Gardens, London, Parks, Public Realm

Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park

July 17, 2015

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While public debate continues regarding Boston’s bid to host the 2024 summer Olympics, I recently spent a weekday visiting London’s Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. Described as a lasting legacy of the 2012 summer Olympics at 560 acres in size, it is the largest urban park constructed in Europe in more than a decade.

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The issue of legacy aside, the park is part of a comprehensive scheme to transform a contaminated river and post-war industrial site into a new urban district of nearly 7,000 homes, cultural facilities and economic development opportunities integrated within a visually spectacular landscape which, among other attributes, includes 25 acres of wildflower meadows, purported to be the largest area of annual meadows ever to have been used in a park setting.

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Within the park eight permanent venues from the 2012 Olympics have been repurposed to support community and recreational activities and in the case of the stadium, provide a new (and not entirely uncontroversial) home for the West Ham United futbol club. A cultural quarter, including a branch of the V&A Museum and a Sadler’s Wells auditorium, is being planned and a summer beach was scheduled to open shortly after my visit.

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Developed in phases, the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park evolved through a lengthy series of master planning and design processes.

Master planning by EDAW (which later became AECOM) in concert with a partnership between LDA design and Hargreaves Associates provided a framework for the public realm and park design.  The plan below is from LDA design and shows the park’s two distinct sections connected by the river.

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Inspired by Victorian and post-war pleasure gardens, the park’s design includes “sweeping lawns, a promenade, access to the river, ample seating and public spaces throughout the park that showcased live screens during the Games” (Hargreaves Associates). The photos below show how the river is accessed in the southern formal area of the park and the northern, naturalistic area.

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Following the Games James Corner + Field Operations, in partnership with Piet Oudolf, redesigned the south park as part of the site’s transformation for the London Legacy Development Corporation (LLDC). According to Dr Philip Askew, post-Games architect and landscape planner in the July 11th article Parklife – Exploring the changing landscape of Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park , Oudolf is responsible for the landscaping in the park, which ranges from wild meadows of hollyhocks, ornamental onions and foxtail lilies to “wonderfully imperfect, English” black pines.

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The park supports a diversity of landscapes and within its 560 acres are 250 acres defined as metropolitan open space, 112 acres of biodiversity action plan (an internationally recognized program addressing threatened species and habitats designed to protect and restore biological systems) 15 acres of woodlands, hedgerows and wildlife habitats, 4 miles of waterways and 4,300 new trees.

There are four themed walking trails – London 2012, Biodiversity, Art in the Park and a children’s trail – 525 bird boxes, 150 bat boxes and 26 permanent artworks. Below is the guide for London 2012 “Trail of Glory.”

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The southern portion of the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park includes a formal and rather uninspiring entry that is easily accessible from the Stratford tube station (after passing through the Westfield Stratford Shopping Center).

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Designed to support civic events it is organized around a central promenade with plazas, fountains, play areas, a carousel and The EastTwenty Bar & Kitchen.

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The southern section of the park includes the Olympic Stadium and Britain’s largest piece of public art, the 114.5 meter (376 feet) high Arcelor Mitttal Orbit, designed by artist Anish Kapoor, engineer Cecil Beaton and architect Kathryn Findlay.

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In keeping with Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park’s mandate to focus on native biodiversity and ecological systems, the southern portion of the park contains the 2012 pleasure gardens, a living timeline of British plant history that celebrates contemporary horticulture drawing upon the distinctive characteristics of plant communities found in the wild in Europe, North America, the Southern Hemisphere, and Asia. Planting design consultants for the 2012 pleasure gardens (as well as the park) included Nigel Dunnett, James Hitchmough and Sarah Price.

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The Great British Garden, the result of a public design competition overseen by the Royal Horticultural Society and London 2012, contains three themed gardens that reflect the colors of the Olympic medals and are designed to encourage a voyage of discovery.

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The park’s northern section, follows the river valley and integrates wetland habitat within an extensive network of walking and biking trails accented with open areas for sitting and informal gatherings.

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This is a serene and naturalistic environment with an undulating topography that frames the architectural features and provides a refreshing contrast to the somewhat overly active southern portion of the park which was described as “the visual equivalent of several mobile ring phones going off at once” by architectural critic Rowan Moore in the the April 5, 2014 article Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park review – no medals for visual flair.

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A new community hub, the Timber Lodge (managed by a social enterprise) includes a cafe as well as meeting rooms for public events and is sited next to the innovative Tumbling Bay Playground.

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Olympic venues repurposed in the northern section of the park include the Copper Box Arena and the Lee Valley Velopark (the only place in the world where where one can experience all four types of Olympic cycling).

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The Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park integrates green technology with elements of British park design to create something totally new that is, as a landscape, still evolving. It has become a popular destination (visited by more than four million people last year) that in a dense, expanding  city like London “is the sort of place is a really necessary safety valve, a place people can come out to,” according to Dr Asker. “It’s a great place to play and learn.”

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Which brings me back to Boston. Perhaps it is a landscape vision that is lacking in the current plan which, as I read it, proposes 15 new acres of permanent parkland at Widett Circle, the completion and expansion of Olmsted’s Emerald Necklace from Franklin Park to Columbia Road and improvements to the parks and open spaces that would be used, and thus impacted, as venues.

Additionally, according to the Bid 2.0 planning document (which I may not be fully understanding) that while permanent “open space” would be created in multiple phases, a legacy park would be constructed in phase 7 (2040).

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Let’s imagine that Boston’s Olympic legacy as a bold new way to reinterpret the city’s landscape and use the Olympic bid as an opportunity to reshape the city and its public realm.

Copyright © 2015 Patrice Todisco — All Rights Reserved

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No Comments

  • Reply Kate July 18, 2015 at 5:51 pm

    It’s not entirely clear to me why you need the Olympics at all. The legacy projects seem entirely incongruous, irrelevant, and could be achieved without a massive sporting event.

    Isn’t it wiser to get on with urban planning without the massive outlay on a stadium and other costly structures as well as the massive disruption caused by the Olympics?

    For example, see Chicago’s Millenium Park. http://www.encyclopedia.chicagohistory.org/pages/6404.html

    • Reply Patrice Todisco July 19, 2015 at 12:59 pm

      Kate,

      My aim in visiting London’s Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park is to provide context for the current proposal and its park/public realm benefits. Should good urban planning occur with or without the Olympics? Absolutely. However, given the level of exposure and public debate surrounding Boston’s Olympic bid I’d enjoy a more vigorous and creative/exciting/innovative debate about the public realm and in particular the potential for new
      parks, gardens and open spaces.

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