Building Back Better?

 Hysterical Materialism and the role of the University in post-pandemic heritage making: the case of East London[1]                                           

 The removal of World Heritage status from Liverpool’s new dockside development in 2021 re-animated a rhetorical divide in urban planning which many people had thought well and truly buried – the conflict between the priorities of heritage conservation (renovation must preserve and enhance, leaving everything as far as possible intact)  versus iconoclastic slash and burn regeneration (everything must be demolished to make a new start). In this chapter I argue that both sides of this bitter binarism share the same conflation of cultural heritage with physical fabric, a conflation which rests, in turn, on a set of highly problematic assumptions about how the urban fabric anchors collective memory and  is an example of what I am going to call ‘hysterical materialism’. I will explore where the British university and those who work and study there  figure in all this, asking whether the Academy represents a refuge from the perfect storm of history or a privileged prospect on its unfolding. Is it a place where the traditional values of critical enquiry and scientific rationality are conserved and the heritage of accumulated knowledge passed on as a living legacy of scholarship to successive generations of students ? Or has it become just another node in the global information economy vying with its competitors to maximise its market share of research funding and student fees? Is it a place where we fast forward to the future or back track to the past? Or perhaps do both at the same (but different) times, as it participates in the post-pandemic rhetoric of ‘building back better’.

Hysterical Materialism

Under this rubric, the project of  transforming urban fabric through the intervention of material processes (artefacts, instruments, infrastructures, buildings, and technologies of every kind) undergoes a curious process of transubstantiation. Instead of treating these materialities as affordances or hindrances to various projects of human enterprise, they are magically invested with an autonomous power of efficacy or designation, a mysterious performative capacity to condition, compel or change human behaviour on their own account and in their own image.[i]

We have long been familiar with this effect in urban policies and discourses based on environmental and/or technological determinism, from attempts to design out street crime, and the broken window theory of urban decay, to the project of building ‘smart cities’ whose traffic with the world is regulated by algorithms . Material efficacy and symbolic action are here conflated or actively (hysterically) substituted for one another in order to suppress or disavow their dialectical tension .

The dual impact of the Covid -19 pandemic and the rapid onset of global heating has given new impetus to the vitalist epistemology which often underpins such over-determinisms. The belief that materiality has become an increasingly toxic and active force in human affairs, containing within itself a hidden capacity to destroy the lives of the human subjects who interact with it, has become part of the dominant common sense[ii]. This hyper-valorisation of active matter is just the flip side of a pervasive sense of human impotence faced with  the overwhelming impact of the pandemic and the anthropocene[iii]. Against this background, conspiracy theories re-introduce human agency in the form of a hidden hand controlling events, with Covid or CO2 emissions as their vehicle.

At the same time, the pandemic and the series of ‘lockdowns’ (stay-at-home orders) which were introduced in an attempt to manage it, has transformed the way we inhabit, navigate and think about the city, at least in the UK. Spaces of conviviality and congregation became overnight places to avoid ‘like the plague’, and hitherto benign affordances, like door handles, chairs and shopping baskets become perceived as potential death traps . Equally the distinction between those working on the ‘front line’, in hospitals and public services, and those able to hunker down safely in more or less luxurious ‘backyards’ at home, revealed with stark visibility the spatial dimensions of structural health inequalities linked to class, race and generation.[iv] For some, like the architect Norman Foster, this particular cloud has a silver lining in stressing the opportunity to build back better, to create cleaner, greener, more equitable cities[v].  For the majority of architects and planners, however, the priority was to return to business as usual as quickly as possible, now that the British planning system has been de-regulated, and the go-ahead given to property developers and realtors to plunder green field sites for lucrative housing developments.

Perhaps less remarked has been the way lockdown has brought into sharper focus the relation between what Richard Sennett calls the city of stone and the city of flesh[vi], the city as a material infrastructure, made up of buildings, streets and parks, transport facilities, sewers and networked communications infrastructure; and the city as a place of embodied social encounter and symbolic inhabitation, of shared stories and memoryscapes, the mise-en-scene of public events and intimate personal meanings. The lockdown has shown us just how entangled these two cities are. As the city of flesh melted away it revealed with brutal clarity the material configurations of power and wealth that created the city of stone; it also showed how fragile were the institutions of the State and how important the networks of civil society for sustaining everyday urban  life and, not least, its public services. The rapid depopulation of business districts and the High Street, the flight of the affluent to safer, less densely populated and polluted ex-urban areas points to a possibly permanent shift in the social ecology of city and town centres. In the case of global heating , while its precise local instantiations remain largely unpredictable, the emergent geography of environmental risk is both dependent upon and disrupts the traffic flow of information, commodities and people that connects the circuits of capital with urban infrastructures.

