This is East 20? Urban fabrication and the re-making of Olympic Park 



The Olympic Park has been  defined in many different ways :as a ‘lieu de memoire’ for Olympophiles, a  vision of the future city,   a local public amenity for East Enders, a global  visitor destination, a major  venue  for sports enthusiasts, and  the location of a series of residential neighbourhood eventually housing over 20,000 people. How can these different functions be  combined, if at all?  This chapter looks at the plans  for the Post Olympic transformation of the site, and the translation of East 20 from  the fictional address  of   the nation’s favourite  TV programme  to  the real mis-en- scene of a rather different kind of soap opera.

The chapter explores the complex  process of urban fabrication: the creation of new infrastructure, its investment with  meaning through  official promotional discourses and locally situated narratives, and the evolving patterns of social navigation and use of the built and landscaped environment. It considers how the Park was ‘imagineered’  by the LLDC, how  the tensions between ‘vista’ and ‘enclosure’ were negotiated in designing an organic  landscape  based on the principle of order-in-variety  as part of a wider strategy  to erase  status  distinctions between different housing tenure categories.

The chapter outlines a theoretical  framework  and methodology for analysing the  strategies of  inhabitation likely to be adopted by incoming residents to East Village, drawing on models  of  stake holding,  environmental perception  and ‘standpoint aesthetics’.   In conclusion an argument is made for  widening the interpretive community around issues of urban regeneration and Olympic legacy evaluation to include a broader  range of voices than are usually heard in policy debates.


The process of urban fabrication

East 20 represents an important part of the spectacular physical transformation of East London, a transformation that includes the rebranding of the area and its socio-economic regeneration. The post code itself may be  ‘borrowed’ from   East Enders, but its ‘imagineering’ as part of the Olympic legacy  breaks  with the  long standing tradition, epitomised by the TV soap,  for representing East London as site of multiple deprivation. East Village itself has been described as a new piece of the city, one which brings together in a single placeeverything that is best about contemporary urban living. This includes a socially mixed community, lavish green spaces, nearby retail and leisure facilities, and generous transport connectivity to other parts of London and beyond. It is also an international visitor destination as an Olympic heritage site, and will be an important public amenity for East Enders. A whole new narrative landscape is thus in process of construction.

This process of urban fabrication has a dual aspect to it. It is about the creation of new infrastructure and about how those come to inhabit it make sense of it. The focus of the research that informs this chapter,  is how East Village becomes a ‘place’, i.e. a meaningful location (Lewicka, 2011), but also potentially a  ‘community’ with shared interests and activities (Keller, 2003). Residential place-making can often contain a strong social element of neighbouring; (Keller, 2003; Young Foundation, 2010). At the same time, the relationship between neighbourhood, as a physical space, and community, as a set of shared interests and identities – can no longer be taken for granted in contexts where spatial mobility is an increasingly important aspect of certain urban lifestyles (Blokland, 2003; Savage et al., 2005; Watt and Smets, 2014).

For example, research on incomers to new private developments has highlighted somewhat contradictory responses. A form of pioneer community spirit has been identified whereby incomers bond on the basis of shared novelty and minor travails associated with moving in together (Lupi and Musterd, 2006; Watt, 2013). In contrast  research in the north of England (Savage et al., 2005) and Australia (Rosenblatt, et al., 2009) has highlighted how incomers can develop a strong sense of identification with  their new area without necessarily having any strong social links with neighbours. Such elective belonging is based instead upon an aesthetic appreciation of the quality of the built environment and physical landscape (Watt, 2013).

The on-goiing research  underpinning this chapter investigates the configuration of cultural values, social attitudes and subject positions entailed in practices of  place and community-making amongst incoming residents to East Village, focussing on different patterns of response to the new environment, the extent and type of neighbouring and community involvement, and orientations towards the LLDC vision.

There are three basic variables of place identity making:







We are   dealing with a process  which is at once real  (A), imaginary (B) and symbolic (C).   Much official effort  is expended by planning discourses in trying to weave  these elements into a  seamless  web  of representation, as if they could be neatly stitched together, but in fact for much of the time and in many places the relation between them is fluid, tense  and even  contradictory.


The Olympic Park: a preliminary overview  

The narrative legacy of 2012 centres not only on the sporting exploits, and the media coverage of the event itself, nor even on the memories of athletes, spectators, volunteers and others who had a direct hand in its delivery, but on the way the Olympic Park, as the chief legacy site, is interpreted by those who live in and around it, who come to work or study there, who visit it as tourists or sports fans, or simply use it as somewhere to picnic or take the dog for walk (Hopkins and Neal, 2012).

