Greenwich Park and the 2012 Olympics

Greenwich is London's greatest park. It offers the best views in London, houses some of the city's most important historical buildings, is framed on all sides by beauty and offers a stunning undulating landscape of almost infinite variety.

We grew up next door to it and have spent more time in it than any other public space we can think of. We remember one particularly fierce winter when people flocked to the slope in front of General Woolfe with their sleds, plastic bags, tin trays to take advantage of huge snow drifts. That day was the first time we ever saw a pair of skis. We remember how upset we were when the snow cleared to reveal a muddy brown gash that we thought would never be repaired.

We love Greenwich Park and we hate to see it come to harm. We hope we've made that point clear.

The campaign group No to Greenwich Olympic Equestrian Events (NOGOE) is opposed to Greenwich Park being used as an Olympic venue and has come up with almost as many objections to the plans as we've had emails and leaflets telling us about the impending destruction of the park we hold so dear.

Here are their concerns in brief:

1. The park will be damaged by the event and that the cross country race route will go through sensitive parts of the park
2. Parts of the park will be closed for months in the build up to the games to allow for the construction of a temporary venue
3. The whole park will be closed to non-ticket-holders for the duration of the Olympics and Paralympics
4. There will be traffic congestion in Greenwich during the Games
5. The Park is small compared with venues for previous Games
6. There will be no tangible legacy from the Games for the park

Consequently, they want the event to be held in someone else's back yard.

At yesterday's public consultation in Greenwich Park we spoke with a LOCOG official whom we know from our previous job. In response to points 1-3 this is what she said:

1. LOCOG will be working with the Royal Parks to ensure that damage is minimal - some low branches along the course will need to go, but the long-term effects on the park will be negligible. The route isn't fixed and it's likely that they will avoid the flower garden, which seems to be the primary concern of many who've raised this issue

2. A small part of the park on the north side will be closed for several months before the Games. But the rest of the park will remain open as usual

3. All true and unavoidable for logistical and security reasons

These three issues are really the crux of the matter. The loss of our park for a month in four year's time seems a reasonable price to pay - everyone will have plenty of time to work out how to find Blackheath or Hilly Fields by then. As for the damage, well the Park has coped with film festivals and marathons in the past and the sledge-ruined slope did recover. Greenwich will also recover from this.

The other points are all irrelevant distractions or part of a much wider question of whether you want London 2012 at all.

Regarding point 4, it's true that London's entire road system will be redrawn for the duration of the Games and this is likely to have all kinds of interesting knock-on effects for the city. Greenwich will not be alone and nor is severe congestion in Greenwich unusual. The Games are timed to take place in the holidays, which - as previous Games have shown - usually tempers the effects of a Games. Likewise, non-Games tourists usually arrange their trips to host cities to avoid the Olympics, so the net effect on visitor numbers for this period is minimal.

Point 5 seems particularly silly. Blogs like this one are suddenly fretting about what the international equestrian authorities may or may not think of the plans. If the IOC (who are not renowned for letting host nations offer sub-standard venues) are happy with it, that should be enough for us to discount the argument.

As for point 6...

During the bidding process, Paris was the favourite and most Londoners we met were inclined to believe the bookie's verdict. The UK had submitted half-arsed bids from Birmingham and Manchester in the past and lost by a mile. The same would happen with London.

Paris was promising to stage the beach volleyball competition beneath the Eiffel Tower - what could London offer that was so dramatic? Well, one of the answers was that Greenwich - a world heritage site - would host the equestrian events. Not quite as iconic perhaps, but a far more lovely setting. Together with Wimbledon, Wembley and Lords, Greenwich was part of a package that showed London was serious about staging the Games and putting on an event that would show the city and the Olympics in the best possible light.

So when we received the first of the many emails and leaflets we've had from protesters about the plans, which allege serious damage to the park with "no tangible legacy", our response has to be: "Apart from hosting the Olympics on our doorstep you mean?"

So what if they aren't offering us the sop of some new park benches? What does that matter compared with showing the world how beautiful south east London is or being able to take our kids to the Games or tell our grandchildren about the brief moment where the world came to play in our park?

If you don't believe in the romance of the Games and want something more tangible then how about the massive international media exposure that Greenwich will be given, the number of tourist itineraries it will appear on and the opportunity for the borough to refer to itself as 'Olympic' forever more.

Still not bricks and mortar enough for you? The massive regeneration of East London simply wouldn't have happened without the Olympic catalyst. Anyone who believes it would have gone ahead anyway should consider the fate of Lewisham Gateway. Without Greenwich as part of the bid, our initial case would have been that bit less compelling - we may not even have been awarded the Games.

There are plenty of people who don't like the Olympics and don't think we should be hosting it. We get that. But that argument's moot, to say the least. It's happening. The question now is how we make the most of it.

Here's what we think should happen:

  • The equestrian events should remain in Greenwich Park and we should all learn to love it and make the most of this extraordinary opportunity
  • Campaigners should be consulted on how to manage the event as sensitively as possible, maximising access and minimising impact
  • The course should be changed to avoid the flower gardens - easily done according to LOCOG
  • LOCOG should offer some more tickets to local people - ideally via the local state schools
  • Local campaigners should switch their focus to working out how we can secure some physical improvements to the park or the surrounding area in return for losing the use of our park for a few weeks in four years' time