LONDON — From hanging baskets of blooming flowers to the full-scale regeneration of one of the Britain’s poorest areas, hidden corners of London are being spruced up for the 2012 Summer Olympics, with organizers racing to beautify the run-down East End less than two months before the start of the games.
They have encouraged Britons with green thumbs to “grow for gold” and plant Olympic-themed floral tributes as the country gets behind its first Olympics since 1948.
Meanwhile, a longer-term transformation is taking place in one of the poorest areas of the country. The British government and the Olympics organizers hope investment in long-neglected parts of East London, where Olympic Park is located, will have a lasting impact.
In his first major speech as prime minister in May 2010, David Cameron set out his aspiration to “make sure the Olympics legacy lifts East London from being one of the poorest parts of the country to one that shares fully in the capital’s growth and prosperity.”
The multicultural East London districts of Hackney, Newham and Tower Hamlets surrounding Olympic Park have high levels of poverty and unemployment.
The government wants to bring that part of London up to the city’s average on a range of social and economic indicators, including employment and affordable housing.
“There is hope that games-led regeneration can help achieve this, particularly around employment and [joblessness],” said Steve Cummins, professor of urban health at Queen Mary, the University of London.
“The key question is whether the rhetoric translates into reality. [The] goals are very laudable. But given global recession and British austerity, what actually gets put in place on the ground after the games have finished remains to be seen.”
Factories and warehouses used to dominate the hundreds of acres of contaminated land only a few miles from where the new sports venues and a waterside park will host the Olympics. The city also has cleaned up the polluted River Lea, which runs through the site, built 3,000 homes and shored up public transportation.
After the games
When the Olympic athletes leave, the area will be designated for five new neighborhoods complete with homes, schools, health care centers, parks and places of worship, according to the London Legacy Development Corp., the nonprofit agency charged with overseeing Olympic Park after the games.
The area is also on the doorstep to Europe’s biggest shopping mall: Westfield Stratford City, with more than 300 big-name stores, a 17-screen cinema and a 14-lane bowling alley.
During the games, the mall is intended to serve as the gateway to Olympic Park, with visitors arriving by train having to pass by the shops to get to the sporting events.
It will be like “having to go through the gift shop” before getting to the main attraction, businessman Alan Harris said.
However, behind the regeneration hyperbole of the organizers and politicians, the reality is very different, he said.