The real environmental impacts of holding the Olympics in East London



The greenest Games yet?

When London won the bid to host the Olympic and Paralympic games in 2012, it was intended to prove a bench-mark in ‘green’ and sustainable mega-events with the promise that these Games would be the most environmentally friendly Games ever staged. In addition, they would act as a significant regeneration project in North East London. This was meant to happen through the development of sports facilities, the influx of money during the Games, and significant investment in the five Olympic boroughs: Hackney, Waltham Forest, Newham, Tower Hamlets and Greenwich. But allegations have surfaced that the installation of the Olympic infrastructure is impacting significantly on local wildlife and common green land.

In a statement on sustainability, the Olympic Delivery Authority (ODA) proclaims “London is the first summer Host City to embed sustainability in its planning from the start…we want to use the Games as a catalyst for change, for the regeneration of and improvement of quality of life in East London”.[2] Yet well-known and popular common green land has been lost to the development process, with the ODA pledging new green spaces as part of the legacy. In stark contrast to the rotting, disused industrial landscape in which the stadium itself has been built, much of the area in which the Olympic Park is situated, and the boroughs in general, are awash with marshes, allotments, meadows, floodplains, nature reserves and open green space.

Development corporations and loss of biodiversity

Each of the five boroughs has over the last few years produced what is known as a BAP, or Biodiversity Action Plan. These BAPs provide detailed analyses of the local wildlife bases with key habitats and species marked for particular attention. They also, with the exception of Waltham Forest, outline the number of Sites of Importance for Nature Conservation, or SINCs, within the borough. There are more than 111 identified SINCs within the other four boroughs. Newham (with data provided by GiGL[1]) and Hackney have identified 56 and 30 priority or protected species respectively, and Hackney Council told the Ecologist the borough consists of 42% green space, including “24 hectares of woodland, 34 hectares of standing water, more than 20 hectares of grassland and 2 hectares of reedbed”. The BAP for Waltham Forest details, among other things, 8-9 hectares of flood plain grassland, an estimated 16.5 hectares of marshland and 7 hectares of reedbed, almost all of which is located in the Walthamstow Marshes; a nature reserve and a Site of Specific Scientific Interest. Species earmarked for special attention in Greenwich include bats, Black Redstarts, Hedgehogs, Stag Beetles, Water Voles and Black Poplar.

An area more controversially affected by the development is the Lower Lea Valley, widely known as a green lung for London, with the vein of the river Lea (or Lee) running through the middle. The importance of the valley for local wildlife cannot be underestimated. Mark Pearson of the Hackney Wildlife Group, which collates environmental and biodiversity data in Hackney, told the Ecologist that not only is the valley home to many species, including Kingfishers (which also breed along it), it is “one of the top three or four migratory routes in London”. In fact the valley forms a corridor for a number of migratory birds such as ducks, geese, warbles and thrushes. Kestrels and herons are also known to make use of this oasis. Pearson said the valley was a “traditional route” and had been for “hundreds of thousands of years”. It constitutes a rest and refueling space for these various migratory species, which would otherwise be forced to fly further afield. Yet, despite its natural importance, this green lung, along with many more areas with huge importance for local residents and critical to wildlife, is seeing habitat loss and disruption.

A prevalent image of North East London is of an area littered with relics of industry and rusting steel planes. The London Thames Gateway Development Corporation drew a similar picture in their ’08/’09 annual report, claiming the area was of “fragmented ownership” and “declining industry”. The London Thames Gateway Development Corporation is responsible for overseeing the Thames Gateway scheme, to develop vast tracts of brownfield land that begin in East London and extend far beyond the city’s borders, which is the largest urban regeneration project in the world. The LTGDC has benefitted from the financial crisis, because, unlike the London Docklands Development Corporation, it had to buy land, which it has been able to acquire for less money in the recession. Just as the development of Docklands forced out local people, the same things is happening with the Gateway. The LTGDC clearly has an interest in depicting areas as declining.

In response to this depiction, the Lea Valley Federation (LVF), a local grass-roots campaign group which has been sharply scrutinising a lot of the planning applications, told the Ecologist that although ‘fragmented ownership’ is accurate for the industrial parts of the Lower Lea Valley “there are exceptions such as “areas of common land completely subsumed by the ODA”. An example of this is the Bully Point Nature Reserve, which was bought in 1972 by the Lea Valley Regional Park Authority, which landscaped it into its nature reserve form. “Bully Point nature reserve, a secluded and very much loved area…was bulldozed out of existence. It was…a haven for wildilfe, but sadly no more” the LVF told the Ecologist. Ten years ago, a project called the community Woodland Campaign, in conjunction with Newham Council, the now-dissolved charity the Lea Rivers Trust, the Lea Valley Regional Park Authority and others was launched, which incorporated the Bully Fen Nature Reserve. The intention of the campaign was “a new woodland at Bully Fen…created by the local community, and is their legacy to future generations”.

