London 2012 Olympics: what's the hidden cost to green spaces and wildlife habitats?

London olympics site
Already hit by rows over radioactive waste and airport expansion, the London 2012 Olympic Games are accused of degrading green land vital to local communities and wildlife. Tom Antebi reports

When London won the bid to host the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic games it was, according to its advocates, intended to set a bench-mark in large-scale environmentally-friendly and sustainable sporting events, as well as acting as a significant hub for regeneration in North East London.

The development of sports facilities, the influx of money during the Games themselves, as well as significant investment in the five Olympic boroughs: Hackney, Waltham Forest, Newham, Tower Hamlets and Greenwich; were all put forward as examples of this underlying commitment to a ‘greener’ Games.

In a statement on sustainability, the Olympic Delivery Authority (ODA) maintains that 'London is the first summer host city to embed sustainability in its planning from the start...we want to use the Games as a catalyst for change, for the regeneration of and improvement of quality of life in East London.'

But already blighted by rows over radioactive waste and concerns over airport expansion, a number of further allegations surrounding the nature of the construction of the Olympic infrastructure - and its impact on local wildlife and green land - have been made, raising questions about the overall ramifications of the Olympics and whether they are in fact being ‘green-washed’.

Green hotspots

In stark contrast to the rotting, disused industrial landscape where the stadium itself has been built, much of the wider area in which the Olympic Park is situated and the boroughs in general, are awash with marshes, allotments, meadows, floodplains, nature reserves and open green space.

Each of the five boroughs affected by the Olympics produced, during the last five years, a Biodiversity Action Plan (BAP). These BAPs provide detailed analysis of local wildlife bases with key habitats and species identified for particular attention. They also, with the exception of Waltham Forest, outline the number of Sites of Importance for Nature Conservation, or SINCs, within the boroughs. 

There are more than 111 identified SINCs within the other four boroughs. Newham  and Hackney have identified 56 and 30 priority or protected species respectively. Hackney Council told the Ecologist the borough consists of 42 per cent green space, including '24 hectares of woodland, 34 hectares of standing water more than 20 hectares of grassland and two hectares of reed bed.' 

The BAP for Waltham Forest details, among other things, details 8-9 hectares of flood plain grassland, an estimated 16.5 hectares of marshland and 7 hectares of reedbed, almost all of which is located in the Walthamstow Marshes, a nature reserve and a Site of Specific Scientific Interest. Species earmarked in Greenwich include bats, black redstarts, hedgehogs, stag beetles, water voles and black poplar. 

One area particularly affected by the Olympics development is the Lower Lea Valley, widely known as a green ‘lung’ for London, with the vein of the river Lea (or Lee) running through the middle. The importance of the valley for local wildlife cannot be underestimated, according to campaigners.

Mark Pearson, of the Hackney Wildlife Group, which collates environmental and biodiversity data in Hackney, said that not only is the valley home to many species, including kingfishers (who also breed along it), it is 'one of the top three or four migratory routes in London.'

In fact the valley forms a corridor for a number of migratory birds such as ducks, geese, warbles and thrushes. Kestrels and herons are also known to make use of this oasis. Pearson said the valley was a 'traditional route' and had been for 'hundreds of thousands of years.'

The valley constitutes a rest and refueling space for these various migratory species, who would otherwise be forced to fly further afield. Yet despite its natural importance, this green lung, along with other areas with huge importance for local residents and critical to wildlife, is seeing degradation and disruption as a result of the games.

The Bully Point Nature Reserve, bought in 1972 by the Lea Valley Regional Park Authority, who landscaped it into its nature reserve form, is amongst the victims. 'Bully Point nature reserve, a secluded and very much loved area ... was bulldozed out of existence. It was...a haven for wildlife, but sadly no more' the Lea Valley Federation told the Ecologist. As well as being a reserve, the land was integral to a major community woodland scheme. 

The reserve was removed in order to build the Velodrome arena, a permanent structure that will host the track-cycling events. The legacy of the Velodrome will, according to its supporters, mean 'a new mountain bike course and road-cycle circuit will be added to create a VeloPark for the local community, sports clubs and elite athletes', as  well as providing 'outreach' and 'community development programmes'. 

