Landscaping the aftermath

The Botanical Olympics: London 2012 gets gardening

It has run into plenty of criticism over its buildings and had trouble raising money in the credit crunch. But now the London 2012 Olympic authority hopes it can win round the public by creating a new permanent park for London – complete with a half-mile long, 130 feet wide riverside botanical garden to rival historic Kew.

There may be no way the Brits can compete with the Chinese when it comes to spending on icon buildings – our main stadium will be workmanlike at best, not a patch on Herzog de Meuron’s “Bird’s Nest” in Beijing 2008, and even Zaha Hadid’s Aquatics Centre has been much reduced from its original ambition – but we are a nation of garden-lovers and plant collectors. This, then, will be the first Botanical Olympics.

The Olympic Delivery Authority (ODA) plans 250 acres of parkland on reclaimed former industrial land at the Olympic site in Stratford, East London – about the same size as St. James Park, near Buckingham Palace. The overall plans will include flowering meadows, thousands of native woodland trees, ambitious measures to encourage wildlife and several spectator hillocks, like Henman Hill at Wimbledon, where spectators will gather in the open to watch key events on giant screens. The big surprise, however will be at the main entrance. This ambitious celebration of British gardening is designed by a rising star of the horticultural world, 28-year old Sarah Price.

The ODA and its Anglo-American landscape designers, LDA Design.Hargreaves, have signed up Brixton-based Price on the strength of her painterly approach to planting. Price is a plantswoman, in the tradition of great gardeners of the past such as Gertrude Jekyll or Vita Sackville-West.

Price got a first-class degree in fine art in 2004, but became an under-gardener at Hampton Court Palace to make a living. Soon she took up designing, and quickly gained a reputation. She has won gold and silver medals at Hampton Court and Chelsea flower shows for the past three years. Her concept for the Olympics, she says, is highly complex to achieve – with thousands of different plant species from around the world – but simple in its impact. “It’s really a giant painting in three dimensions,” she explains.

The four zones of the “2012 Garden”, as it is called, will be separated by bridges across the prosaically-named Waterworks River, a branch of the River Lee which is in turn a tributary of the Thames. The river is being widened and has already been made navigable for large barges to bring in construction materials for the Olympics. Price’s gardens will also take visitors through four periods of garden history, inspired by the travelling British plant-collectors of the past such as the Tradescants in the 17th century, and Joseph Banks, the botanist who accompanied Captain James Cook on his first voyage to the Pacific. You will be able to walk from Western Europe and the Mediterranean in the 14th to 17th centuries, via America in the 17th and 18th centuries, through plants from Australia, South Africa and New Zealand in the 18th-19th centuries, and finally Asia and the Far East in the 19th and 20th centuries.

“The aim is to bring landscape and garden design together,” says Price, who has won applause for the sweeps of subtle colours and textures in her designs. “It’s certainly a much larger scale than I’ve ever worked on before. It’s on a curve of the river, so you won’t be able to see all the garden at once – the zones will unfold as you walk along, Because we’ve got such a great tradition of gardening in this country, we really want to go for it on the planting side. We want to push the boundaries, do something really new and different.”

Price is the youngest designer responsible for a major project at the Olympics – though she is being directed by American landscape guru George Hargreaves, who also designed the open spaces for the Sydney Olympics in 2000. Hargreaves came up with the concept of a riverside garden comprising interweaving strips and “fields”. And Price is in charge of the aesthetics of the planting. Her 21st century botanical garden will run along the widened river between Hadid’s Aquatics Centre and the main stadium by HOK Sport with Peter Cook. Arranged along a network of paths and intersecting levels, the gardens will contain four separate zones of planting from around the world, including mature trees shipped in from specialist nurseries, as well as native British species.

Price’s 21st century botanical garden is understood to be costed at £5m ($6.3m) of the £200m ($252m) price of the whole parkland.

One thing she won’t have to wrestle with is that invasive curse of gardens and riverbanks – Japanese Knotweed. The edges of the Olympics site were smothered with the destructive shrub – which can regenerate itself from tiny fragments of root or stem. Four years of repeated careful poisoning of the plant, and oven-baking of soil being moved, has finally brought the pest under control, says John Hopkins, the ODA’s parklands director.

“We have a great tradition of landscape design and garden design in this country,” says Hopkins. “The challenge we have set is to bring those traditions together and update them for the 21st century. The Olympics is all about bringing people from around the world to one place – and the 2012 garden will be about bringing plants from all over the world to celebrate those people being here.”

Footnote: design rationale from landscape architect George Hargreaves

Writing from New Orleans on October 30, Hargreaves said: “Sydney and London (Olympics sites) are similar in some ways and very different in others.

“Similarities include reclamation of contaminated lands and the grouping of athletic venues together. These are two things that attract the IOC as they view the former as a legacy from the Olympics and the latter as an important ingredient to creating a critical mass for the event. The differences are primarily two-fold: one, London is building several temporary venues and drastically reducing the size of the Olympic stadium after the event: and two, the park for London 2012 is at the centre of the games and equal to the size of St. James Park, whereas Sydney’s Millennium Park was outside the Olympic core.

“Thus the London Olympic park legacy easily translates to a major park that creates an impetus and amenity to residential development. One could say this strategy was first employed at Regents Park in London (laid out by John Nash in the early 19th century). This same strategy has been employed in north America in almost every major city. Since Sydney’s park was on the periphery and amoeba-like, it could not realize the potential of a more centralized park. The plaza and fountains we designed for the Olympic core were of a much smaller scale and reflect its end use as a major sports and entertainment venue.

“I believe the size of London’s Olympic park is greater than any other built for the Olympics except Beijing perhaps. I have not run across any numbers on its size. I have been to every Olympic venue from Munich on and can confirm our park is larger.

“Placing this park in the context of London’s park system is not a simple task. All of them started as greenfield sites, meaning they were already green and somewhat pastoral. Our site was anything but green and pastoral. As a site it has much in common with the many post-industrial sites we have transformed such as Lisbon Expo 98, the Clinton presidential library, Sydney Olympics, and others in Louisville, Kentucky, Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York City. These sites like London must be cleared, reclaimed, and repositioned to be part of the urban fabric. Except for Hyde Park/Kensington Gardens, the London parks have a fairly uniform common characteristic. Our Olympic park has two distinct pieces.

“The north park is very green, biodiverse, and focused on the river. It seeks to regenerate habitat on the river, and increase visual and physical access to the river. It is much more ecological than the existing London parks but we hope it builds on the legacy by extending the park system into this century. The south park known as the Olympic Gardens is much more urban in character. Certainly a focus for the games, 85% of the visitors move through this area. The concept is to celebrate the British love of gardens and their plant experimentation from the four corners of the world hence our gardens are in four sections: Europe, the New World, the southern hemisphere, and Asia. We believe this will internationalize the gardens appeal during the games and provide a legacy through which to draw visitors locally and globally.

“These parks stand on the shoulders of the British people and their avowed love of landscape.”

Text © Hugh Pearman. A fuller version of the news story first published in The Sunday Times, London, on 2nd November 2008 as “Britain goes for gold with 2012 gardens”. Main graphic courtesy of The Sunday Times, incorporating portrait of Sarah Price by Paul Vicente. Subsidiary graphic shows detail of Western Europe/Mediterranean/Asia Minor garden zone by landscape consortium LDA Design.Hargreaves with Sarah Price.

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