The reserve was removed in order to build the Velodrome arena, a permanent structure that will host the track-cycling events. The legacy of the Velodrome will be “a new mountain bike course and road-cycle circuit will be added to create a VeloPark for the local community, sports clubs and elite athletes”, aiming to provide “outreach” and “community development programmes”. In an official statement regarding the removal of Bully Point, an ODA spokesperson told the Ecologist that “extensive works were needed to remediate the land and eradicate the invasive species in the area. The redesign of the parklands in this area incorporates new wet woodland habitat, [and] will encourage biodiversity as well as foster greater recreation access”.

The Hackney Environment Forum (HEF), a network comprised of a number of local environmental groups in Hackney, such as Hackney Marshes User Group (HMUG) and the Tree Musketeers, claim that in the summer of 2003, the bidding company, London 2012, and the then Mayor of London Ken Livingstone made commitments that “no permanent or temporary structures would be built on Hackney Marshes”. According to the HEF, proposals to develop within the Hackney Marshes were drawn up as early as January the following year.

Reports from the HEF that one SINC within Hackney Marshes has been lost permanently to the Olympic development and at least one other is facing disruption have been confirmed by both the LVF and Hackney City Council in email exchanges. ‘The Arena Fields SINC has been lost as part of the Olympics. Biodiversity enhancements have been designed for Hackney Marshes…East Marsh will temporarily be used as a coach park during the Olympics’. The Ecologist was told by Nicola Quinn at Hackney Council. Similarly, the LVF noted ‘areas of Common Land in Hackney…some permanently, such as Arena Field where the press and media center is being constructed; and at least one temporarily East Marsh’. The permanent loss, common land known as Arena Field “was lost in July 2007, [for the] construction of the Press and Media Centers and their multi-storey car park, an arena for handball, food and beverage halls and the Loop Road”.

The SINC facing temporary loss is the area known as the East Marsh, which is due to be used as a coach drop-off point during the games. The ODA stated that “after the Games, [East Marsh] will be reinstated with improved football pitches. There are no plans to undertake works on the Hackney Marshes other than East Marsh”. Although the ODA doesn’t dispute the loss of Arena Field, this statement does dispute its location within the Hackney Marshes, which this map appears to confirm.

In a statement from Hackney Council regarding mitigation work to take place to compensate for the loss of the Arena Field, the Ecologist was told that “biodiversity enhancements have been designated for Hackney Marshes, including tree planting and habitat creation along the eastern fringe. The new Olympic Park is due to include areas of habitat creation to mitigate for any loss, including Arena Field”. However, the Ecologist was also told in an email exchange with Hackney Council that although biodiversity enhancements have been drawn up in the ODA’s own BAP “it is not yet entirely clear exactly what and how will [sic] be delivered”.

The public body with jurisdiction over the Lower Lea Valley The Lea Valley Regional Park Authority (LVRPA). In a statement on the loss of common green space within the Lower Lea Valley, the Ecologist was told ‘it has been estimated that a total of 42.47 hectares of SINC sites will be lost due to the development of the Olympic Park’, but the ODA’s BAP has planned to replace this with ‘45 hectares of SINC standard land’. The legacy of the Olympic Park will aim to be beneficial for the area; ‘the Parklands will comprise 102ha of open space…which will extend the area of open parkland into the Lower Lee Valley. This will support the regeneration of the Lower Lee Valley’ noted the LVRPA. This view was echoed by the ODA, which said “…habitat proposals outlined in the [ODA] BAP were discussed with the other key biodiversity partners including Natural England, Environment Agency, London Wildlife Trust, British Waterways, Lee Valley Regional Park Authority”.

When asked how this work will support the Lower Lea Valley, the ODA told the Ecologist “much of the former open space was fragmented, of relatively poor quality, had poor access, or was not publicly accessible”. Annie Chipchase of the Hackney Marshes User Group (HMUG) responded to this by saying “it is far from the reality. There was a large amount of publicly accessible open space on what is now the Olympic site, much of which was not ‘fragmented’. The Bow Back Rivers provided a network of towpaths, which had been opened up in the 1990s”.

