On the last day of a London vacation, I took a tour of the 2012 Olympics site, drawn there by a feeling that I wanted to see in person the venue I’d be watching on television later this summer. Being interested in cities, I also wanted to see how London was remaking a vast and polluted area of east London into something that would remain great after the Olympics. I wondered, as I always do, whether there were any lessons for Los Angeles here.
I took the underground to the Bromley-by-Bow station, several stops away from our South Kensington area apartment. Outside the station, a guide was waiting. Our group walked across the street to the parking lot of a Tesco super store, big as Cosco or Wal-Mart and probably looking the same inside. This is definitely not tourist London.
London’s East End has long been home to the working poor, including generations of immigrants who worked in its factories and on the docks. Years ago, the factories polluted the ground, the Lea River and other streams. Women working in a match factory in the 19th century glowed, and then died, from the phosphorous they handled.
The Olympics required a massive cleanup. Afterwards, there will be a park and thousands of housing units, more expensive than the current low-cost homes. We walked along a fence and over a bridge, forced to look at the stadium and aquatic center from a distance. Only workers are permitted on the site. The stadium and the center are simply designed and utilitarian. Nothing impressive and elegant like Beijing’s 2008 Olympic stadium, the Bird’s Nest.
I shook my head in wonder when we finished our tour at a Westfield mall that dwarfs our local Westfield’s. Same stores, same goods. But huge. It’s very popular, as is the Tesco super store. What makes this Westfield different are the trains and buses linking it to the rest of the city. I found my way to the Stratford underground station in the mall, helped by a London transit employee who saw me looking at a map and very kindly guided me to my train.
London sprawls like Los Angeles, but it has a huge rail underground rail network, packed during rush hours and in the evening. It will probably be impossible during the Olympics. The fact that the London underground has existed and grown since the 19th century in such a sprawling city is a great argument against the complaints of the diminishing band of L.A. transit skeptics who maintain our city is too spread out to support a train system.
I also thought about the development of London’s Olympic site. L.A. has no such huge stretch of land available. Playa Vista was the last. Development here is occurring in settled neighborhoods, and few want to return to the urban renewal-redevelopment days of ripping down older homes and buildings for something new. Development here will follow the transit lines, which eventually will take people to their homes, jobs and shopping, although hopefully nothing as big as the London East End Westfield’s. Playa Vista will be begging for a transit connection. What works in London can work in Los Angeles.