City & Country: Beyond the Olympics and Paralympic Games

The London Olympics and Paralympic Games are just two years away and the ripples from a major urban overhaul are already sweeping through Stratford and the adjoining Lower Lea Valley, besides other neighbourhoods such as Cricklewood, Earls Court and areas within the London Borough of Hackney.

It is no coincidence that a 500-acre tract in Stratford and the Lower Lea Valley was chosen to house the Games, which the organisers hope to make the “greenest” Olympics yet. The area has for decades been earmarked for urban regeneration, says the Olympic Development Authority’s (ODA) sustainable development and regeneration division head Dan Epstein.

An artist's impression of the Olympic VillageThe Games boast a slew of renewable energy solutions and sustainable practices that include construction materials derived from demolished buildings, a biomass-powered boiler at its new energy centre, zero-landfill waste and low-carbon cement. Temporary structures, such as the basketball courts and water polo arena, have been designed to be removed after the Games.

“We would expect the mayor’s office and the Greater London Authority (GLA) to work to at least the same high standards of sustainability as the ODA.

Wembley Stadium will host the finals of the football tournament during the Games“Stratford sits at the apex of the Thames gateway, in East London, an area that has been zoned for wholesale redevelopment and regeneration to allow growth within the confines of the city defined by the greenbelt. It also has other natural assets like the canal links to the Thames and the Lea Valley Park on its border.

“The site offered the opportunity to create a proper mixed-use development and a new urban quarter for London. The development is surrounded by other development opportunities to the east, west and south, which together offer even more extensive opportunities for development,” he says in a recent email interview with City & Country. Epstein also spoke at the World Green Building Council international conference held in Singapore on Sept 13 and 14.

The district is also well connected to the city’s rail links — it is in the middle of two Tube lines and has access to Canary Wharf, London City and South London via the Docklands Light Railway (DLR) and a fast link into King’s Cross.

One of the key footbridges for the Games“The Olympics have had the effect of accelerating the regeneration of the site by 20 years. The major investment in the first 2,880 homes, major new infrastructure including transport, roads, the biggest park created in London in 150 years, new utility and other services, workspace and the Westfield shopping centre will now be delivered in seven years from concept design to completion,” Epstein says.

An artist's impression of the interior of the Olympic VillageThe development will entail large infrastructure works such as the venues, utilities, highways, bridges and other landscape construction around Weymouth, Portland, Broxbourne and Eton Dorney worth £9 billion (RM43 billion), funded by the ODA and the National Lottery.Eton Dorney, the venue of the rowing and kayaking events
The ODA is jointly funded by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, the GLA, the London Development Agency and the Olympic Lottery Distributor.

The National Lottery will contribute some £2.2 billion towards the Games’ facilities and long-term developments beyond the Games. In return, the Lottery will have a slice of the profits from future land and property sales.
Epstein says the project was undertaken in a very transparent way. “Tendering is open and meets the European procurement standards — if projects cannot be justified over the long term, they are either moved to other off-park sites or designed as temporary elements. All decisions have been made against a long-term legacy plan. Wherever possible, private investment has been introduced, for example, in infrastructure and utilities,” he says.

“As part of the construction process, and mindful of the social and economic deprivation of the area [life expectancy is eight years less than people living eight miles away in the centre of London], the ODA has been investing heavily in training, apprenticeships and in providing jobs for local people, long-term unemployed, people with disabilities and women in construction,” he points out.

Epstein, who brings to the table over 20 years of experience in sustainable and green development, is tasked with coming up with holistic and viable development solutions for the Games. He leads a team that is in charge of setting development goals and offering technical support, apart from overseeing infrastructural development.

Before assuming his role at the ODA, he was the head of environment for public sector regeneration company English Partnerships, which was involved in the disposal of land for significant urban development projects. Under the programme, an average of 9,000 homes per year were built across England.

He also fought for the sustainable growth of Ashford, one of four government housing growth areas. Other ventures include a number of land reclamation and regeneration schemes in the north of England as well as developing briefs for sustainable buildings, landscape and infrastructure.

