When the Olympic Games close with a "dazzling performance" on 12 August 2012, the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park starts a new life. It will take its place in the grand tradition of London’s green spaces, which have driven many of the capital’s most desirable residential developments and hugely enhanced city life.
In the new 500-acre park, 11,000 new homes are planned in five new neighbourhoods, anchored by the Olympic venues but enjoying a meandering parkland setting, threaded with restored canals and the rejuvenated Lee River. The park is already planted and will be a sight to be seen this summer.
The scale of the legacy ambition is breathtaking. This will not just be some housing estate fashioned from the remains of the Olympic Village: it is a whole new quarter for London, inspired in its plan by what the capital does best - a sequence of walkable "villages" arranged in squares, terraces and crescents. About 40 per cent of the accommodation will be family houses.
Zaha Hadid, architect of the deliciously sinuous Aquatics Centre and herself a resident of east London, reckons the park is London’s boldest residential development since the Victorians. Mayor Boris Johnson says it is "London’s single most important regeneration project for the next 25 years".
Londoners’ love affair with greenery is far from new. Richmond Park, at 2,500 acres, the smallest National Park in the UK, was a royal playground that became home to the court of Charles I when the plague threatened. Affluent Londoners and men of state followed, buying themselves an airy respite from the filth and clamour of the city. Even now, all houses backing on to the park pay a feudal fee known euphemistically as "Richmond Park Freebord", ranging from about £2 to £200 a year. Richmond Hill, with proximity to the park and a grandstand view of the curving Thames, is the pinnacle of perfection for estate agents, with rock-star prices to match.
Early on, London’s landowners, with the help of speculative builders, began building squares. Bloomsbury Square was the first in 1661, let off in plots of 24ft frontage for around £6 and arranged around a garden. Neighbouring streets were built with smaller houses for servants, stables and a market. (Convenient shopping has always equalled green space in residential plans - the market that became Oxford Street came out of the development of Cavendish Square). So Bloomsbury became one of the most sought-after "suburbs" of the city and the plan was replicated as London expanded westwards.
But it was in Regent’s Park, opened in 1828, that the marriage of park and property was celebrated most ostentatiously. Included in John Nash’s original plans for this "park estate" were two circles lined with terraces around the perimeter and a scattering of 56 villas. The business plan was that the return on the houses would pay for the whole project, although in the end only eight of the 56 villas were built.
Elsewhere, the famous developer Thomas Cubitt had also developed a number of similar suburbs of detached villas around London, including Clapham Park and Primrose Hill.
By the time the Victorians embarked on their huge house-building project it was understood that parks were vital in keeping the value of property up and in keeping the middle classes rooted in the neighbourhood (especially while that neighbourhood was being built).
Even in Crystal Palace Park, established after Paxton’s glassy structure moved there following the Great Exhibition of 1851, the park company’s plan was that its pay-to-enter pleasure gardens would finance future residential development. Eventually the company sold off plots along the south-east boundaries of the park, exchanging greenhouses and huge sections of the gardens for carefully controlled residential space.
Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, due to reopen in 2013, is itself part of a larger vision for the regeneration of the Lee Valley. This, too, has good-quality green spaces as its key value. That green emphasis is turning this melancholy post-industrial swathe of London into what promises to be a vibrant, healthy and enormously attractive place to live. Surely that deserves a medal?
What there is to buy at the Olympic Park
Several new apartment blocks have been built around the Olympic Park, though many more have been mothballed because of the credit crunch. Relatively little is available now to buy direct from developers, though numerous resales are on offer through estate agents. Prices for a flat start at about £185,000, down 15 per cent from the peak in 2006. About £750,000 is the price ceiling, for a bells-and-whistles penthouse.
The Athletes’ Village will have 2,800 homes (town houses as well as apartments). About 50 per cent of these will be released for private sale this summer, with occupation possible a few months after the Olympics because the "dormitory style" interiors have first to be converted to make them homely. To register, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 020 3288 6290. For affordable housing, including shared ownership, visit triathlonhomes.com.
Lett Road has 64 apartments and is the only new-build scheme in Stratford that is entirely private (no social housing). Homes include duplex three-bedroom penthouses with views over the Olympic Park. And there is a communal roof terrace. Prices from £235,000 to £795,000. Call Currells on 020 7226 4200.
London & Quadrant housing association is selling flats at Artemis, a tower block on Stratford High Street. Prices from £182,500 to £257,500. Call 0800 015 6536.