Yet perhaps the most profound change concerns not urban spatiality, but time. In their different ways both Covid-19 and the climate emergency have altered perceptions of the urban past, present and future. We are used to thinking of cities as complex constantly changing structures, which are busy either expanding or shrinking. Heritage-making is thus simply a matter of recording and representing the traces of these shifts. To view physical fabric suddenly as fragile, as subject to unpredictable and devastating floods, fires and disease  as depicted hitherto in dystopian fiction, films and video games, is to experience the present as a chaotic synchronity dislocated from any leverage on past or future. The city’s familiar diurnal rhythms and routines were not just temporarily suspended during lockdown, but are becoming routinely, yet unpredictably, disrupted by extreme weather events, and by sudden localised spikes in infection rates.

If the time of a pandemic is one of chronic repetition it is also one of suspense: time and again putting plans on hold while waiting for it all to be over, while also never knowing what may be coming next.  In contrast the time signature of the climate emergency is proleptic, it pushes us to fast forward to a tipping point of no return, and retrospective, we travel backwards across the ruined biosphere in search of the genealogy of the crisis . In the age of the anthropocene we live suspended between the dreadful that has already happened and the final catastrophe that it is always and already too late to avert. And then, superimposed on this split temporality there is the urgent tempo of just-in-time production, whether of goods, services, information or the self coupled with a consumerist culture organised around instant gratification and 24/7 distraction. ‘

This hetero-chronicity, in which the times are always out of joint[vii], is the context in which urban heritage makers now have to operate. It is also part of a wider question which the pandemic has raised about what one generation might expect or reject as an inheritance from another. Against this background, the mainstream heritage industry has mobilised all its resources to support a pervasive nostalgia for the return to a past that is recognisably in and of itself, providing a fixed pattern of meaning, thus future proofed against possible revision. Inevitably the maintenance of physical fabric housing historical artefacts remains the main priority here.

In contrast the heritage of minority communities continues to be defined in terms of cultural identity and to stress the continuities between past, present and future struggles, often framed within a teleological narrative centred on triumph over adversity and the quest for a long-promised land of freedom and equality. This is a form of heritage-making based on shared memoryscapes, often anchored to networked oral traditions located primarily in a translocal urban realm where site specific stories converge around common existential themes of diasporic community and belonging.

The University as heritage-maker

In considering these questions it is important to recognise that university campuses are today promoted as places where dreams of the future associated with the achievement of social mobility and creative life style can be materialised and not only by students, but by their host communities: ‘The sky is the limit!’, ‘Aspire-Achieve!!’, ‘You can be whatever you want!!’  These exhortatory mantras of neoliberalism still flutter bravely on banners hung around now largely deserted campuses as universities shift gear to online teaching, and wait for travel restrictions to be lifted so that lucrative foreign students can return. Thanks to the pandemic the university campus has been reduced to a virtual simulacrum of itself, neither a city of flesh or nor of stone, but their spectral presence. Meanwhile, off the record an entirely different drama is playing out.

The role which the corporate university has increasingly claimed for itself as an agency of urban regeneration, with its concomitant, the accelerated embourgeoisement of its immediate locality, increasingly grates up against its no less important function in civic place making. Is it possible to square this circle, to  preserve local cultural heritage while erasing its material traces, to decouple the collective memoryscapes of local host communities from the sites in which it is historically embedded and yet still create a platform in which these values are somehow validated ?

In critically examining the credibility of this claim, I will draw on my research with communities in East London both before and after the 2012 Olympics, work undertaken for most of the time  as an academic staff member of the University of East London and more briefly as a Visiting academic at Birkbeck College and University College London, all of whom have campuses in the vicinity and thus have a stake in its heritage developement. I will focus on how conflicts of interest and priority between the university and its host community activate tensions between two modes of heritage creation (the embodied and the prosthetic) and civic place-making (cities of flesh and stone).  I will suggest that far from transcending these bitter binaries, the re-imagination of East London undertaken by these universities has reproduced them in an even more exaggerated form. In the final section I will describe a new heritage trail in the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in which we have attempted to address some of these problems through an imaginative, but not hysterical materialism, and which attempts to unearth and make visible a history that has been rendered intangible and invisible through the process of Olympic-led regeneration.

 Beyond Town and Gown

In the referendum about Britain leaving the EU and in subsequent national elections in 2017 and 2019, a new player entered the political stage. Conurbations with one or more major universities, and/or with a demographic heavily weighted in favour of those with university degrees, voted overwhelmingly Remain, and subsequently refused to vote for the Conservative party. At the same time, but in dfferent places, characterised by an absence of universities and by a population of which the majority had not enjoyed higher education, people voted in equally large numbers to Leave the EU and refused to vote Labour. Commentators have made much of this new ideological division, between a university-educated cosmopolitan elite who by and large hold progressive ideas and liberal cultural values and those who lack their cultural and intellectual capital, who often feel patronised or despised by the so called ‘creative class’, and who have adopted increasingly chauvinistic and reactionary positions on a range of issues, including heritage.

What has been less well observed is what happens when an elite university moves into a hitherto working-class area which has historically had a strong industrial base, but which is struggling to adapt and where very few people have any experience of higher education. Such moves are becoming increasingly frequent and to understand why, and what its consequences might be, we have to understand some of the context.