In our previous research into how community groups in East London have responded to the Olympics we have identified a number of key patterns of local stake holdingrelated to different kinds of social and cultural capital (Putnam, 2000; Cohen, 2013). There were those – the ’bridgers’ – who had the confidence and resourcefulness to engage proactively with the regeneration process, to create partnerships or alliances with others in furtherance of their ends, and who adopted the Olympics as a platform for personal, professional or organisational advancement. In contrast, the ‘bonders’ were reactive and sought  to maintain their own sense of internal cohesion, identity or integrity by  creating little niches for  themselves from which they could assert   a proprietorial sense of the Games as ‘their thing’, by virtue of moral-cum-territorial claims staked over local amenity and resource. This model will be developed further in the following analysis and applied to the positions that incomers adopt in relation to the opportunities for civic participation afforded by residence in Olympic Park.

Attachment to place is a multidimensional process, involving existential, moral, aesthetic, cultural and social choices, investments and evaluations and these vary according to a  range of biographical, spatial and structural factors (Savage et al., 2005; Duyvendak, 2011; Lewicka, 2011; Watt, 2006, 2009, 2013; Cohen, 2013). Just as there may be  more to making yourself at home in a new place than the tenure of the house or flat  which you occupy, so the sense of belonging may involve more than just buying into the developer’s prospectus or getting on with the neighbours.

One critical aspect of both stakeholding and attachment to place is how the physical landscape and  the built environment are variously  perceived, narrated  and invested with meaning  as sites of  boredom or excitement, beauty or ugliness, pleasurable amenity or hazardous traverse (Appleton 1975, 1990). Our previous research with communities in Docklands has suggested that under some circumstances these constructions may become racialised (Rathzel and Cohen, 2006), but that they also bear on fundamental ways of navigating and dwelling in the world (Ingold, 2000). Some people feel at home in a  landscape of exposure, in which wide open spaces and dramatic  vistas symbolise for  them the prospect of adventure and advancement, a launch pad for their ambitions, or a platform for  performance; others  prefer a landscape of seclusion, affording hideouts, boltholes or other defensible spaces which screen them from  unwanted intrusions; such a landscape may represent a desire to find a refuge from the precariousness of everyday life, the instability of  market forces, or personal trauma and is more characteristic of ‘bonders’ than ‘bridgers’. The view to be tested here is that these preferred readings of the environment are likely to influence the way incomers go about the business of making themselves at home in the Olympic Park, shaping the kinds of arrival story they have to tell and how they negotiate the Olympic legacy.

In the mix: East Village as an experiment in housing policy

An important aspect of East Village is that it is a mixed-tenure development. Such mixing of tenures, often owner occupiers with social rental tenants, forms an important strand within contemporary urban policy not only in the UK (Lupton and Fuller, 2009) but throughout Europe, North America and Australia (Arthurson, 2002; Bridge et al., 2012; Lelevier, 2013; Rose et al., 2013). Despite this, the evidence for the efficacy of mixed-tenure developments is somewhat inconclusive (Jupp, 1999; Atkinson and Kintrea, 2000; Bond et al., 2011). One important recent study in France (Lelevier 2013) has noted the importance of the incomers’ previous residential trajectories as well as the spatial layout of the development in influencing neighbourhood interactions; the latter has also been highlighted by Watt and Smets (2014). The on-going research project informing  this chapter is concerned to establish the housing histories of the incomers, as well as their strategies of ‘inhabitation’ across all the tenure categories.

The East Village development offers a unique opportunity to engage   with an ongoing public debate about the limits and conditions of social engineering through ‘pepper-pot‘ housing schemes  precisely because it is not composed of the typical mix of owner occupiers and social rental tenants, but is instead formed from a range of tenants (market, intermediate and social) alongside shared owners (Chevin 2012). This new mix is symptomatic of the fact that owner occupation is declining both nationally and in London as a proportion of the housing stock while private renting is growing in importance with the potential for increased levels of institutional investment (GLA, 2012; Centre for London, 2013; Sprigings, 2013).

A case study of the East Village is thus likely to provide important evidence regarding both the   impact of the Olympic Legacy on the regeneration of East London and about a process of urban  fabrication designed to mitigate social distinctions and contribute to a convergence of life chances or lifestyles between different housing groups.

