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10 September 2012

How to build a civic Olympic legacy

We need new museums, galleries, concert halls and academic institutions in East London.

By Ben Rogers

The organisers of the Olympics and Paralympics have rightly been applauded, not just for the way the Games themselves were organised but for having gone much further than most other Olympic cities in ensuring that all the investment that went into them makes a lasting contribution. Much, of course, could go wrong, especially if the economy fails to pick up. But the Olympic Park and the surrounding areas are well integrated into London’s public transport system. Many of the big venues have adaptability built into them.  The future of the Athletes’ Village, purchased by deep-pocketed developers, looks secure.  And those in charge of the Park say they are committed to ensuring that the new neighbourhoods will set new standards of modern urban design – though given the absence of any ambitious attempts at large scale urban design in London and the poor quality of what has been done, that won’t be hard.

But successful urban quarters are not just a matter of homes, offices, parks, shopping centres and sporting venues.  They also need civic institutions. And that’s where the legacy plans currently look weak.  Daniel Moylan, the man Boris Johnson has now put in charge of the Olympic Park and associated legacy projects, has suggested that The Great Exhibition of 1851 provides a good model of what he wants to achieve.  But the most lasting legacy of the Great Exhibition were the museums, galleries, concert halls and academic institutions of South Kensington, with not a swimming pool or running track among them.  

One of the features of Canary Wharf that gives it the tinny, artificial quality it has, is the absence of these sort of institutions. The development has plenty of private gyms, but no libraries, art galleries, colleges, or theatres, with the exception of the nearby Docklands Museum.  And, of course, East London is badly lacking in all these things – or those that it has are largely of local, not national or international significance.  Even the Design Museum, which did draw people from across London, and well beyond, is moving from its outpost in Tower Bridge to the balmier climes of Kensington. 

One of the top priorities for Moylan and his team, then, must be to create a much richer civic landscape in the Stratford area and beyond.  Birkbeck College, true to its pioneering history, is building a large campus in Stratford, but the area would greatly benefit from similar moves by other some of London’s other top rank academic institutions (UCL are considering but have yet to commit). John Lock of the University of East London has argued that Millennium Mills in the Royal Docks would make a very good public home for government art collections, most of which hardly ever see the light of day.  And East London, which has played host to successive waves of migrants, is surely the ideal venue for a new Museum of Migration, to rival New York’s Ellis Island and similar museums around the world.  Given the international character of the Olympics and the ethnic diversity of GB’s Olympic team, that would be a particularly fitting Olympic legacy project and a good cause for some of London’s many migrant millionaires. 

Ben Rogers is the director of the Centre for London at Demos.

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