Since the 1960s, in order both to implement and justify their expansionist plans, universities had to become active players in place-making. Real estate, the building of bigger and better facilities, was increasingly pushed to the top of the Vice Chancellors’ agendas; indeed the construction of iconic campus buildings  became a benchmark of their personal success as well as an indicator of the institutions standing in the world. The cosy, mutually parasitic relation between town and gown as carriers of a common heritage, which obtained in the older university towns was replaced by something much more brutal, as the cutting edge of the global knowledge economy sliced through areas designated as ‘ripe for change’. Gone was the pastoral vision of the university as a community of scholars set amidst dreaming spires or semi-rural landscapes . New campuses were increasingly being built on brownfield, not greenfield sites, as part of the  reclamation of once-upon-a-time industrial land.

However to make this happen universities increasingly had to demonstrate that their plans would be of benefit to a wider, but still local and ex-industrial working class community. For this purpose ‘community’ had to be imagined in a peculiar, and somewhat contradictory way. Firstly as a locus of lacks, lack of educational qualifications, occupational opportunity, critical knowledge, cultural sophistication and social resource. By no coincidence, these lacks are all something that it is the university’s mission to redress. Secondly, as the flip side to this deficit model, the host community is validated as having the capacity to benefit from the university’s presence by virtue of possessing an existential authenticity as a source of informants for the purposes of academic research into poverty, health, crime, unemployment and a whole host of other endemic social problems. Thus the building of a new campus is represented both as the implantation of an opportunity structure that is otherwise lacking and as the materialisation of a latent, but hitherto frustrated desire for sponsored educational mobility on the part of local people in the host community. So in this trade off, the structural inequalities in the distribution of cultural and intellectual capital which characterise the real  relations between global universities and the their local host communities are magically dissolved into a set of imaginary relations of  equal exchange taking place on level playing field. .

 Enter the Heritage Wars

The burden of my argument thus far has been that the extraction of locally situated knowledge and its transformation into global intellectual capital is one of the disavowed payoffs for relocating some elite university facilities to the poorer parts of town, as well, of course, as the more readily acknowledged fact that land values are less and it is cheaper to build here. I now want to look at how heritage and civic place making have got entangled in this extraction process.

I have suggested that heritage can be understood and enacted in number of different ways. Firstly as the preservation of physical fabric and real estate where this is entailed in a historical grand narrative.[2] What I have called prosthetic heritage is reserved for iconic buildings or sites in the city of stone. Colchester Castle, for example, dates back to Roman times and houses an archival collection of artefacts which it uses to tell the town’s story. War memorials, cemeteries, and public statuary are all important features in the manufacture of heritage in and by the city of stone.

Secondly heritage can be considered as a site-specific memoryscape, sustained through oral traditions by communities who are not largely represented in the first kind of heritage. This kind of heritage-making takes the form of living archives associated with particular communities of memory practice, which can be either virtual or face-to-face, but do not depend on physical fabric to sustain them.

These two kinds of heritage-making have increasingly come into conflict. For example where campus buildings occupy contested heritage sites, as for example occurs in many parts of Australia, Canada and the USA. Here  the university authorities have taken to making formal  acknowledgement of the rights of indigenous peoples before every public event , while subtantively contnuing to ignore them. The mission statements of museums and other cultural organisations are today littered by such pseudo-performatives, statements of intent that slide into an assumption that their mere utterance achieves the desired material effect.  Not surprisingly these ritualised affirmations of historic colonial guilt widely regarded by indigenous communities as a form of virtue signalling or simply bad faith, since they do nothing to alter their actual situation for the better. It is this very substition of symbolic action for material interventions (such as financial reparations, the legalisation of land claims, and measures to end institutionalised discrimination in the education system) which has become the object of their critique.

Heritage has thus become ever more central to the culture wars currently being waged in the West, a war not of fixed position such as the Liberal Left intelligentsia is accustomed to pursue (its long slow march through the institutions), but a war of manoeuvre, with rapid attacks and counter-attacks led by the Right-wing press on one side and direct community action on the other. As a result conflicts around contested heritage sites and claims are increasingly becoming zero-sum games, where one side’s advance is another’s instant retreat.

Universities which have become caught up in these situations are often ill-equipped to deal with them. The ‘new’ universities have a strong investment in being seen as proto-modernist, ‘always forward looking’, at the cutting-edge of research and pedagogic innovation. They have been caught offguard by the populist upsurge of retro-modernist values, fuelled in part by Post-Imperial nostalgia, and in part by quasi-tribal allegiances to local prides of place amongst their host communities. Meanwhile the ‘old’ universities, strongly positioned on the conservationist side of the heritage debate find themselves faced with iconoclastic challenges that threaten their priviledged assets and amenities to an unprecedented degree. The furore over the statue of Cecil Rhodes on the façade of Oriel College, Oxford is symptomatic of this conjuncture and its complexities[viii].

The Legacy Games, University Challenge and the re-invention of East Enders

These examples show clearly the conflict between heritage as prosthetic entailment, the holding in trust of fixed material and cultural assets by one generation for its successors, and heritage as embodied legacy, in the Oriel case a history of colonialism and racism written on the bodies of the generations who have suffered its symbolic and physical violence.