Some Key Concepts

From  this preliminary analysis it is  possible to briefly identify  three aspect of the process of urban fabrication which bear on strategies of inhabitation: stakeholding, environmental perception, and attachment to place . In what follows I am going  to draw on some of my previous  research to try to elucidate, conceptually, what is in play  in each case(Cohen 2013)[i].

Bonders and bridgers: some patterns of stake-holding in  the London Olympics 

How do people come to invest – or disinvest- in a sense of place, emotionally, materially, and symbolically? What determines who adopts what position ?  Robert Putnam’s distinction between what he calls ‘bridgers’ and ‘bonders’ very pertinent in making sense of how people go about the business of owning – and sometime disowning – the Olympics(Putnam 2000).

In general terms, bridgers are individuals, groups or organisations that have the social capital, the confidence and resource, to engage proactively with the world in which they find themselves, and to create partnerships or alliances with others in furtherance of their ends. Bridgers would see the East End as offering a prospect on opportunities offered by the wider metropolitan economy, a place where people come to get a start in life. If they adopt a Londoner identity it will be as a means to widen the scope and scale of their activities.

Bridgers adopted the Olympics as a platform for personal, professional or organisational advancement, and behaved opportunistically to maximise their competitive advantage. They are  strenuous networkers, and their involvement takes the form of rational calculating moves, which do not require any deep emotional investment or ideological commitment to the project, although they certainly do not pre-empt it. In fact bridgers often form pressure groups to leverage resources from public bodies, and some organisations, like London Citizens, have been markedly successful in exacting concessions – in this case on minimum wage rates to be paid to the Olympic workforce – from the authorities.

Bridgers are always on the look out for new opportunities to further their cause, and they take risks, but if they are not reaping substantive rewards they tend to disinvest and move on to what they see as more interesting or beneficial projects. In other words they behave most of the time according to  a market economy of worth.

In contrast ‘bonders’ are individuals, groups or organisations that have less social capital, but seek to maximise what they have by using it to maintain their own sense of internal cohesion, identity or integrity. Bonders are good at building niches for themselves in markets and institutions, but by the same token they tend to develop a silo mentality, are risk averse, and are always on the look out for possible refuges from the winds of change. They are reactive rather than proactive, and disposed to feel anxious (and less aspirational) about regeneration projects; they are also more likely to experience and talk about loss of community and urban decline. For them the East End is an area that offers sanctuary and is greatly valued for that, but it is perceived as continually being threatened by invasion from outsiders. If they adopt a Londoner identity is will be as a platform to express these local concerns. Quite a number of the older residents came into this category.

If bonders adopted the Olympics they were likely to have a fierce, proprietorial sense of the Games as ‘their thing’, by virtue of moral-cum-territorial claims staked over local amenity and resource.  They operate according to a moral economy of worth in which  civic or bio-political values predominate. However this intense and potentially long-term commitment was only likely to happen if they felt their claims and interests were being recognised and validated. If not, they quickly withdrew into disinterest or even outright opposition, and regrouped around their own local concerns. They could, in any case, be reluctant to share ‘their’ Olympics or ‘their’ Stratford with other communities or organisations whom they did not regard as legitimate stakeholders. Bonders were to be found equally within white and BME communities.

The distinction between bridgers and bonders is not primarily one of psychological disposition or socio-economic status, although it may have these as some of its correlates. Rather, it is related to the mode of emotional labour that is employed by potential stakeholders, and the type of social networks – concentrated or distributed – through which communities of interest or affiliation get mobilised around specific issues or stakes[ii]. The classic route from bonder to bridger was often through enrolment as a representative of some local interest group onto a public forum – and the Olympics provided a major conduit for such transitions.

The positions adopted by bonders  and  bridgers not only relate to different stories about the East End and its immediate prospects, they are about different kinds of stakes that individuals, groups, or organisations may have in the Olympics. Here it is useful to distinguish betweenmaterial and symbolic stakes; though these can be closely connected; but they can also come into conflict.

