Whose legacy is it, anyway? (East London in Flux III)

This post was contributed by Elisa Engel, Architect and Director at ehk! (engelhadleykirk)

In May, Birkbeck hosted ‘From the East End to the West End: Locals’ Perspectives on Changing Stratford and the 2012 Olympics’, an event that was part of the ‘East London in Flux’ event series, organised by Fundamental  Architectural Inclusion and Birkbeck. The series sets out to investigate the changes that East London has been going through since the Olympic Games.

Dr Paul Watt – a Senior Lecturer at Birkbeck – presented research that he carried out in collaboration with Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada. Their study looks at how a group of young people living in temporary accommodation in Stratford perceive the Olympic Legacy. Dr Watt argued that rather than creating opportunities for vulnerable young people in East London, those who took part in the study felt excluded from the Olympic Games – they were unable to obtain tickets to any of the events and were targeted by profiling techniques used by the security agencies around the event, leading to an increasing sense of alienation. Similarly, those interviewed did not feel that the infrastructure improvements facilitated by the Olympic Games benefited them, as they had led to increasing house prices that will see them and many others in their community priced out of the area all together.

The presentation prompted discussions that dealt with a much wider range of issues around gentrification and vulnerable communities. The real strength of the evening lay in the diverse viewpoints of the participants – local residents, housing professionals, architects, etc.

It was felt on the whole that the experiences of those who took part in the study were by no means unique to Stratford or even to those of a similar age and income bracket.

London has always been a city in flux. Neighbourhoods’ fortunes rise and fall. Industries see their heyday followed by a sometimes sharp decline. New communities move in, displacing existing ones for a whole variety of reasons, often, as in East London, through sheer financial muscle. Despite efforts to decentralise, the capital remains the UK’s main economic driver, and as long as that is the case, people will want to move to London from all over the world. What was felt to be a relatively recent development was that with the London housing stock overall increasing far too slowly to accommodate the influx of people to the capital, the pressure on the housing market had reached unprecedented levels.  It is no longer just the young and the poor who cannot afford to rent or buy – the problem is increasingly affecting the middle-aged and the middle classes.

The improvements made in terms of transport links and public spaces that were carried out in the host boroughs as part of the Olympic Games have made these areas more accessible and more attractive. It naturally follows that more people will want to move to the area, and that some of them will have the financial means to outbid existing residents and cause them to be displaced. This is a fundamental conundrum facing those involved with improving neighbourhoods – improving the physical fabric will often destroy the communities the measure aims to assist.

I would love to be able to report that we participants found a quick and easy solution to the problem, but unfortunately this was not the case. What the event did provide was an unusually diverse, honest and lucid discussion about issues of inequality and possible measures, such as increased regulation of the private rental market and public investment and housing. And that is the kind of discussion we need to have as a matter of urgency.

Further events in the East London in Flux series will be taking place throughout the summer. Tickets are free.


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