In this section I want to look at how such conflicts play out on the ground in a situation where elite cultural and educational institutions seek to rebrand their own heritage and that of its local host community in an way which legitimates their advent. In the case I am going to discuss, their presence was made possible by the intervention of a mega-event, in the shape of the London 2012 Olympics, which succeeded in erasing the material traces of local history while displacing existing populations and their economic activity.

London 2012 branded itself from the beginning as the ‘legacy games’. The 2007 bid asserted ‘the most enduring legacy of the Olympics will be the regeneration of an entire community, for the direct benefit of everyone who lives there’[ix]. Once the Games were won the Mayor of Newham intoned ‘the Olympics coming to Newham will be of direct and immediate benefit to the people of Newham’[x]. The Strategic Regeneration Framework published after the Games promised that ‘within 20 years the communities who host the 2012 Games will have the same social and economic chances as their neighbours across London’.[xi]

So the existing host community was being promised a series of bread-and-butter benefits, in terms of affordable housing, decent well-paid jobs, a public health and educational dividend. This is what the Olympic heritage industry calls ‘hard’ legacy, measurable in quantitative metrics, none of which unfortunately has materialised , at least not on the scale promised.[xii] The legacy buildings on the Olympic Park, including the International Business Quarter, have however made a substantial contribution to the ‘city of stone’. At the same time there is a soft legacy operative within the city of flesh which has entailed the creation of an aspirational memoryscape around the event itself and is designed to inspire a generation to ‘live the Olympic Dream’.  Just as posters showed giant athletes jumping over iconic  heritage landmarks urging Londoners to ‘back the bid’. INSERT IMAGE HERE.  In this way the Olympified city of flesh was pressed into service to fly the flag for a rhetorical exercise in  building  ‘faster, higher, ’.   This message has subsequently been aproppriated by the Brexiteers who have retro-fitted London 2012 as a spectacular platform on which this otherwise disunited kingdom could demonstrate its global ambition as a sovereign nation.

The new cultural quarter which is being built on the Olympic Park (which includes the Victoria and Albert Museum, a new campus for University College London, and Sadlers Wells dance venue, all establishing offshoots of their main Central London operations) is an attempt to square the circle by combining hard and soft legacies in a seamless web of material and symbolic benefits. This requires for its local legitimation some acknowledgement and even validation of the fact that East London has its own distinctive identity and  history. At the same time, reading between the lines of the internal literature produced for these projects it is hard not to recognise a set of all too familiar assumptions about local deficit: The gift of High Culture and Higher Education is being brought to communities deprived of these opportunities. It is the very formula of settler colonialism: educational and cultural Organisations without enough land for a land without enough educated and cultured people.

Attempts are, however, being made to mitigate (or perhaps mystify?) this message by establishing some principle of cultural homology, if not actual synergy, with local communities. The putative link is being made in terms of histories of making, so that the new design and IT companies coming onto the Olympic Park are seen to be continuing  a local tradition of manufacturing innovation and enterprise going back to the Victorian age. The term ‘making’ itself is useful in conflating industrial manufacturing, artisanal and craft workshop production, and the plastic arts into a seamless web of creative industriousness. This could be considered a somewhat cynical rewriting of Ruskin’s orginal project to create organic communities of aesthetic practice in which the moral distinction between the skills of manual and mental labour was dissolved in a mutually enriching way. In reality today the de-skilling and casualisation of manual work in the gig economy is acclerating at the same rate as the cultural  industries are creating a new aristocracy of immaterial labour in the guise of what Richard Florida called a ‘creative class’[xiii].

We can see this process at work in the mission statement of V & A East  which ‘celebrates global creativity and making relevant to today’s world.’ On its website we learn that ‘the new museum will build on the V&A’s long-standing heritage in east London and our founding mission to make the arts accessible to all. V&A East is a new champion of creativity for the 21st century. Through the lens of makers and making, we will focus on how artists and designers work to transform our world for the better. We will platform diverse, global stories addressing the most pressing issues of our time and champion the pioneering and radical visionaries of the past and present to inspire future makers and critical thinkers.’[xiv]

Given that the V&A was originally established as part of ‘Albertopolis’, the cultural complex established by Queen Victoria in memory of the Prince Regent [date?] and located just down the road from Harrods department store in one of the most exclusive part of the West End, we might wonder how its claim to have a ‘heritage’ located in East London could possibly be substantiated. In fact the local heritage refered to can only refer to the artefacts held in its collection made by people who once lived or worked in East London but who have made it big ‘up West’.

Courtesy of urban imagineering, cultural geographies have thus been floated free from their localised social and economic co-ordinates and now occupy a fluid non-place realm of their own devising. The new cultural quarter was originally named Olympicopolis by Conservative Mayor of London Boris Johnson to evoke a Victorian imperial precedent, but has now settled for the somewhat more modest ‘East Bank’ moniker, under Johnson’s Labour mayoral successor, Sadiq Khan, evoking the South Bank cultural complex established as part of the legacy of the Festival of Britain in 1951. In both cases these references serve to generate useful cover stories as the West End ‘moves East’  to create a habitat in its own image, in a process of accelerated gentrification which involves both the material displacement of lower income families and the symbolic embourgeoisement of the area.

