The Olympics, from both sides

Yesterday our Headstart Day was about The Olympics. We had a tour of the inside of The Olympic Park, and heard from Sam who has written about people living around the outside. Here’s his article. It’s brilliant.

Sam talked about the complicated communities around the park and how hard it is to generalize about them. Even calling them communities seems like the wrong foot to start on. I thought his statistic (which I have now forgotten) about the amount of people living in privately rented accommodation in Newham, who move home within the space of a year, was really interesting. What kind of community does that make? And in what sense can it be supported? He seemed to say that we don’t know how many ‘local’ people actually worked in the park because all you have to do to prove you are a member of the local community is to have a local postcode. So you could move here from Manchester and get a job the next day, and you’d be local.

I also really liked the stuff he was saying about how brands, developers, the Olympics and the council are all trying to tell people living round here what they are supposed to be feeling – even though that probably bears no relationship to how they actually feel, and how they would actually express those feelings. Real change to places happens when people can find a way to articulate feelings about new places for themselves.

Even though I think Sam feels quite critical of how the Olympics has happened, I like the way that he doesn’t fall into tired ‘for or against territory’ but focusses on characterising the experience of people who are caught up in the middle of the project. That means he doesn’t bash the Westfield for being a big, boring evil shopping centre, but recognises that through the employment it has created (Westfield is the third biggest employer in Newham after the NHS and London City Airport) it has at least created a connection between people living here, and something that is happening to them.

Finally, his focus on real people shows how hard it is to weigh up the what you get and what you lose in an urban development project.  He nails this in my favourite passage in the piece:

‘Physical alteration on such a scale, whatever its possibilities, carries with it a sense of loss, often of abstract things. But contemplating this, you find yourself in calculations that do not compute. How do you weigh invisible goods and bads—a happy childhood, combined memory—against billions of pounds of new infrastructure and a new John Lewis? What is the relationship between poor public health and fresh tarmac? A sense of place and a sterile fence? Ants and new, bourgeois neighbours? As my father likes to say, quoting an old university professor of his, it is like comparing a pound of butter and two o’clock.’

Thank you Sam!

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