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“East London is open for business”

London is moving East. That was the topic of this year’s Leading London conference which was sponsored by the London Evening Standard. My wife had entered a competition for entry into the exclusive event (she’s always entering online competitions of some sort!) and as luck would have it, she won. So there we were with two tickets to the event, surrounded by intellectuals, politicians and like-minded business professionals and in all honesty, I hadn’t known what to expect from this conference; but I wasn’t in the end disappointed.

The Leading London conference looked at the future position of London on a city-wide, national and global stage; but more specifically what is to be of the legacy of the 2012 Olympic Games and its former site? The joint event between the Evening Standard, the London Legacy Development Corporation, Here East and International Quarter London, highlighted the changing landscape London businesses need to work within and how businesses can be the catalyst to drive regeneration.

The conference kicked off with an opening address from Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan who spoke about the future plans of the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park and in particular how this part of East London was to become the new cultural landmark and employment hub; driving collaboration and innovation, cultivating the next generation of talent and opening up East London further to the rest of the world.

Mr Khan told the event: “Good growth isn’t about supporting growth at any cost but about working to re-balance development in London, embracing London’s current wave of population growth as opportunity to grasp with both hands. Opportunity to deliver not only a more socially integrated sustainable city but a city with a world-class public realm, access to culture, and proper coordination between affordable housing, social infrastructure and transport. And whilst housing is always built in ways that encourage greater social integration amongst different communities and generations, this is how we can create healthier, happier, safer communities and it’s one we can achieve together, here in East London.”

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The undertone of his speech didn’t just focus on delivering world class educational facilities, bringing together major institutions such as the Victoria & Albert Museum, the Smithsonian, UCL and the London College of Fashion, or the delivery of homes that are genuinely affordable to Londoners. No what I thought was very prevalent throughout his speech was this idea of connecting communities, businesses, culture and the achievements of the local residents; that is to be the true legacy of the 2012 Olympic Games and East London.

According to ex-chancellor George Osborne, the near universal experience of dealing with the aftermath of the Olympic Games, is returning to a site that has become a wasteland with facilities falling into complete disrepair and dereliction. He is right, with evidence of this in both Athens and Beijing, it is shameful that an area which once brought prosperity, joy and connected and united so many nations, has become so disconnected; a shadow of its former glory. More importantly, it represents missed opportunities to revitalise an area, create thousands of jobs and thousands more homes and is a clear example of what not to do.

Sadiq went on to say that “in many ways the true legacy will be the example it sets for the rest of London, the country and the world. What is possible when regeneration is done right. The transformation and regeneration of this area has already transformed lives and has potential to transform many more lives over years to come. It’s proof that regeneration has the potential to better peoples horizons and bring hope to millions. Businesses, universities and cultural institutions are flocking here and the centre of gravity in London is moving east”

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The centre of gravity is moving East. If someone had told you 30-40 years ago that East London would be a thriving hub of business and social activity, a desirable place that businesses and people would choose to locate to out of their own choice, laughter would have probably been the immediate (and appropriate!) response to that. The history and perception of East London, for a long time, prevented growth and investment into this area despite its close proximity to the centre. Professor Tony Travers told the event “The way in which this part of London has gone from being derelict railway land to what it is today is remarkable and would have seemed inconceivable 20 years ago. Things are not always set as they are forever.”

His speech focused on how radically London has changed and transformed, how east London has survived and thrived and its extraordinary capacity to change, adjust and connect London in more ways than one, but how it does not necessarily have the ability to always grow.

“London is constantly changing. Beyond that it is capable of delivering higher quality of life, better standards of earnings and all other things citizens need but only if it allowed to achieve and control its own destiny. Maybe more autonomy is the way forward.”

Sonita Alleyne, who delivered a powerful, personal and inspiring speech questioned this, “Should we be autonomous? No we shouldn’t. We are not autonomous and this is not an autonomous part of the city. This part of London is so well served because of its connectivity through infrastructure and transport. There is a connectivity in a much more profound sense as well. There is an extraordinary, diverse, young demographic and very creative demographic in this area and that makes it a great source of new talent and it’s talents that new businesses need to tap in to”.

“Build it and they will come”, she said, and of course that phrase has never been more relevant in this context. People are what make a place; people are what make communities; people are the defining connection between each and every area of the city and businesses need to embrace this.

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“This will become an area that is defined, not just by the buildings, not just by the public realm but about the life that gets breathed into all those things by the people of the area and the people that adopt an area because people are changing. People move into the area, they adopt an area but it’s that coalescence…that is the thing that breathes life into an area.”

The morning of events including panel discussions concluded and I left with a sense of positivity for the Legacy, for the Olympic Park and the wider area. However, the challenge for the rest of London is how to repeat this in order to regenerate other large scale brownfield sites. It was a success as a catalyst for regeneration but how will other London Borough’s provide such large scale investment into land clearance and transport links to deliver their targeted levels of housing, community and business without it being powerfully driven due to a large scale event such as the Olympics?

As an East London based Architect, Unit One Architects are situated at the heart of this remarkable change that is unfolding and are actively involved. If you have a project, whether housing, community, commercial or retail based in East London, please contact us to see how we can help you.