Rhetorically then prosthetic heritage associated with the city of stone, is being actively substituted for an embodied one linked to the city of flesh. But then in a second move, some flesh is to be put on these ‘bare bones’ through an outreach programme designed to recruit local young people and ‘empower’ them through their engagement in forms of creative making. The V&A East initiative can  perhaps best be regarded as an updated form of the civilising missionary settlements of the late Victorian period, now centred on the arts rather than sports, and concerned not with the social reform of material conditions or the disciplining of youthful bodies but, rather, the cultural reformation of young minds: ‘making’ as ‘making over’ an area in its own image.

Universities cannot mobilise the same resources or devices, although, of course, they continue to function as important engines of social mobility for the minority from disadvantaged communities who are awarded places. UCL advertises itself as London’s global university and since the 1980s has been pursuing a successful strategy of corporate growth, gobbling up a series of smaller, hitherto independent institutions in the process; it is engaged in leading-edge research in a wide range of disparate fields in the arts, sciences and humanities and attracts high-flying staff and students from around the world. As a result it has outgrown its historical location in Bloomsbury and is in the process of establishing a new campus in the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. So how does this ‘multi-versity’, which epitomises the intellectual power and cultural wealth of a metropolitan elite located in the heart of the capital, represent itself to its erstwhile ‘poor relation’? Is the fact of UCL moving East part of the rich history of cultural slumming?[xv]. Or is it rather the leading edge of the gentrification of East London, completing the process started by the building of Canary Wharf as London’s new financial centre in the 1980s, and accelerated by the 2012 Olympics. Or is something else going on here?

A clue is to be found in one of the internal documents produced by the editors of this book at UCL/University of Gothenburg Centre for Critical Heritage Studies (CCHS), framing the first workshop from which this book emerged. The document cites  the  historian Thomas Bender:

‘The pluralized culture of the university resembles the complex life of contemporary immigrant neighbourhoods, where residents live in local urban neighbourhoods and diasporic networks… The challenge for us as contemporary metropolitans (and cosmopolitans) is to locate ourselves – both in time and in relation to the places of local knowledge – in such a global perspective’.[xvi]

This ‘parallelism’ which conflates elite cosmopolitanism with popular multiculturalism also has a history. The projective identification of dissident intellectuals with the socially marginalised was a feature of the Romantic movement which carried over into late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century political culture.  Fast forward to the 1980s and we find certain members of the globe-trotting glitterati lecturing about the ‘post-modern nomadic subject’, by which concept they attempted to associate their own ‘transgressive’ intellectual journeying with the situation of migrants and refugees driven from their homelands by war and famine in search of safety and a better life.[xvii]

The attempt to synergise the heritage of an elite univesity and its host community in terms of a shared ‘glocality’ may gloss a somewhat similar strategy of cultural misrecognition and appropriation, in which the participation of local groups especially BAME (Black and Minority Ethnic) groups, is exploited for the local authenticity their involvement can confer. At the same time the multiversity is able to tolerate and even encourage the presence of groupings of  dissident academics who challenge this approach, provided that their actions do not seriously impede the main thrust of corporate growth.[xviii]

In this context it is interesting to compare the situation of University College with that of the University of East London (UEL), which has been the area’s local provider of higher education since its inception as a polytechnic in 1934. This university has always had a strong student base in East London, especially in Stratford and Barking and Dagenham; its intake has reflected the demographic transformation of these area with BAME students now far outnumbering all other groups and white working-class students significantly under-represented. The university always struggled to recruit foreign or PhD students and to retain high flying academics; however from the 1970s onwards it did attract a critical mass of radical staff who were committed to a democratic vision of higher education, and who developed  a new curriculum based on a pedagogy of critical vocationalism in fields such as journalism, the creative industries, environmental and heritage studies. Despite this, the main thrust of the university’s growth was entrepreneurial, and its campus in the Royal Docks is now devoted to knowledge transfer with start up facilities to support embryonic SMEs. The advent of the Olympics on its doorstep gave UEL a much needed injection of public funding and resource, with a new Sports Centre and a campus in Stratford; however this did little to enhance its academic standing. Its expertise in the field of urban planning was limited with the result that it failed to make a significant impact on  policy thinking around the delivery of the Games and its legacy, despite the publication of some major research studies[xix]. This institution’s situation is the exact reverse of UCL’s in that it has plenty of ‘street credibility’, but insufficient academic credentials, and its research culture, always weak, has now been effectively dismantled. UEL simply cannot compete with UCL in the global market place of higher education and research funding and its senior management have now opted to turn it into a glorified Further Education college aimed at the students who will never be admitted to UCL. Its History and Heritage Studies programme was one of the early casualties of this re-structuring.[xx]

Prides of place: community stakeholding and the post Olympic Legacy in East London

These then are some of the issues raised by and for incoming institutions to East London. I consulted the focus group which I have been running since 2008, and which comprises a representative sample of local residents, to understand how members of the local host community perceive and respond to their arrival. I anticipated that there would be a  strong continuation of attitudes between the two contexts – the infamous confirmation bias – but in fact the patterns of transference were often more complex.

