Return to Olympic Park

The Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park has continued to develop since 2012. Photo: Kevin Allen

Noel Kingsbury revisits to see how the plantings developed at of one of the UK’s most important new landscapes 

The project

The Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in East London covers 250 hectares, with 100 hectares of green parkland, and is Britain’s largest new park since the Victorian era. It is a long thin park that follows the course of the River Lee, and consists of the South Park, which is home to many of the venues used during the Games; and the North Park, which is a wet woodland habitat that runs along the river banks.

Before the Games, the site contained the largest fridge mountain in Europe, set in a deprived area of the city with high crime and unemployment. The legacy of the park after the Olympics was considered from the beginning, so three masterplans were created – one for the 2012 Games; one for the transformation into a public park, opening in 2014; and one for the longer-term 2030 legacy.

After the Games, the area of green space was doubled, and the original 2012 Gardens in the South Park including the North American, Asia, Europe and Southern Hemisphere Gardens were added to with the South Plaza Promenade and pleasure gardens, designed by Field Operations of High Line fame with planting design by Piet Oudolf. There is also a BMX park with a crushed concrete landscape, recycled from brownfield sites and the park’s construction, and play areas with climbing walls.

The North Park is more naturalistic and has an important green infrastructure, with bio-swales for drainage. The area was designed to handle flooding, protecting homes up river. It is one of the only wet woodlands in existence and has exceeded species targets, attracting wildlife such as kingfishers.

The park is unusual in not having signs instructing people how to behave – the management team are determined that it be a place where people, especially children, feel they have ‘permission’ to play – and it is open 24 hours a day.

Dutch plantsman Piet Oudolf created the planting design for the new South Plaza area.

The planting

Planting plays a key role, both in terms of the physical separation of areas but also in giving them each a distinctive feel. Unlike in many major landscaping projects, the planting here was a central part of the whole project, and was designed to be a prominent part of the legacy.

The landscape architecture was by Hargreaves Associates in conjunction with LDA Design, with extensive herbaceous planting led by James Hitchmough and Nigel Dunnett, both professors at the University of Sheffield’s internationally acclaimed Department of Landscape, and garden designer Sarah Price.

Visiting the park now, years after the main event, offers a chance to see how these plantings have fared, which is itself a strong guide as to the potential usefulness of perennial-based plantings for future projects. Asked how he felt about the post-Games maintenance and management, Dunnett said that he felt, “overwhelmingly positive. We were concerned about what would happen post Games, but are very happy how it has all turned out… the run-up to the games was hugely resourced compared to now, but the management team are doing a fantastic job, and the integrity of the design is intact overall”.

“The plantings have generally worked very well,” says Hitchmough. “Some, whilst still successful, have suffered the loss of some species due to the oversuccess of others. It’s always difficult for the maintainers to pick up on this… As the species diversity falls, so does the duration of the flowering window… The further one gets from the South Park, the maintenance tails off. This is where the challenges lie in the immediate future – not letting the nature bit degrade. When you label something as nature-like, that’s normally the death knell, as this is where the maintenance cuts will be implemented.”

New areas include play and event spaces. Photo: Robin Forster, Courtesy of LDA Design.

The issues

The plant diversity here is very impressive – far more so than in any conventional park. There are a lot of British native species, re-seeding annuals and some very impressive borders of naturalistic perennial planting. Much does appear to be in a state of flux, however, with certain species, notably some grasses or effective self-seeders, beginning to get the upper hand in a way which was almost certainly not intended.

The key issue is one of the absence of creative input into the management process, as Dunnett and Hitchmough have not been retained as consultants during the post-Games period. Dunnett describes how there is high-quality maintenance, but not active development. “The same operations are done every year, but there has been no overview of what is actually a dynamic process. Every four or five years, there need to be interventions to limit the growth of the more successful species or to facilitate the growth and spread of the less vigorous.”

In the absence of outside consultancy input, plantings are likely to become increasingly dominated by a limited number of species, an example being in the Europe Garden in the 2012 Gardens area, where Stipa calamagrostis is very vigorous and “has seeded to form a huge meadow, but it is swamping other plants. In the North American garden, it is the asters which are doing this.”

Field Operations designed the Arc Promenade after the Games. Photo: James Newton Photographs

The future

In some cases, however, the contractors have been able to think on their feet and come up with creative solutions, as Dunnett says of an area called the California Bank, “which is very hot and dry and dominated by annuals. It has been a real surprise. The annuals flower in spring and early summer, re-seed in midsummer after a cut-back, and they partly re-flower in autumn, going on to flower again next year.”

Chief among the successful annuals has been the California poppy, Eschscholzia californica, whose lifecycle of summer or autumn germination together with a long flowering season enables it to make the most of the long growing season of the London climate.

The future development of the park will be fascinating to watch. Starting from a blank slate and sterile substrate, the normal input of weeds has been largely absent, so that each part of the park planting will develop its own dynamic and dominant flora. A ‘creative re-launch’ at some stage would help maintain diversity and visual focus, but in its absence, a balance of quality management and natural process looks set to keep our interest up for many years to come.