Westfield Gardens

Westfield Gardens, Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park

Parts of London's new Olympic park are at last open to the public. Families are enjoying the sunshine on banks of beautifully tended lawns. It's hard to think this could be where I would once have twenty waste skips (dumpsters) based at the Bow Midland recycling plant. Memory here can no longer relate the present to the past. The new names in the park, Hopkins Field, Danes Walk, Alfred's Meadow, Millrace Meadow don't help at all. When a familar backyard is dug up and altered to this scale, it unsettles a host of other imaginings. Therefore this post about the new park revolves around names; names that help make sense of an altered reality.

 
I start with Westfield Gardens, so named as the park and the shopping mall, Westfield, are entwined - just as they were during the Olympic games. Westfield Gardens belongs to everyone who celebrates the radical transformation of this part of London but it is in the east that its constituency belongs. In East Ham, West Ham, Canning Town, Ilford, Woolwich, neighbourhoods with their own aspirations though without their pride of place in London's imaginary. But thanks to the 2012 Olympics, the wasteland that stood between them and a sense of being proper Londoners has been cleared away. That was some undertaking. The New Scientist summed up its scale:
90 million litres of contaminated groundwater had to be cleaned as "chlorinated solvents had leaked into the groundwater, sunk to a depth of 40 metres and entered the bedrock below" .
"2 million tonnes of soil contaminated with petrol, oil, lead, tar, cyanide and arsenic from around the site was dug up and decontaminated.....
The entire clearance was supposedly done by recycling, without importing any soil from outside. It may have cost the taxpayer several billion but for many it's beyond value. Their bit of London is changed for ever, now a 'destination'. The commuter hub, Stratford Station once used to see one train every half hour. Now it is named Stratford International, an urban nerve centre with 195 trains an hour, with promised connections to European capitals.

 

Westfield Gardens is thus part of a far more complex narrative of London's expansion. The name stands for the specific means and symbols used to evolve onto a new economic level, to a 21st century megalopolis that competes with other supersized conurbations, the Tokyos, Beijings, Sao Paulos of the world. It opens the road for 'the London to come' and in more senses than one. It is very clearly not just for Londoners here today but future Londoners. It may be part of strategic growth but who are these Londoners? One senses that they won't only be coming down the M1 motorway from Blackburn, Hull, or Newcastle. Somehow it's a different milieu. Cycle around Woolwich, West Ham, Stratford, catch the night buses to the west from East Ham and answer is there: from anywhere and everywhere possible. You can take your pick from any continent. It's in line with the heritage of this part of London which has always served as a transient holding centre, with reserve armies uncelebrated in the making of the capital.
Though now at last Westfield Gardens provides a Royal park to channel long overlooked aspirations. In tempo with a global 21st century it welcomes all who embrace the trinity of hard work, consumption and leisure. That comes with predictable sentiments, a part of the kitchen sink of life this part of London epitomises; as at Jamie Oliver's Italian at Westfield. But here is a paradigm space for smoothing out social dynamics. Live and let live through the seamless flow of consumer culture and ease the friction away. All such things were meant to follow each other as naturally as the mall extends out to the green spaces of managed parkland. With mindful security at hand, Westfield Gardens opens up to sweeping vistas of space. Not many corners for hide and seek; on the contrary this garden loves exposure. There are those who may be scornful but it is at one with its constituencies, their aspirations, their imagination which would now have its say in the making of new London. It has little time for the scruples of Middle England, unless of course it is useful enough to be a part of its marketing, dipping into history selectively. As such it is the new-found cousin of the South Bank culturepolis running from the Tate Modern to the Jubilee Gardens where promenades, parks and high culture combine regulated public space with real estate development through quasi-charitable institutions. The killer combination that can reclaim and return anything in digestable form - including the old English village fair or possibly your neighbourhood.

 

But to really understand Westfield Gardens, it is best seen through the lens of the imaginary global landscapes as described by the anthropologist of globalisation, Arjun Appadurai. Appadurai broke down these landscapes into ensembles of 'scapes': ethnoscapes, mediascapes, technoscapes, financescapes, ideoscapes that all come together tenuously in the making of these global spaces. And that is what this park is; if you look out across the grand open landscape, you could really be anywhere. Seoul, Atlanta, etc. Anything local is just an add-on or just a name game. But the critical thing is that Appadurai pointed out these scapes don't connect to each other in ways we expect, that in fact they relate to each other more by what he called 'disjunctures'. In the new landscapes of networked global exchange, the way these scapes come together depends on us, how we as consumers connect them in our minds, in how we imagine them. In that sense Westfield Gardens is no traditional landscape and once you get that, you are truly in.

 


The park acknowledges this in the way its buildings animate the horizon. As architectural assortments they are products of global modernity that are transported from computer screens. On this scale, they are monuments to the feats of transformation that finance capital can produce and they salute that. Everything seems to be in that state of contortion. The velodrome and the Aquatic centre are flexed like fish out of water, frozen in flagellation. The ArcelorMittal orbital, torch-bearer of a bare-naked marketing culture, twists itself in and out. The Olympic stadium sits on its own island like a spaceship that could levitate at any moment. But these are all 'facts on the ground', armature for a new social body which will grow into it. They mark the territory decisively to say there's no point looking backwards. The gaps, the disjunctures expose themselves but they will be spanned by those who celebrate it, who share in its making, who believe and who can imagine.
 

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