In previously reported research I identified a number of key patterns of civic stakeholding which shaped perceptions and expectations of the 2012 Olympic project as a ‘legacy games’[xxi]. These perspectives were  closely linked to Robert Putnam’s distinction between what he calls ‘bridgers’ and ‘bonders’[xxii] and are strongly correlated with the amount and type of social and cultural capital and hence bargaining power which a group or individual may have at their disposal. This may be concentrated in efforts to sustain or strengthen specific forms of identity and belonging (Putnam’s bonding capital), or on creating platforms for building partnerships with others which may extend local influence into new areas of activity (Putnam’s bridging capital). I found that while these positions related to different stories about the East End of London, its past and its immediate prospects, they were also about different kinds of stakes that individuals, groups, or organisations may have in its future development, Bridgers tended to see regeneration legacy in terms of a material payoff or dividend:

Well, the way I look at it, we’ve had to go through all this kerfuffle, and now it’s over I think the community is owed something in return. What we get back should reflect what we’ve put in, shouldn’t it? The legacy is a just reward for all the effort of so many local people to make the games the success they were. (public service worker)

In contrast, bonders tended to see the Olympics as a windfall, albeit one which is part of a gift legacy:

It’s like we’ve been left something by a distant relative, who’s very well off. We weren’t expecting it, maybe we don’t even deserve it, but it’s dropped into our lap and we’re entitled to it. We’ve been left this fabulous gift on condition we look after it, and hand it on to our kiddies for their children to enjoy. (nursery teacher).

Bridgers were more likely to recognise that the Queen Elizabeth Olympc Park Park had the potential to continue to attract visitors and bring money to the area, and therefore represented an ongoing investment from which they could expect future dividends. In contrast bonders saw the Post Olympic legacy less as a payback or dividend, more in terms of a public bequest or civic endowment.From this perspective East London’s history is not so much a shareable asset, a public heritage accessible to all but a valuable heirloom, something which has to be held in trust by one generation for the next and safeguarded as a platform for the assertion of local prides of place.

On re-visiting these positions in relation to the post-olympic Legacy and particular attempts to rebrand the area by incoming institutions, I found that those bonders who had the highest expectations of what 2012 would deliver, as ‘their thing’ , inevitably felt the most disappointed when the legacy promises failed to materialise:

When 2012 came along I was 19 and I was all up for it – like it was gonna be one big party. I was one of the volunteers and it was really exciting. One night some of us went back to the athletes’ village and got well stoned with a couple of guys from the US team, it turned into a bit of an orgy to be honest. But then after it was all over, it was one big let-down. All the stuff they promised just didn’t happen, did it? And now the area is full of rich people who swank around as if they own the place, which they probably do. East End kids who have grown up in the area are made to feel they are  not wanted and don’t belong . (former Olympic volunteer, currently unemployed)

This attitude found its echo in some of the views of the older generation:

The way I look at it, the people who built the Olympics didn’t know much and cared even less about the area’s history. As one of them put it Stratford was ‘a pretty terrible place’ that needed to be fixed. As far as they were concerned the area was a polluted wasteland and the only heritage that was of any value was the legacy of 2012 itself. But people who have been living in East London for generations see it differently. The area is part of our family history, and we want out kids to know and be proud of what their parents and grandparents struggled to achieve . (retired care worker)

Bonders who had much lower expectactions of what the Games might deliver, and thought the Olympics were ‘not for the likes of us’ were likely to carry over this scepticism to the post-olympic context:

‘I said at the time the Olympics were a poisoned chalice. They promised us local businesses a bonanza , but the visitors spent their money on the Park itself and then went back to their hotels in theWest End. The marathon was even re -routed so it didnt’t go through the streets of East London as we were promised, because they said no-one would recognise where it was taking place. How is that for putting us on the map? Now with the so- called legacy, we get a load more trojan horses, ll lining up promising us these wonderful golden opportunities for our kids if only we welcome them into our community. I’ve heard a lot of sweet talk about how valuable an asset we are, how much they want our opinions, but they have already decided what they are going to do and they only want us onside so they can look good.’ (Market Trader)


Yet bonders could also articulate a more positive  standpoint:

‘What people don’t seem to realise is that we have our own culture round here, we don’t need big swanky buildings to make our music, to get the shout out. We make our own hits. The vibe is with the Mandem on the streets, it’s in the pubs and the clubs, in the estates. We don’t need a bunch of well-off folks from up West coming in telling  us how ‘jolly authentic’ we are'(Youth worker and musician)

Those bridgers who had made the most gains from partnership with Olympic delivery agencies were also of course well disposed towards a second bite of the legacy cake:

