The Foolish Wisdom of Future-Proofing


Charles Booth’s 19th century map of poverty in London; the Olympic legacy masterplan

Legacy. As a term, I think I realised the extent to which it has entered the contemporary ‘buzzword’ category when I heard an X-factor contestant declaring on national television that she wanted to ‘be a legacy’.  The misguided aspirations of inarticulate X-factor contestants aside, it is also a word that Londoners will frequently hear in conjunction with ‘2012’ these days. Meaning: what will be left in E15 when the athletes have all departed. And yet it is a deceptively tricky, somewhat intangible, concept. How does one go about ‘ensuring’ a legacy?

As part of the Mayor’s ‘Story of London‘ festival, the British Library hosted a discussion of this very matter (‘London and the Olympics: Predicting the Legacy of the 21st Century’, full details of panel members here). During the discussion, LSE academic Ricky Burdett, in passing, mentioned the difference in tone between ‘legacy’ and ‘inheritance’, referring to his own Roman upbringing. The Italians have no word for legacy. The closest equivalent is eredità: literally, inheritance.

Which provoked me to look more closely at those two words.

Legacy: ‘anything handed down from the past, as from an ancestor or predecessor: the legacy of ancient Rome’

Inheritance: ‘something that is or may be inherited; property passing at the owner’s death to the heir or those entitled to succeed; something, as a quality, characteristic, or other immaterialpossession, received from progenitors or predecessors as if by succession’

With legacy, the emphasis is on the giving, inheritance on the receiving. In extreme terms, legacy is the concern of the dying, inheritance the concern of the living. Which is the more appropriate way to think about what we’re doing to East London? Inheritance might shift the emphasis of the discussion more onto how the recipients are likely to be affected.

It merits such scrutiny because that little word is bearing quite a lot on its shoulders. It is what the Olympic Delivery Authority (and the rest of us) are hoping makes an exorbitant spend on a two-week sporting festival just about justifiable. To his credit, Jeremy Hunt (Minister for Culture, Media and Sport) did focus on sporting aspirations in his speech to the Tory conference. But so much discussion about the Olympics overlooks the sporting aspect it’s easy to assume that the Games might not be about sport at all…

These Olympics are, as Ken Livingstone once put it, an excuse to take £9.3bn from national government, and spend it improving a historically troublesome area of East London. ‘Troublesome’ because previous efforts to pull it up out of its deprived state have hitherto failed. But this leads to an uncomfortable problem. If the goal was simply that, building a massive sporting park with an awful lot of buildings that will quickly become obsolete, is probably not how you would set about it. As James Woudhuysen commented from the floor: ‘Do we really think that the 2012 Olympics can undo the damage done to East London by the Luftwaffe?’

It’s an uneasy relationship between two very different goals, that have to be made to align, and it tells in the ferocity of the justifications posed by those in charge. They’ve been set the task of synthesising and they have no choice but to insist it will work, and that it is a wise use of the money. I do have a certain sympathy for the position of Alison Nimmo, Director of Design and Regeneration at the ODA: something of a poisoned chalice. But then again, no one made her take the job.

Moreover, given the absolute certainty of not being able to predict the future – how sensible is it to be ploughing money into a ‘legacy plan’? And particularly when the activity of ‘planning’ in Britain has such a chequered reputation. The extreme extrapolation is to question the wisdom of planning for the future at all. How do we find the balance between the vogue for ‘future-proofing’ (a bizarre concept, when you think about it), organic growth, and unplanned chaos?

It is evident that these awkward subtleties have been duly considered. Much time has been spent by the masterplanning team analysing what hasn’t worked in other places: the Athens Olympic park is desolate, Barcelona’s has helped relaunch the city as a tourist destination. They’re doing their best to ensure it’s not a heavy-handed ‘grand projet’; it’s light touch; the infrastructure has been carefully designed to allow the right kind of development. But as we surely by now have learned, design on its own is never enough. Design won’t prevent a ghetto developing. Other, as yet unforeseen actors for good or ill, can come in to play.

The misgivings flowed thick and fast from the audience. Has any attempt been made to make links across the river? How likely is it, that with the new 7-minute rail link to Kings Cross, new housing built will be affordable for the existing population, many of whom are chronically unemployed? Yes, we will have a new Westfield centre providing lots of new jobs, but what a damning measure of our own civic values, that a culturally-bereft overgrown shopping mall is a benchmark of success and social improvement.

Which is why Stephen Bayley’s turn as ‘token contrarian’ (something of a job description for Bayley) on the panel was warmly welcomed by the audience, although he didn’t provide any answers. He argued that no-one can ‘create’ legacy, just as he has often argued no-one can ‘create’ brand. His alternative suggestions for spending the money – ‘£9.3bn would probably buy you about four major bridges’, or spreading the Olympics around the city to allow pockets of regeneration to occur – would indeed have been a much more sensible route. Too late now though. As he pointed out – glaringly obvious but rarely acknowlegded – it’s the entire premise, not the current decisions of the masterplanners, at the source of the problem. To be sporting, at this stage the only sensible, if impotent, course of action is to wish the whole operation well.

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Filed under Architecture, Culture, Design, Politics

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