The Lea is London’s second largest river, though people living nearby would not have known that until recently because it was buried under millions of tonnes of rubbish. Now, it has been dug out and revived; fish are back in its water and ducks paddle on its surface.LONDON: The Lea is London’s second largest river, though people living nearby would not have known that until recently because it was buried under millions of tonnes of rubbish. Now, it has been dug out and revived; fish are back in its water and ducks paddle on its surface.
For this, Londoners can thank the 2012 Olympics – and the promise that they will be the greenest Games the world has ever seen.
London won the Games partly because it said it would reduce, re-use and recycle in ways that would minimise the Olympics’ effect on the planet.
It started with the greening of the site that was to be the home of the Olympic Park. An abandoned industrial estate in the East End suburb of Stratford, it was a scar on the face of the city, full of rubble from the Blitz, abandoned cars, tins of paint and industrial solvents. The mounds of garbage were as high as 15 metres above sea level, burying the original landscape.
The head of design and regeneration for London’s Olympic Delivery Authority, Jerome Frost, says: “for many years, the river Lea was lost. Many people who lived here couldn’t tell you where it was because the land around it was so built up with waste.” The river runs north-south and flows down into the Thames, which flows east-west.
The work began with the demolition of 200 buildings and the removal of 1.3 million tonnes of waste. In most large building projects, the result would have been a million tonnes of garbage dumped somewhere else. Not this time.
Ninety-five per cent of the demolished material was re-used in new buildings. Two “soil-hospitals” on site used high-pressure steam to clean and recycle 80 per cent of 1.4 million tonnes of contaminated earth. Buying and cleaning up the site cost £1 billion ($1.5 billion).
The land around the new Olympic buildings – including a stadium, velodrome and aquatic centre – has been transformed into a park. So that it would be ecologically stable, it was repopulated with native animals: 4000 newts, 300 lizards and 100 toads were released.
Gardeners took clippings from native trees and grew them offsite. They reseeded the landscape with grass and wildflowers.
The architects and engineers designing the buildings had the same brief to focus on sustainability. “The idea was excellence without extravagance,” says Chris Jopson, of the architectural design firm Populous.
The stadium uses only one-third the amount of steel that went into Beijing’s bird’s-nest. That came at a price: the stadium was cut down partly by removing facilities including toilets from the main building and siting them on a concourse outside – a strategy that risks another kind of pollution problem.
This Games will have many more temporary structures than there have been in earlier ones. Two-thirds of bridges in the park will be removed when the Games are over, for example, because they will no longer be required to carry up to 500,000 people in a day.
For the temporary buildings, “73 per cent of materials disappeared when we applied rational strategies”, says Julian Sutherland, director for sustainable development at Atkins, the design firm overseeing the temporary structures.
Much of the woodwork will not be painted, saving time and chemicals and allowing the wood to be recycled afterwards. Venues were designed for natural cooling so only 14 per cent will be air-conditioned. Much of the seating will be rented. The stadium and the aquatic centre will be cut down by thousands of seats after the Games to make them a comfortable size for community use.
The London Organising Committee for the Olympic Games has estimated the carbon footprint at 400,000 tonnes of CO2 equivalent, using a new tool that estimates the embodied carbon for materials looking at where they came from, how they would be transported and whether they could be re-used.
“We wanted to re-set the benchmark for [green] performance for the construction industry for any future massive urban redevelopment projects,” Mr Sutherland says.
There has been a side benefit: the budget for the whole Olympics was £8.2 billion ($12.6 billion) and it might now be done for as little as £7 billion, depending on the final cost of security measures. The green Games are also the frugal Games.
First published in the Sydney Morning Herald.