In 1984, Epstein kicked off his career with a seven-year stint in Nepal as a bio-engineer and forester, where he repaired major roads damaged by landslides, was involved in water projects and educating Nepalese, Indian and Chinese engineers on bio-engineering.

Epstein concedes that without the Games as a catalyst, the area’s redevelopment would not have adhered to the same sustainability standards, nor would it have been undertaken with the same sense of urgency.

Moreover, the regeneration would have been delayed further by the slower acquisition of land and would hinge on economic considerations such as the performance of the financial and real estate markets, he adds.

“Land ownership and the ability to secure under one major landowner all the land for the development was a major advantage,” he points out.

All temporary structures and components related to the Games will be removed from the site post-Olympics, before the site is handed over to the Olympic Park Legacy Company for the next leg of development, with plans already being drawn up.

Transformation and legacy
The potential usefulness of the site beyond the Olympics was a major draw in earmarking the land, and longevity and legacy were major tenets of the projects. 

“Focus on the legacy by locating the Olympics on a site(s) that has long-term regeneration potential and ... maintain the momentum after the games to realise transformation and legacy through very clear planning processes.

“Set up an organisation with the responsibility and authority to deliver against an agreed budget and to a programme, have clear auditing systems but removed as far as possible from political interference and only intervene if the project is missing its targets. Set up a programmed delivery process.

“Create a culture in which delivery, sustainability, quality and other issues are valued and are part of the delivery process. Employ the best project management and design teams and so forth,” Epstein says.

“From a sustainability point of view, it is also critical to turn bid commitments, vision and aspirations into firm objectives, key performance indicators and targets for the whole programme and individual projects that designers and contractors can work to, which can be monitored and audited and which are deliverable,” he adds.

“For the London Games, a team was set up to monitor, provide technical support and to lead on some major interventions. Having a team to provide guidance and create the management systems is crucial.” 

However, the Olympics has faced its share of criticism — the Commission for a Sustainable London 2012, a watchdog group responsible for overseeing and assuring the sustainability of the Games, highlighted concerns about wider commitments “to make the Olympic Park a blueprint for sustainable living” and “to be a catalyst for new waste management infrastructure in East London” in its latest report released in May. There has also been criticism of the superfluous use of materials. The Zaha Hadid-designed aquatic centre, for example, has a roof made from 3,000 tonnes of steel while the ArcelorMittal Orbit tower will also require a lot of steel.

Meanwhile, the aborted wind turbine project, which was supposed to have powered up to 1,200 homes in the area, incurred losses of £842,000 for the procurement, design and related consultancy services, according to news reports.

In response, the ODA was reported as saying that it will continue to work with the watchdog group in addressing their concerns, and noted in its report that the commission had praised its progress, besides stating that it was poised to meet the major sustainability targets, a first for a project of its stature.

The ODA added that it is compiling best practices and lessons from the development for future use by the industry.

Is sustainability here to stay?
Epstein notes that the practice is at a nascent stage. He says investment in low-carbon energy systems such as combined cooling, heating and power (CCHP) systems, technologies to treat and reuse water, biodiversity in cities, more renewable energy technologies and smarter use of energy are crucial to dealing with rapidly depleting supplies of food, water and oil and a burgeoning world population — projected to hit around nine billion by 2050, according to projections by the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs and the US Census Bureau.

Also crucial to the debate are the introduction of retrofitted and redesigned old buildings and urban landscapes as well as a rethinking of reusing, recycling or even upcycling materials.

“Underpinning all of this will be more engagement with the public so that new systems are taken up, people start living more sustainably and see the advantages in terms of cost, health, and lifestyle.

“We will need to introduce biodiversity into cities both to maintain health and sanity. We will need to find new, more efficient ways to grow and process food and look at the carbon footprint,” Epstein says.

This article appeared in City & Country, the property pullout of The Edge Malaysia, Issue 824, Sep 20-26, 2010 

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