The Olympic Park uncovered: The secrets that lie hidden beneath its green surface

Marc Sidwell
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VISITORS to Stratford’s Olympic Park next year will be too busy attending magnificent sporting spectacles to give much thought to the work that was required to turn an East London industrial wasteland into a venue fit to receive the whole world’s attention. But Atkins, the engineering partner for the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games, has been working on the project almost since the deal was signed in 2005. Mike McNicholas, Atkins 2012 Project Director, says that the immense effort to reclaim a contaminated site in Stratford stretching over 2 and half square kilometres is “the biggest show in my career” and is understandably proud of the results. The work Atkins has completed has been responsible for “creating the largest park since Victorian times”.

It wasn’t always that way. Atkins has overseen the demolition of over 200 buildings and undertaken over 1.3m square metres of site clearance to make the park. What once was an area of breaking yards, rundown industrial sheds and highly contaminated ground is now unrecognisable.

Old photographs are the only sign now of the decaying cars and towers of old tyres, the buildings with every window smashed, the forlorn railway car streaked with graffiti left in a jumble of weeds. Now the site has been returned to Londoners as a new green playground, and one not just for the spectacle of next year but for the long-term future.

Organisers boast that 75 pence in every pound is being spent on legacy, and in Atkins’s work on the foundations of the Olympic Park that is especially true.

It is visible in even the smallest details, such as helping to create footbridges that can be temporary “people motorways” during the bustle of next summer but then revert to thinner footways for the future so that people can meander over at their leisure – and stop to enjoy the view. It’s true too in many important engineering works that lie out of sight. Atkins has designed and overseen the installation of a new culvert that intercepts the overland flood route, putting almost 4,000 fewer houses at risk of flooding.

While attention naturally focuses on the area around the Olympic stadiums, part of the project has been to develop the northern end of the park as an eco-realm with wildflower meadows and woodland. As well as all the heavy lifting, ecologists and archaeologists have been going over the ground by hand, the ecologists literally lifting lizards into their new territory. As well as lizards, some 4,000 newts and 100 toads call this biodiverse habitat home.

Subtle details of the new ecosystem such as creating a living river edge not reinforced with concrete and metal are evidence that on this project Atkins brought people from many disciplines together, helping to create new ways of working for the next generation of construction professionals, integrating landscape design with infrastructure planning and environmental concerns.

But above all it is the scale that astonishes. Working within a living corner of the city and to very tight deadlines, Atkins had to construct temporary roads and utilities just to support the more than 11,000 construction workers involved at the peak of construction. Yet it also managed to hold itself to strict standards on reuse of the material on the site. Of the 500,000 tons of demolition material, 97 per cent has been reused. And thanks to an elaborate system of soil washing and decontamination, 80 per cent of the soil in the area has been replaced – now fresh and ready for the next thirty years.

To those who do notice the Olympic Park’s skilfully-constructed foundations, perhaps it will help spark new interest in the industry – which is, after all, one of the UK’s historic exports. It’s certainly a wonderful showcase for the global audience that the 2012 Games is bringing to London. Mike McNicholas says: “I’m immensely proud of the work that Atkins has done and the role that thoughtful engineering has played in delivering on the ambition of London 2012, and everyone who has worked on the project will also be able to take the lessons they’ve learned and apply them elsewhere, creating an even greater legacy.”

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