On the question of engagement with local campaign groups, the LVRPA said ‘we have a very constructive relationship with the Lea Valley Federation’, describing them as ‘a critical friend and sounding board for our ideas and proposals’. A description described as ‘very accurate’ by the LVF.

Loss of allotments, common land and green space

Probably the most reported and controversial loss due to Olympic development is the Manor Garden Society (MGS) allotments. This allotment collective found themselves right in the middle of the Olympic Park, and consequently felt the sharp end of the compulsory purchase order driven through their 100 year-old grounds. At the time, the 1981 Acquisition of Land Act required that replacement land must be found for common land acquired by the ODA. However, on the public face of their campaign, Life Island, the MGS says that their “old site will be replaced by something far inferior in the future Olympic Park”, and that the displacement of a plot so naturalised into the surroundings is “a betrayal of the thousands of people on allotment waiting lists in the local area, who were hoping for a genuine example of sustainability and response to local needs in the Olympic ‘legacy’”. Since this initial upheaval, Life Island has reported that “2012 Olympics preparations exposed users of Manor Garden Allotments to radioactive waste hazard…documentation obtained through the Environmental Information Regulations show…areas containing unidentified radioactive material were left unmarked and unprotected in an area used to grow food crops and by archaeologists”.

However, since the replacement of the MGS onto “far inferior” grounds, other recipients of displacement due to ODA land acquisition have not even had this. In an article submitted back in 2006 to Games Monitor, a site that specialises in scrutinising mega-events, there is evidence that the obligation to replace lost land has been removed for Olympic developers. The New Lammas Lands Defence Committee was told by “Hackney Council Cabinet Member for Regeneration, Cllr. Guy Nicholson, at the end of 2005 that planners were defaulting on this obligation”. A clause has since been inserted into the Olympic and Paralympic Games Bill “to remove this imperative”. When asked about this, the ODA told the Ecologist “to speak to the London Development Agency about this as they carried out the compulsory purchase order of the site before the ODA was established”.

One of the consequences of the Olympics is that communities have been set against each other, and with the ODA seeking out the limited green space in the area this has been a particular issues with regards to land. The Manor Gardens Allotment Holders, who fought a long and successful fight to preserve their community, found they were to be relocated to Marsh Lane Fields, which was common land being defended by the Lamas Lands Defence Committee. Likewise, the Clays Lane Travellers, having successfully resisted being sent to live next to a flyover at Jenkins Lane, in the east of Newham, found their alternative move involved the loss of open space and a community centre at Major Road.

There have been other arguments over the loss of open space. The siting of equestrian events in Greenwich park has met strong opposition from Nogoe2012, local footballers have denounced the loss of football pitches at East Marsh, residents at Leabank Square and others have protested at the loss of Arena Field and the Eastway Cyclists had to argue long and hard to get adequate facilities to replace those lost up to and during the Games. The decision to create an apparently ‘temporary’ police operations centre at Wanstead Flats has resulted in the Save Wanstead Flats campaign, which has seen lively community events, such as protest picnics on the site of the proposed police base and had wide support from local people. Most recently, in March 2012, members of the Occupy Movement, Save Leyton Marsh Group and others set up a protest camp on Porters Field, part of Leyton Marshes in East London, to oppose the construction of Olympic practice basketball courts.

Nuclear waste

There have also been concerns raised that trains carrying highly radioactive nuclear waste both are and will be travelling through the Olympic Park during the Games. The campaign organisation Nuclear Trains Action Group (NTAG) has reported that ‘the route for trains carrying highly radioactive nuclear waste runs over half a mile (nearly 1km) through the Olympic site at Stratford’. According to NTAG responses to public concerns and danger assessments have been minimal, with members of the public given ‘only five minutes each to present their concerns and evidence’ during a public meeting with the ODA Planning Decisions Team on 14 August, 2008. When quizzed by a local journalist, ODA planning chair Loraine Baldry asserted that ‘it’s just low grade waste…even if there is a spillage the effects would not be that great’.

In statement to the Ecologist, independent nuclear expert Dr John Large, said that the fuel being moved through the site is ‘spent fuel’, which is ‘intensely radioactive’. ‘How dare they say that, they should be ashamed of themselves’, Large said in response to the reports of Lorraine Baldry. In response to this allegation, the ODA said that “this is outside the remit of the ODA, you will need to speak to the Department for Transport”.


During the course of the Games, London will inevitably experience an influx of tourists, facilitated primarily by the aviation industry. Although there are a number of airports across the country looking into expansion, the closest to the Park is London City, in Newham. Local campaign group Fight the Flights, who describe themselves as ‘anti-expansion, not anti-airline’, have raised concerns about the negative impacts that the expansion, which has been given the go-ahead, of London City Airport will have on local residents.