‘ I think it’s great we are getting our own version of the South Bank , with a lot of great art and culture right on our own doorstep. A lot of the people round here don’t really how lucky they are; thanks to the Olympics, Stratford has become a really buzzy place, people come here from all over. Westfield is a great success . You always get a few moaners saying things ain’t what they used to be. It’s up to them if they want to live in the past, they only have themselves to blame if they miss out on the new opportunities.’ (Hospitality Events Manager)

Those bridgers who had been disappointed or felt betrayed by legacy promises that were not kept, were unsurprisingly much more sceptical of the new offers:

‘They promised us local businesses a bonanza , but it never happened. They even re-routed their Marathon. Likewise the legacy is a joke. And the worst thing is the joke is on us, especially all the young people who bought into it. There are all these quotes from local people on the Park benches, and stuff about the local history, but it’s tokenism, it costs them nothing, or very little, but it looks good  to the visitors who know nothing about East London – they look at it and think ‘Oh that’s nice, the local people are being listened to’. But when push comes to shove, when it’s a question of the big decisions, the ones that cost money or make money, then we don’t get a look in. It’s the commercial interests, the corporates, who call the shots’ (Local Business Owner).

Hostility was often tempered with indifference:

‘They call it East Bank, all I can say it’s not a bank I would ever put my money in, though I expect they think it’s going to pay its way with those who are into that sort of thing and can afford it. Most of the people round here are just not interested, they have their own stuff to get on with. To be honest the only time they go to the Park is to watch the Hammers play (Retired bus driver and West Ham supporter)

This sense of resentment, of being cheated out of an entitlement, whether of a birthright or legacy, feeds all too easily into a populist backlash against groups and institutions which are perceived as being ‘not from round here’ . This is a difficult political climate for global universities and other elite cultural organisations who want to move into such areas. They have a lot of local pride and prejudice to contend with and in some cases their failure to take account of local sensitivities has compounded the problem.

The Groundbreakers

These considerations have been paramount in the development of  a new multimedia heritage trail for visitors to Olympic Park; it is designed to tell the backstory of the site, from its ancient archaeology to its recent transformation to host the 2012 Games,  focussing on its rich environmental, industrial and social history [xxiii]. Our starting point was the notion that heritage is a form of living archive, and as such must have traction on the present and point to possible futures[xxiv]. Today, with the exception of some surviving buildings such as the Bryant and May match factory and Three Mills, most of the industries and traces of the communities that served them are entirely invisible; much of what was left of that material culture, plus the few surviving workshops and small businesses were destroyed during the ‘Dig, Design and Demolish’ phase of site construction [xxv].

The landscape design of the park is an interesting experiment in what might be called simulated environmental place-making. The South Park, where the UCL East campus is located, is supposedly modelled on the urban pleasure grounds of the late Victorian city, although it entirely lacks the combination of intimate spaces and density of congregation which made these sites so exciting to visit. Meanwhile the North Park is meant to reproduce the pastoral features of the traditional  English country park, but unfortunately its carefully controlled topography lacks the biodiversity of the urban wilderness  it has replaced.  What both sides of the park share is the absence of any ‘dead ground’, there is nowhere in the park where visitors are not being monitored by the ubiquitous CCTV cameras.

There was no possibility then of literally re-materialising the history of the site, for instance by constructing replicas or markers of objects and artefacts that had once been there. That would only have further contributed to a sense of fake heritage and the hysterical materialism which underpins it. Instead we opted to construct ten history ‘hot-spots’ around the park and at each site visitors can experience an immersive VR re-creation of an important activity, building or event once located there. This is supplemented with an online guide organised around four themes: Fluid Histories, in and against the flow traces the entangled flows of people, goods, water, electricity, and waste that have shaped the landscape;  Encampments and other dwellings documents patterns of human habitation and home making from the Bronze age to the digital age and the impact they have had on the local environment; Edgelands remade looks at the many ways the site and its inhabitants both human and non-human, have been transformed  as it is excavated, engineered, polluted, demolished and re-built; and A level Playing Field? examines changing patterns of local labour and leisure in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries as communities struggle to improve their conditions of life, including through sport.

A connecting thread is provided by the theme of groundbreaking, considered  as both a disruptive material process in which capital, labour and technology interact with the non-human environment to transform the landscape, whether positively or negatively, and as a metaphoric statement about the collective hopes and dreams invested in that enterprise.

One of the aims of the project is to challenge the dominant heritage narrative in East London which is currently organised around four assertions or assumptions about its recent history: that there is a more or less frictionless transition between East London’s industrial past and its present development as a post industrial economy; that East London is and always has been a ‘melting pot’ of cultural and ethnic differences and its diversity is as frictionless;  that The Olympic Park site was a tabula rasa awaiting the imprint of an Olympic Legacy; and that the change now taking place in East London is no different from previous changes. In contrast the trail and guide explore the hetero-chronicities and spatial dislocations that make the history of this site so richly interesting, and so relevant for understanding the wider forces of transformation which have shaped not only this area but London as a whole and which will  continue to do so in the future.

