Cleaning the environmental and social conditions of the 2012 Olympic Park

The clock is counting down to the start of the 2012 Olympics in London. The main Olympic Park [map] is located in East London in heart of the Lower Lea Valley, which happens to be the same place I studied in my recently completed PhD. My research demonstrated the close correlation between the degraded environmental conditions and the disadvantaged social conditions in the sections of West Ham built on the wetlands. I ended my dissertation wondering whether the current multi-billion dollar project to clean up the environment for the Olympics might result in a comparable effort to clean out the socially undesirable people from this landscape.

An article in the Guardian, “Houseboaters being ‘socially cleansed’ from Olympics area,” suggests this process might be underway. House boaters are concerned that British Waterways are going to increase the mooring costs along canals in the Lower Lea:

British Waterways, which manages 2,200 miles of canals and rivers, has put forward changes to the mooring rules on the river Lea, in east London, that could increase the cost of living on the waterway from about £600 to £7,000 a year. Residents see the move as a deliberate attempt to drive them away. A draft note from British Waterways on 6 December 2010, seen by the Guardian, says: “The urgency … relates to the objective of reducing unauthorized mooring on the Lea navigation and adjacent waterways in time for the Olympics.”

My research showed links between environmental and social conditions dating back to the mid-1850s. Charles Dickens visited the place in 1857 and wrote an article about the polluted streams and the unhealthy people:

… we come to a row of houses built with their backs to a stagnant ditch. We turn aside to see the ditch, and find that it is a cesspool, so charged with corruption, that not a trace of vegetable matter grows on its surface – bubbling and seething with the constant rise of the foul products of decomposition, that the pool pours up into the air. The filth of each house passes through a short pipe straight into this ditch, and stays there. Upon its surface, to our great wonder, a few consumptive-looking ducks are swimming, very dirty; very much like the human dwellers in foul alleys…

The Lower Lea became increasingly polluted during the half century that followed, as its wetlands filled with gasworks, chemical and heavy engineering factories, and the low ground meant there was a regular problem with smoke pollution. As a result, the housing build among the factories, and on the flood plains in Canning Town, mostly drew socially marginalized people.

As industry experience a protracted decline in the 20th century, the environment remained contaminated and the social problems continued. Until the redevelopment, the Lower Lea Valley remained a undesirable, dirty and distressed location for many Londoners. The 2012 Olympics promised to solve these problems:

The Olympic Park will lie at the heart of the Lower Lea Valley, just four miles from Tower Bridge. Currently one of the capital’s most underdeveloped areas, the Lea Valley is an area of outstanding potential which will be transformed by the Olympic Games and Paralympic Games. The Games legacy will transform this area into one of the largest urban parks created in Europe for more than 150 years, stretching 20 miles from the Hertfordshire countryside to the tidal estuary of the River Thames. A network of footpaths, cycleways and canal towpaths will link the communities on either side of the valley. Riverside housing, shops, restaurants and cafes will provide new amenities for the local community. New playing fields will sit alongside the world-class sport facilities that will be adapted for community use. The natural river system of the valley will be restored, canals would be dredged and waterways widened. Birdwatchers and ecologists will be able to enjoy three hectares of new wetland habitat. And the park will be planted with native species, including oak, ash, birch, hazel, holly, blackthorn and hawthorn, providing a home for wildlife in the middle of the city. The rehabilitation of the Lower Lea Valley lies at the heart of the Olympic legacy to east London, restoring an eco-system and revitalising an entire community. (“A valley reborn” 2012 Olympics Webpage circa 2006)

The problem I have with this vision is that I don’t know what will happen to the socially marginalized people who currently live in West Ham. Who will benefit from this transformation of the Lower Lea Valley – the current residents of the Lower Lea Valley or a “higher” class of people who can afforded to buy the new condos/flats and houses built in the cleaner landscape near the new parks? As the toxic legacy of the region’s industrial history is ploughed under, and the environmental conditions improve, Iain Sinclair and others worry that rising rents and demolitions will displace many of the people of West Ham and Hackney. The Guardian story suggests this process might be well underway. Sadly, I believe the poor people will be pushed aside, as they were from central London by warehouses and railroads in the nineteenth century, and by banking towers and loft apartments in Wapping and the Isle of Dogs in the 1990s. One of the main legacy of these games will likely be to again move the lower segments of society out of central London to the less desirable edges of the metropolis.

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