Olympic Park: a sea of ugly

Yesterday I decided to have a walk through the Olympic Park, which opened a couple of weeks ago after having been closed since the end of the Olympics in 2012. I was excited that a new, large park had opened up in an inner area of London, but was hugely disappointed by what I saw. The park is scrappy, still full of building sites, and has too much concrete.

You reach the park by taking the train to Stratford and walking through a bit of the Westfield shopping complex. It’s then quite a long walk along a wide concrete pathway to the (still closed) athletics track. The Orbit “sculpture” is on the left, and a fairground helter-skelter is on the right, as if to invite comparisons with the hugely overblown, shapeless structure which appears to serve as an advertisement for a big Indian steel company. The London Aquatics Centre is also on the left as you walk into the park, and is now a public swimming pool (there is a viewing lobby off the entrance walkway, but you can only see the far end of the pool).

Walking around the rest of the park, I found not much to show for turning this from an Olympic complex into a public park. I remember when the South Norwood Country Park opened in the late 1980s, also on a reclaimed industrial landscape that had been cleared of pollution, and it was quite bare and we remarked at how “un-countrylike” it looked, but in a couple of years the wildlife grew and it became a favourite place for me to ride my bike and sit on my own and read, or whatever. There, the pathways are wide enough for three people or thereabouts, with a few narrow tracks.

The Olympic Park’s pathways are as wide as dual carriageways, and are clearly designed for crowds going to a big sporting event, not small numbers of people out enjoying a day in the park. There is even a pathway that’s as wide as a motorway, complete with a traffic bollard in the middle, which rather reminds me of that notorious traffic-free motorway in Pyongyang. No other London park has roads anything like this wide; Hyde Park’s Broad Walk is about three lanes wide, and tree-lined, while the roads through Richmond and Bushy Parks are only two fairly narrow lanes. As the park will still be used for sporting events, a few wide pathways to the car park and stations will still be needed, but they do not all need to be that wide in a park. There is also no disguising the fact that this is an ex-industrial landscape, complete with a river and several canals, neither of which have been in any way beautified or landscaped to fit in with the new park (it can be done, as you can see in any of the Royal Parks).

Passing by a tour group near one of the rivers, I heard some guy say that you wouldn’t believe that you are in the middle of London and surrounded by urban development. In fact, there is almost nowhere in the park where you are not conscious of it and cannot see one of the ugly buildings that surround the place, or a railway line, road or canal. I think it was a mistake to name it the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, because it makes it sound like a royal park and it’s nothing like any of the Royal Parks, all of which have extensive landscaping, are light on concrete and have large areas where there is tranquility. Admittedly, it’s early days, so the greenery will certainly grow, as it did in South Norwood and has done in other long-established parks, but here the greenery seems like islands amid all the roads. I don’t see why we have to name every major public works project after her, but equally I don’t see why it’s an honour to name this after anyone; it’s a dump.

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