However, John Stewart of Airport Watch, a prominent anti-airport expansion campaign group, told the Ecologist that although ‘over the period of the Olympics there will be a raise in flight numbers, meaning more noise, local air pollution and emissions’, the experience of other Olympic cities is ‘over the summer as a whole there won’t be much difference’ because other tourists will stay away due to the Games.

Toxic waste

As well as all the issues mentioned above, Stratford is a former industrial zone which has repeatedly been shown to be unsafe, with clean-ups of toxic ground-water from leaking chemical storage costing millions and the discovery of radioactive contamination. An investigation from Games Monitor found that 7,300 tonnes of contaminated soil was shifted in the run-up to the big build – soil with a uranium radiation signature which experts said posed a serious inhalation hazard. Corporate Watch learnt from Mike Wells from Games Monitor that after winning the bid, the Olympic Delivery Authority (ODA) did not have enough time to both build on the site and do a full decontamination process. Instead, they skipped testing for radioactive contamination when they did the original survey, which is now known to be present at the site. They illegally buried thousands of tonnes of material 200 metres from the main stadium and have been excavating and building on it ever since.

In an email exchange between the Environment Agency and Atkins, a subcontractor working for the ODA, there is evidence to suggest that 40 cubic meters of soil containing radioactive material which would normally require containment at specialised facilities was re-buried on site with a large amount of soil contaminated with negligible levels of radioactive waste in order to lower the overall average of the soil. Diluting contaminated soil with soil that is less or not contaminated is a practice that breaches regulations outlined in the Radioactive Substances Act 1993.

Independent nuclear expert John Large told the Ecologist regarding how harmful this could be to the health of workers and the local population ‘I don’t know because insufficient information is available, not because of some concerted effort to withhold information, but because it was never collected in the first place’. Large argues that although ‘there is no evidence of any ill-intent or malicious actions by the ODA’, it failed to conduct the necessary precursive investigations into the possible contamination of a known brownfield site.

In a response to this allegation an ODA spokesperson told the Ecologist ‘In line with Environment Agency guidance a small amount of soil containing traces of this very low level radioactive material, classed as ‘exempt’ under current environmental law, has been safely buried in a cell under a bridge embankment on site. It is covered and capped on all sides. This safe disposal has been approved by the Environment Agency and the legacy landowner the London Development Agency and in no way poses a risk to the health of the workforce or public now or in the future’.

A sustainable legacy?

Although the ODA had promised not just to mitigate for the loss of open space but to create more than what existed before the Games, promised legacies of previous Games seem not to have lived up to expectations. The Ecologist contacted Conrad, director of the documentary Five Ring Circus, based on the book of the same name by Chris Shaw, which details the less PR-friendly legacies of the Winter Olympics in Vancouver, Canada last year. Conrad told the Ecologist that ‘what we found in Vancouver was an unwillingness of the organising committee to acknowledge that the ecological footprint of the games was more than just the three weeks of events. They refused to account for the almost five years of construction and promotion for the games. They also refused to account for all the flights as a consequence of people traveling to the games’.

Similarly, the next host of the Winter Olympics, Sochi in Russia, is already proving to be a case of ‘green wash’. According to No Sochi 2014, WWF Russia and Greenpeace Russia pulled out of the Games’ advisory committee last year, and ‘recently boycotted a visit of the U.N Environment Program officials who were inspecting the progress’. The NGO’s have been angered by the development process, which so far has seen a ‘pipeline cut through five protected areas, a mountain river in a national park destroyed by waste from Russian Railways, the threat posed to Sochi national park by illegal dumping and a continuing spill from an Olympic gas pipeline in the national park’. WWF Russia and Greenpeace Russia resigned saying ‘we do not want to be part of a green PR for the Olympic projects ‘.

A critical new report, Towards a One Planet Olympics Revisited, conducted by WWF and BioRegional finds fault with the handling of the Games’ environmental impact, including the key issues of energy, waste, the use of resources and public health. The research found that the Games would neither be zero carbon nor zero waste, with not enough new renewable energy generated to cover the amount consumed, which was particularly disappointing given the context of climate change. This is partly due to the sponsors and commercial partners, as well as issues with local planning. However, the claims about sustainability made in the first place were unrealistic and follow the usual pattern of PR and greenwash that surrounds the Olympics. Even with only the construction of the site to consider, there is considerable cause for concern regarding the Olympics, climate change and other ecological issues.


[1] GiGL (Greenspace Information for Greater London) is a database of biodiversity is London