Like all models, this one is simply a device to map a set of positions that are empirically found in a variety of strong and weak combinations. Agencies certainly shifted between these positions in the course of their involvement with the Olympics over time, and in response to the project’s vicissitudes. These positions could be summarised as follows:


BRIDGERS                                                                        BONDERS

Economy of worth:              Market economy                                         Moral Economy

Organisational  stance:          Proactive                                                                 Reactive

Protagonist role:                    Fixers and schmoozers                   Peer n Cheer leaders

Partnerships:                           Tactical alliances                                 Closure strategy

Stake:                                      Platform of opportunity                               ‘Our Thing’

Legacy type:                              Dividend/Payback                      Heritage/Endowment

Social Typification:                Social entrepreneurs                               ‘Hammers fans ‘

It remains to be seen how far the incomers to East Village adopt or shift between  these positions in relation to the opportunities for civic participation   and community involvement  that are open to them.


 Landscapes of exposure and seclusion

 The notion of investment  always contains a libidinal as well as purely calculative component  although this may be disavowed.  This usually takes the form of sentimental attachment to place. But what  kind of sentiment?

In their book Thrills and Regression, Michael and Enid Balint characterise two kinds of emotional and spatial orientation to objects, linked to different ways of holding the mother’s body unconsciously in mind.(Balint 1959). Philobats enjoy exploring the wide open spaces, are always on the look out for new experiences and dares, like courting danger and the unknown, and see obstacles as challenges to their resourcefulness. They travel hopefully because their psycho-geography consists of warm, friendly expanses which are felt to be safe and encompassing, a supportive stage for exciting performance; the infant has the whole wide world in its arms, the world is your oyster and you are its pearl! At the same time this landscape is dotted more or less densely with dangerous and unpredictable objects, threatening in their independence, thrilling in their challenge, representing hazards that have to be overcome. There is an underlying confidence that when things get risky or the going gets rough the wider world will click in and will provide resources to enable you to anticipate or head off potential disaster. The philobatic standpoint implies a position of epistemic trust, but also a penchant for masquerade, for taking risks with identity.

From an aesthetic point of view, philobatics yield a primarily visual landscape centred on looking before and after oneself–with the self serving as a vanishing point (Appleton  1975,1990). In terms of narrative genre, storylines are organized around omniscient, if not always reliable, first person narrators, and the story setting becomes a stage from which to show off  performance skills.   From this vantage point even an economic crisis in which the  world is turned upside down, seems to yield exciting new possibilities.

In contrast, ocnephiles only feel safe when they stay close to home, when they are surrounded by familiar objects, signs and landmarks, where they feel literally in touch with their surroundings; they cannot bear the thought of exposing themselves to danger. It is the inn, not the road that attracts them, and they do not travel hopefully, if at all.  They are always making little dens for themselves and looking for potential bolt holes in and against a wider world that is experienced as hostile or threatening. The ocnephilic universe thus consists of safe familiar objects separated by vast abysmal empty spaces.. This is associated with a pervasive fear of being dropped, let down, losing or being torn away from objects. That is why there is so much clinging to the object, such intense attachment to place, in the belief that it will somehow click in and shield you from external danger. ThiBehind this lies the desire for a totally benign and protective environment, a world in which all risk and anxiety has been eliminated and one is held forever in the warm embrace of a protective family or  state, guaranteeing permanent  ontological security.

Aesthetically, this is a tactile landscape constructed through strategies for holding onto oneself when all is lost. Ocnephiles cling to a straight and narrow story line, they do not like embedded narratives, unreliable narrators, or convoluted plots that lead them off the beaten track.  Any open vista  become a source of danger and dread.

Balint sometimes writes about these figures as if they were real people, or at least personality types: philobats are extroverts, and potential claustrophobics while ocnephiles are introverts who may become terrified of being out and about in public spaces. But he also indicates that these are object relations which exist in a variety of weak or strong combinations and may be distributed across many different kinds of  mise en scene.. They are key terms in what might be called a standpoint aesthetics, a comparative theory of aesthetic experience grounded in an analysis of its locally situated structures of perception.

