Can the Olympics regenerate the natural landscape?

Martin Wright reports on the quest for a green, restorative Games in London

“I can’t believe they’re just going to concrete it all over for the sake of a bunch of blokes running round a track.”

Such was the blunt opinion of one resident of Stratford, living on the fringes of the Lea Valley in East London, soon after the location for the Games had been announced.

She wasn’t alone. Local allotment holders were outraged at the prospect of being swept off their sites. Writer Iain Sinclair bemoaned the loss of one of his beloved ‘edgelands’: scruffy swathes of wasteland mixed with allotments and workshops; little relics of ‘real’ London yet to be colonised by corporate blandness. It wasn’t a wasteland bereft of wildlife, either. There were patches of woodland and wild flowers. Old industrial sites had sprouted tangled jungles of shrubs and greenery. Birders had spotted snipe, warblers and cuckoos…

Green regeneration was at the heart of London’s winning bid for the Games, but it was clear that the organisers’ own green credentials were going to come under some tight scrutiny. Could they really combine a slick sporting venue with a natural landscape rich in wildlife?

There was certainly work to do. The site sprawls across the valley of the River Lea as it slides its way south to the Thames. A natural floodplain, this had long ago been drained for market gardens to supply the burgeoning capital. These in turn had gradually been replaced with workshops and depots, many of which had slipped into dereliction, leaving a legacy of petrol, tar, arsenic and other toxins leaching slowly into the soil and water. Some of the lushest vegetation, too, was distinctly alien. Poisonous giant hogweed, ground-swallowing Japanese knotweed and the voracious Chinese mitten crab – all wildlife, yes, but not the sort to celebrate.

Converting this into an ecological park meant starting, literally, from the ground up. Nearly two million tonnes of contaminated soil had to be lifted and washed clean before any construction could begin. Then the slow process of habitat creation started; taking the best of what was already there (which sometimes meant lifting plants from the ground, keeping them alive, and then transplanting them back into the same site once construction was complete) and adding elements that were missing.

The whole valley has been designed to soak up the rain slowly before it can turn into a flood, restoring the function it once held in its natural state

The sheer scale of that is impressive: nearly 700 bird and bat boxes, 4,000 trees and over 400,000 plants and bulbs have been carefully installed, planted or replanted to create a densely woven mix of habitats. These include reed beds, wet woodlands, annual and perennial wildflower meadows, and even manicured lawns, designed to be home to everything from kingfishers, herons, linnets and swifts to grass snakes, lizards, bats and honey bees. And through it all flows a river, resurrected from the narrow, canalised drain it had become: now a broader, free-flowing refuge, ideal for eels, potentially water voles, and even otters. It protects human habitat too: the whole valley has been designed to soak up the rain slowly before it can turn into a flood, restoring the function it once held in its natural state.

Where possible, London’s ecological past has been brought to life. The swathes of wildflowers echo the hay meadows which once ringed the capital; the willow pollards reproduce a common sight along the banks of the Thames and the Lea. And the whole is designed to complement wider biodiversity plans for the city.

The finished site is, ecologically speaking, a work of two halves. The northern part is more of a nature reserve than an urban park, a fen-like patchwork of reeds, woods and marshlands. The south – where the bulk of the permanent structures lie – is more municipal. But even here, the emphasis is on biodiversity: grey wagtails and black redstarts are nesting, and the neatly trimmed lawns conceal a rich variety of grasses.

Already there are signs that the wildlife is moving in. Kingfishers, pipits, wheatears and stonechats are among the many birds to have made an appearance, and a short-eared owl was even spotted winging its way between the stands in the main stadium. Otters have yet to rear their heads, but as this elusive mammal slowly creeps back from its West Country retreats, organisers are hopeful that it will some day take up residence in one of the specially constructed holts in the riverbank.

While the Olympic Park is a case study in recreating rare habitats, other sites set a tough test in protecting existing ones. When Surrey’s Box Hill was unveiled as the location for cycling races, local conservationists were horrified, conjuring up the prospect of cycling fans trampling over chalk downland and its rare orchids and insects. In response, Games organisers LOCOG worked in close partnership with the landowners, the National Trust, and the official nature conservation body, Natural England, to ensure all the key sensitive areas and species were identified and located.

This involved a thorough ecological survey, which uncovered previously unrecorded species in the area, such as the Surrey midget moth, and identified new populations of the small blue butterfly and the straw belle moth. Guided by these discoveries, the spectator viewing areas have been sited away from the most sensitive habitats, and some areas of invasive scrub have been cleared to allow rare chalkland flowers to flourish again as part of a new long-term management plan form the area.

“Box Hill was an object lesson in collaboration”, says Julie Duffus, LOCOG’s Sustainability Manager. “We had to win the trust of conservationists, who started out very suspicious. And in a way they were right. They knew demand from cycling fans would be massive. So we staged a test event to prove that we could do this without destroying the environment they loved.”

David Stubbs, LOCOG’s Head of Sustainability, insists that conservation has taken priority over maximising spectator numbers and TV coverage. “Broadcasters initially wanted us to prune back roadside trees to improve overhead camera views. But we resisted as these interlocking tree canopies over the country lanes also provide important habitat for protected species like dormice, as well as being part of the rural charm of this part of Surrey. It would simply not have made sense to cut these back for what would be effectively a few minutes of viewing.”

Stubbs insists that, far from damaging biodiversity, the Games has provided a trigger to improve it. “Take Weymouth Harbour [site of the sailing]. We knew we had to be careful of the impact on the seabed. Anchors from mooring buoys could have made a mess of the eel grass beds, for example, and we knew there were seahorses there, too. So we mapped every inch of the harbour. We now know where every single seahorse lives. That’s proper conservation!”

The coming of the Games boosted conservation efforts well beyond the affected area

The effort didn’t stop at the seashore either. In an intriguing multiplier effect, the coming of the Games boosted conservation efforts well beyond the affected area. The major conservation bodies involved in the area – such as the Dorset Wildlife Trust, Natural England, the Environment Agency and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds – were brought together by the need to respond to Olympic plans. But they then collaborated to set up new protected areas in farmland, wetlands and woods nearby.

The fact that so many mainstream conservation groups have got behind the wider Olympics biodiversity plans reflects the sheer amount of talking that went on between everyone involved. “We had to convince people that we really meant it,” says Stubbs, “and that it wasn’t just something we put in the pitch to boost London’s chances.” It wasn’t easy. “A lot of people were pretty cynical to start with”, he admits. “They assumed we’d start dropping our commitments once we’d won the bid. So it came as a surprise when we kept producing targets, action plans and so on.”

Not everyone’s satisfied, of course. Some of campaigners against the removal of century-old allotments, which have disappeared beneath the Velo Park, remain resolutely hostile – unmollified by plans to open new sites after the Games. Others see the questionable record of corporate sponsors as denting any achievements on the biodiversity front.

And it remains to be seen just how rigorously all the long-term plans will be stuck to once the media glare fades post-2012. But meanwhile, it’s hard to argue with the fact that a largely derelict, post-industrial valley on the less glamorous side of town has become an extraordinary experiment in ecological restoration.

And all because of a bunch of people running round a track.

This article first appeared in the Green Futures Special Edition ‘Beyond the Finish