By Alan Kenny
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Queen Elizabeth Park

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Issue 391

As people worry about paying the bills the Olympic “legacy” is not something that most people, even in the host boroughs of Newham, Hackney and Tower Hamlets, spend their time thinking about.

However, the recent opening of the largest new park in London for over a century may see local residents giving some consideration to the legacy for the first time since the build-up to the games. The Queen Elizabeth Park has seen tens of thousands of visitors enjoy and explore it since it opened its gates in April. Closed for 18 months after the Olympics for redevelopment, it was only accessible during the games if you had a ticket for a sporting event.

The redevelopment of the area is an utter transformation from what was a largely Brownfield and Greenfield area. And there are many very enjoyable aspects of the park, not least the redevelopment of the River Lea which runs through its centre.

Entering from Westfield Stratford City you are rapidly confronted by the first of the giant architectural curios strewn about the 560-acre site.

With the curves and texture of Zaha Hadid’s 269 million pound swimming pool, the London Aquatics Centre is cheerfully reminiscent of a blue whale – not as much from the outside but very often from the inside. The vast windows mean that not only does natural light pour in but swimmers can gaze out at the sky and even ponder the strangest and perhaps least successful object in the park (although I bet the view’s good if you’ve got 15 pounds spare) and the largest sculpture in Britain – Anish Kapoor’s AcelorMittal Orbit – which cost a cool 22.7 million pounds.

The Competition pool, diving pool and accompanying spectator stands form a wonderful space. The other space, two end-to-end 25 metre training pools separated by a glass hallway, so that you can see from one end of the entire building to the other, are also great, just overshadowed by their neighbour.

The legacy-mongers say that it’s the average price for a swim in East London. A quick comparison with three Newham pools seems to bear this out but they weren’t exactly cheap to start with. But this is a great place to swim and punters using the high diving platforms in one of the “Dive for All” sessions looked like they were having a lot of fun.

The pool is the most publicly accessible facility. The spectacular Velodrome, at the northern end of the park, architecturally perhaps the equal of the Aquatics Centre, is clearly a more elitist venue – it’s pricey if you want to have a go on its enticing track – although it’s free if you want to watch people having a go. The associated outdoor BMX and road tracks seem steep for an hourly session (6 or 4 pounds) but also look inviting.

While there is an impressive array of free things for kids to play on throughout the park, there are few free sporting facilities. There are, for example, no football goalposts to use. And while the park is enjoyable to cycle around, there are currently no obvious cycle tracks – so it’s actually quite hard to fathom a circuit around the park. It’s very much centred on venues that you have to pay for. Why shouldn’t the various bike tracks, for example, be free?

One look at the plans for the area reveals that there’s a lot still to happen with all manner of big financial profit-hungry interests at play, the same interests which are no doubt responsible for the lack of cohesion to the park that some have rightly criticised. For example, who knows exactly what the gargantuan International Broadcast Centre, resembling an abandoned airport terminal, will become?

This is, of course, part of the further gentrification of east London. Twenty years ago the development of Canary Wharf and the Isle of Dogs was another major staging post. The impact will be to push local rents and property prices up even further – sweeping working class people further to the margins of the city.
But this is a contested process and important battles over the compulsory purchase of the Clays Lane Housing Co-Op and the redevelopment of Leyton Marshes took place in the build-up to London 2012.

And it’s clear that legacy needed to feel like something more than just privatised spaces and elite sporting venues attempting to churn out the next Chris Hoy – especially given that the park is bordered by three of the poorest boroughs in London.

But it should come as no surprise that even the promised so-called “affordable” housing is already being eroded by new plans by Boris Johnson et al. And all the while the recently accused tax avoiders, Westfield, are raking in big profits through the park’s gatehouse shopping centre.

This park will be popular and well used and will no doubt be used as a trophy by the Tories. But it may well also be part of a questioning of why so much money can be spent on such a thing while public services like the NHS are being destroyed by the Tories. It’s gob-smacking that in the midst of a recession which drove millions deeper into poverty in Britain we hosted an event which cost 11 billion pounds.

The London 2012 highlight will always be watching George Osborne getting booed by thousands as he was introduced to present medals at the Paralympics in the Olympic stadium. That’s a “legacy” not to forget.

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