One of the most significant aspects of the Groundbreakers project is that it has been developed by people who have a long track record of work with communities in East London and at UEL, going back in some cases over four decades. It has a high degree of input from local groups, including children and senior citizens, and involves partnerships with a consortium of community arts organisations and schools. There has also been encouragement and support from UCL Urban Laboratory, and the London Legacy Development Corporation but the point is that their role has been facilitative not directive and that surely must be the model for how such organisations should operate in relation to community based heritage place-making in the future.

In terms of the conceptual framework developed here, the support role of universities for heritage-based place-making must clearly be delivered in the form of an endowment not as an investment in expectation of some future dividend or payoff to the institution itself. Equally the strategy of community capacity-building must be genuinely redistributive of intellectual and cultural capital, not the  impression management of ‘community participation’. Finally, instead of cherry-picking community partners from groups and organisations who are already well-established bridgers (and who consequently already have considerable social and cultural capital), the priority must be to reach out to those who may be initially hostile and defensive, and persuade them of the collective benefit of  transforming their prized cultural heirlooms into a shareable public heritage. Such an approach calls for the exercise of tact, and a recognition that hard-pressed  communities who find themselves on the front lines of the pandemic and its long aftermath have much to teach academics about the processes of urban transformation which universities are so busily implementing.



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[1] This is a revised version of a talk given to the UCL conference on Co-Curating the City : universities and urban heritage past and future 2016.. Many thanks to Clare Melhuish for her editorial skill and persistence in helping me revise the text for publication.

[2] Often in Britain this is a narrative constructed around the  disavowal of slavery, Empire and the capitalocene. Visit almost any stately home run the by the National Trust and you will be able to trace the close meshing of styles in landscape gardening and painting, portraiture, furniture and architecture with aristocratic values and life styles sustained through the hyper-exploitation of land, labour and learning, both at home and in the colonies abroad.

[i] For a further discussion see Cohen  P ‘A Place beyond belief? Hysterical materialism and the making of East 20’ in Cohen P and Watts P  2017

[ii] For a statement of the vitalist impulse in ‘new materialism’ see  Jane Bennett  2010. For a critical discussion of this development see Eagleton T 2017

[iii] See Latour B 2018

[iv] See Cohen P 2020

[v] Interview in The Guardian May 16 2020

[vi] See Sennett R 1994 and for an application of this distinction to contemporary urbanism see Sennett R 2019

[vii] See  Gumbrecht H  2014.

[viii] This case is discussed in the fuller version of this text to be found on my website:

[ix]  See  London 2012  Candidate City Statement  2007

[x] Quoted  in the Newham Recorder November 2008

[xi] London 2012, the Legacy games  2013

[xii] See for example Bernstock P  2016  and the contributions to Cohen P and Paul Watt P(eds)  2017.

[xiii] See Florida R 2012   and 2018

[xiv]  Extract from  V&A East Mission Statement

[xv] In the late Victorian and Edwardan period well- to- do bohemians were noted for their expeditions to see how the other half lived in Whitechapel and the Mile End road and for their sexual dalliances with the ‘rough trade’ they found in docklands. See  Coven S 2002

[xvi] See ‘The University and the City ‘ in  Bender T  2002

[xvii] For a critique of the  hubritic stances of some post modern intellectuals see Thomson M J (ed)  2015 and for a wider angled view  Lilla M  2018  and Piketty T 2018.

[xviii] In the case of UCL, outfits such as Just Space , the Urban Lab and the Critical Heritage group have succeeded in challenging or mitigating some of the negative impact of corporate expansion stategies on host communities . For example when the UCL authorities proposed to demolish social housing to build their new campus on the edge of the Queen Elisabeth Olympic Park, UCL urbanists mobilised internally to challenge and ultimately reverse the decision and also worked with local tenants to develop an alternative regeneration strategy for the area.

[xix] See for example  Cohen and Rustin ( eds) 2016 and Poynter G (ed) 2015

[xx]  For an account of the University of East London’s recent history see Poynter G and  Rustin M (eds) 2020

[xxi] This research took place between 2007 and 2016. The final phase of the research was part funded by a grant from the London Legacy Development Corporation . Much of this work is reported in Cohen 2013  and  Cohen and  Watt (eds) 2017. Further material is  to be found  at

[xxii] See  Putnam R  2000. Although Putnam confines his analysis to social capital, the distinction he makes between bridging and bonding as different strategies of trust building can be usefully extended to cultural and intellectual capital, i.e. to social networks of production and exchange which accumulate resources of symbolic and knowledge power.

[xxiii] The Groundbreakers is funded by a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund and the Foundation for Future London. It was carried out by the Livngmaps Network in partnership with Hyperactive Productions who developed the VR app. We are also grateful for the support of the Urban Lab in the initial phase of the project.The online guide and trail app can be accessed at

[xxiv]  For a discussion of contemporary memory politics and its relations to cultural models of inheritance see Cohen P 2017

[xxv] For a visual history and analysis of the processes of displacement and erasure set in motion by the construction of the 2012 Olympic park see  Davis J 2017


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