The standpoint aesthetics  in play here can be summarised as follows:

THE PROSPECT                                                                                                   THE REFUGE

The commanding view                                                                              Hideouts and boltholes

Opportunity  structure                                                                Defensible space and enclosure

Landscape of   exposure and expansiveness                    Landscape of seclusion or occlusion

The panorama and vista                                                                         The  sheltered view

The uninterrupted gaze                                                            The foreclosed gaze/scotomisation

Topophilia                                                                                                     Topophobia

Withdrawl into Olympian standpoint                                   Withdrawal into inner sanctum


The  different modes of attachment to place  linked to these standpoints are represented schematically below:


  • Warm, friendly expansive space  with a few risky places  of  challenge or thrill
  • Supportive platform  for adventurous public performance
  • Epistemic trust inmap/territory correspondence-WYSIWYG
  • Aesthetic quest for the sublime :making the landscape awesome
  • Active navigation of the unknown
  • Inhabitation through colonisation of public realm






  • Dangerous  and unwelcoming world with a few safe and friendly places.
  • Staying close to home, surrounded by familiar objects
  • Tactile environment – keeping in touch with the self/clinging to others
  • Epistemic distrust – sensitivity to map/territory disjunctures
  • Aesthetic quest for the picturesque: making the  landscape safe  for viewing
  • Inhabitation  through  niche building  and furbishing of  the private realm



These subject positions are  linked to value orientation, and  over-determine perceptions that people have about particular areas or neighbourhoods as desirable or undesireable places to live, work, or bring up their children. These positions, in turn, influence  expectations and   strategies, including  narrative strategies, which are brought to bear in constructing experiences of the move, settling in  and community relations.  Although there has been an enormous amount of research on locational decisions, both of individual  residents and businesses, these studies have ignored the more subjective or ‘impressionistic’ factors, in favour of rational choice  models which only tell one side of the story. Motivations about whether to move  or stay put are certainly often rationalised in terms of socio-economic factors ( a better job, living closer to family, an easier commute, a bigger or more affordable  house, a ‘nicer’  environment etc) but these reasons are often underscored by structures of feeling and belief whose roots lie in deeper, more unconscious structures of feeling and phantasy, what Freud called the ‘other scene’ (Cohen forthcoming).

Regeneration narratives, such as the London 2012 legacy story, have a distinctive plot structure which  unfolds as a series of linked  moments and  might be  schematised as follows:

1.    The advent and recognition of a constitutive lack or loss of amenity or resource

2. Disequilibrium or dislocation

3. Assignation of a task, quest, or plan  to suppress lack or make good the loss

4. Modifications – Provocation- Elaborations-  Interdicts -Alliances


5. The struggle to achieve the task


6. The overcoming of obstacles, avoidance of traps,  defeat of enemies


7. Relocation/re-equilibrium  or  its absence


8. Evaluation of Success or Failure


9.End of the story or to be continued (back to 1.)

Regeneration narratives  may therefor take the form of recursive structures and their constant re-iteration tends to result in  a self fulfilling prophecy, if which nothing succeeds like success, and failure is seen as the same old story. Opposition to regeneration  is often couched in terms of a reiterative narrative of urban decline, such as  we find in NIMBY or ‘there goes the neighbourhood’ type accounts.

Using the same narratological framework we might also construct a typology of arrivant stories amongst incomers to  East Village in terms of their particular grammars, genres and themes. For example:


  • Urban Folk Tale  :  plot unfolds in terms of who does what to whom with what consequences, a story featuring heroes/villains, winners/losers
  • Grand Narrative :  one action related teleologically to another through the intermediary of  a formulaic proposition,  moral precept or ideological argument
  • Hermeneutic :One reflection  related to another reflection via  continual return to the events to investigate their meaning

Narrative Themes/roles

  • Pioneers and Prospectors
  • Homecomers
  • Refugees
  • Triumphalists  over adversity
  • Movers and shakers

Armed with these concepts, the current research is setting out  to understand what is happening on the ground, in East Village as people move in. How will  different patterns of stakeholding, environmental perception  and place attachment interact?  Will there be a strong or weak correlation between seeing the Park as ‘our thing’, the quest  for a picturesque landscape of seclusion, and staying   close to home?  Or between strenuous  neighbouring and  networking, an adventurous pioneering spirit, and  appreciating the Park for its  expansive vistas and panoramic views.  Or will some more complicated picture and story emerge in which intermediate positions, between bonders and bridgers develop, along with ambivalent patterns of attachment  as the Olympic Legacy is renegotiated and made to support aspirations other than its own?


I would like to thank Paul Watt  for his input  to the discussion of East Village, my colleagues at Living Maps for their general support, and   Gavin Poynter for his useful comments on an earlier draft. This text is a draft of part of a chapter to be published in a  forthcoming book  on Olympic Legacies, Host Cities and Mega Events  edited by Poynter and Viehoff.



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[i] See especially Chapters 6 and 10  of P Cohen On the Wrong Side of the Track? East London and the Post Olympics  (2013)