East London will provide an unrivalled opportunity to develop new approaches to sustainable development that will set the standards for urban living for years to come.

Organisers of the London Olympic bid hope the high-quality, low-energy and environmentally sound development planned for the Olympic Park would provide a model for sustainable new communities in future, including the millions of new homes planned for South East England.

As well as nine world-class competition venues, the Olympic Park would include a 17,000-bed Olympic Village, the creation of the biggest urban park in Europe for 150 years, shops and offices, new public transport hubs, cycle ways and footpaths. After the Olympics, 9,000 new homes would be created in the area.

If Britain wins the games this summer, planners will spend the next seven years devising the most sustainable Olympic Park possible. David Stubbs, environmental project manager for London 2012, said: "This is a very special opportunity. It would be nice to think that what we do in East London will have a resonance elsewhere in the future."

Planners say the sheer size of the project will give them the opportunity to test out the best ways of creating a "sustainable" development from scratch. The 200-hectare site would include all the elements of a viable community, with parkland, homes, work and leisure, new schools and health centres.

Organisers are already planning ahead to create the first "low carbon" Olympics. New homes, offices and sporting facilities would all be low-energy, using advanced building materials to minimise heat loss and reduce their environmental impact. They would share efficient heating and hot water systems, which could be adapted to take account of advances in renewable fuels.

During the games public transport, cycling and walking would be encouraged, with the Olympic park a "low emission zone" for non-polluting vehicles. Organisers are already planning low-emission buses, and anticipate that by 2012 it would be possible to run fleets of hydrogen-cell buses to and from the Olympic park.

The Olympics would also be a "zero-waste games", with advanced recycling in place to minimise the amount of rubbish sent to landfill, and maximise the use of waste materials as energy sources or for other uses. Every venue would provide recycling facilities and an education campaign to raise the awareness of staff, participants and the public. The Games would also have a "sustainable procurement policy", with materials, catering, merchandising and equipment all sourced from environmentally and socially sustainable sources, including Fairtrade products. All of these programmes would be designed to continue once the Games were over and the land had reverted to community use.

Stubbs said: "We are taking an integrated approach to sustainability from the start. A lot of what will ultimately be achieved in the future will be the result of the foundations we are laying down now.

"What makes this a bit special is its scale. We have got a 200-hectare-plus site, which would have a mix of sport, amenity, business and residential - all the elements of a sustainable community on a large scale. We want to create a place where people will live, work and play in a high quality environment, with low energy requirements and less dependence on cars.

"A sustainable community of the future will not just be about environmentally sound building. It's all about a sense of place. And it is not just a matter of wiping everything out and starting again - there are local communities in East London already. An important part of our strategy is community involvement, so that people already living in the area get involved and benefit too."

Nick James, a senior consultant at one of London 2012's environmental sustainability partners, the Bioregional Development Group, said that if the Olympic Park goes ahead, the lessons learned would help create other top quality sustainable communities in Britain and across the world.

"An important legacy would be the vast amount of knowledge gained about building a large sustainable community. There is a lot that can be learned about developing and managing large complex projects in the future. We are hoping to crystallise good intentions into actual practice on the ground."

BioRegional and the international conservation group WWF have jointly developed an international initiative, "One Planet Living", to promote future sustainable, low-energy, zero-carbon communities. The idea is to foster new development that will improve people's quality of life, without consuming excessive natural resources. Showpiece new sustainable communities are being built in five continents, to "catalyse change" among governments, businesses and individuals and demonstrate that it can be done.

BioRegional and WWF say a "One Planet Olympics" in London would leave a lasting positive impact on the capital's environment and communities, even after the games had finished. "This is a real opportunity to get it right," James said.

Detailed plans are still some way off, but BioRegional is looking at ways of creating low energy homes that would last for 50 years after the Games are over. A vital first step is to devise an infrastructure for power, heating and hot water that can be adapted to use the best available fuel source in future, as fossil fuels run out and advances are made in renewable energy.

A London Olympic Park would include sources of energy from wind power and solar power as well as conventional fuel, but planners expect that over the next decade advances will be made in renewable sources such as hydrogen fuel cells, which could be slotted in to the overall plan. "In a project this size, to get the district network of heating, cooling and hot water right in the first place means you can more easily change to a different fuel source in future," James said.

The "One Planet Olympics" would also be dedicated to developing "closed resource loops" to recycle as much as possible, reducing the need for travel, providing greener alternatives to the private car, building with environmentally sound techniques, and even using local produce and materials, which planners say will help strengthen the community and enhance the "sense of place".

Tangible results for the East London communities that surround the Olympic Park would also include huge environmental improvements to the 20-mile Lea Valley Park, which stretches from the Thames to Hertfordshire, riverside housing, cafés and leisure amenities, more jobs, and schools and health clinics for the new homes to be created after the Games. At least 4,500 new homes would be designated as affordable housing.

But environmentalists say the biggest value of a sustainable Olympics in London would be its impact as a model piece of environmental planning, which could be a showpiece that would influence the design of new communities throughout Britain and across the world.

Robert Napier, Chief Executive of WWF-UK, praised the One Planet Olympics concept: "Hosting the Games is not just about avoiding harm to the environment and local communities. It is also a real opportunity to bring about lasting environmental and social improvement. London's bid has recognised this from the start. That is why we are keen to work together with London 2012 and partners to ensure that a London Games produces a sustainable legacy."

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