In an official statement in relation to Bully Point however, the ODA claimed that 'extensive works were needed to remediate the land and eradicate the invasive species in the area. The redesign of the parklands in this area incorporates new wet woodland habitat, [and] will encourage biodiversity as well as foster greater recreation access.'

Broken promises?

Arguably the most publicised loss of community land due to the London Olympic development is the Manor Garden Society (MGS) allotments. The allotment collective found themselves in the middle of the planned Olympic Park, and consequently felt the sharp end of a Compulsory Purchase Order (CPO) driven through their 100 year-old plots. 

At the time, the 1981 Acquisition of Land Act required that replacement land must be found for common land acquired by the ODA.

However, the MGS, which saw their plots destroyed in 2007, claim that their 'old site will be replaced by something far inferior in the future Olympic Park', and argue that the displacement of a plot ‘so naturalised into the surroundings is a betrayal of the thousands of people on allotment waiting lists in the local area, who were hoping for a genuine example of sustainability and a response to local needs in the Olympic legacy.’

Although there is no suggestion of illegality or wrongdoing, opposition groups claim that the obligation to replace land swallowed up for Olympic purposes was later quietly dropped, meaning developers are effectively free to default on the requirement in other cases arising from Olympic developments.

The Hackney Environment Forum (HEF), a network of local environmental groups in Hackney, including Hackney Marshes User Group (HMUG), claims that in the summer of 2003 the bidding company, London 2012, and the then Mayor of London Ken Livingstone, made commitments that 'no permanent or temporary structures would be built on Hackney Marshes.'

However, these commitments appear to have been broken, with one SINC – known as Arena Fields – destroyed to make way for a press and media centre and multi-storey car park, plus an arena for handball and food halls. Another, known as East Marsh, it has now emerged, will be used as a coach drop-off point during the games.

The ODA responded that 'After the Games, [East Marsh] will be reinstated with improved football pitches. There are no plans to undertake works on the Hackney Marshes other than East Marsh.'

Hackney Council told the Ecologist that 'biodiversity enhancements have been designated for Hackney Marshes, including tree planting and habitat creation along the eastern fringe. The new Olympic Park is due to include areas of habitat creation to mitigate any loss, including Arena Field.' The authority acknowledged that although biodiversity enhancements have been drawn up in the ODA's own BAP 'it is not yet entirely clear exactly what and how [they] will [sic] be delivered'.

Disputed perceptions

The public body with jurisdiction over the Lower Lea Valley is The Lea Valley Regional Park Authority (LVRPA). In a statement on the loss of common green space within the Lower Lea Valley, the Ecologist was told: ‘It has been estimated that a total of 42.47 hectares of SINC sites will be lost due to the development of the Olympic Park’, but the ODA’s BAP has planned to replace this with ‘45 hectares of SINC standard land’. The legacy of the Olympic Park is designed to be beneficial for the area: ‘The Parklands will comprise 102ha of open space… which will extend the area of open parkland into the Lower Lee Valley. This will support the regeneration of the Lower Lee Valley,’ the LVRPA stated. 

This view was echoed by the ODA, which said: 'Habitat proposals outlined in the [ODA] BAP were discussed with the other key biodiversity partners including Natural England, Environment Agency, London Wildlife Trust, British Waterways, Lee Valley Regional Park Authority.'  

When asked how this work will support the Lower Lea Valley, the ODA said: 'Much of the former open space was fragmented, of relatively poor quality, had poor access, or was not publicly accessible.'

Annie Chipchase of the HMUG responded to this by saying: 'It is far from the reality. There was a large amount of publicly accessible open space on what is now the Olympic site, much of which was not 'fragmented'...the Bow Back Rivers provided a network of towpaths, which had been opened up in the 1990s.'

Although the jury may still be out in relation to the overall, long term, impacts of the London Olympics, these claims do little to encourage confidence in the Games' eco-credentials, say campaigners, who also point out the less-than-shining environmental and social legacy of other Olympic events globally.

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