The Olympic Park: a gold medal for British landscape design and horticulture

by Sharon Hockenhull

credit: Sharon Hockenhull

After four years of development, the Olympic Park is about to open its gates, not just to the British public, but to the whole world. While the Beijing Olympics aimed to dazzle with a display of technological brilliance, London 2012 will have a more natural sort of beauty at its heart. With sustainability a key theme, the park offers a vision for how we can live in the heart of the city but still with nature at our door.

In this inner city park you won’t find a hint of a rose garden or a regimented row of bedding, but something wilder and freer. Promenades and sweeping expanses of lawn give way to meadows, reedbeds and woods. Habitats have been created in every part of the park to enhance biodiversity. The most visually spectacular examples are the nectar- and pollen-rich annual meadows and the vibrant perennial plantings. But there are also wetland areas along the riverbanks and rare wet woodland habitats which will be a magnet for waterfowl, kingfishers and hopefully otters.

Aerial view of the Parklands area ©LOCOG

Andrew Altman, Chief Executive of the London Legacy Development Corporation explains: “What is unique about the Olympic Park is the fact that it is the meeting of the city and the wilderness and a very natural environment.”

The rivers and canals threading through the site have had a major influence on the overall design for the parkland, developed by American landscape architect George Hargreaves in association with British design practice LDA Design, with planting following the routes of the waterways. The watery history of the site is also reflected in the new park. About 3,000BC, the site was an area of wetlands. Over time, the land was used for agriculture and then, in the 19th century particularly, for industry, when the site became scarred by pollution and contamination. It is only now, after a huge cleaning operation, that it has been possible to return parts of the site to something closer to their original state.

South Park

The main entrance leads into the South Park, where the main Olympic Stadium, the Aquatics Centre and the Orbit sculpture sit. Initially, the main feature gardens, such as the Olympic Gold Meadows and the London 2012 Garden, are visible only as intriguing glimpses of vibrant colour. Follow the paths that meander down to the riversides though and the full impact of the lush planting is revealed.

Olympic Gold Meadows

The most striking element in the park will be the glowing colour of the Olympic Gold Meadows which wrap around the Olympic Stadium. This is the largest wildflower meadow ever planted in the UK and it’s packed with nectar-rich plants. The designer behind this scheme is Professor Nigel Dunnett, whose work in researching annual plant seed mixes is changing the way urban spaces are managed.

Parkland looking towards the Olympic Stadium ©ODA

These meadows have been painstakingly designed to start blooming at the end of this month in hues of blue and orange and then in shades of yellow and gold to coincide with the opening ceremony on July 27th. Flowers include both native and non-native annual species and range from cornflowers and corn marigold hybrids to calendula and coreopsis.

“The original ideas for this area included using our native willowherb as the dominant perennial plant. But fears of visitors recognising this as a weed led us to concentrate on devising an annual seed scheme that would create a visual spectacular,” explains Professor Dunnett.

“One of the great things about annual meadows is that they work for both large-scale planting schemes and also in smaller gardens and borders, even containers, where the intricacies and detail of the plants come to the forefront,” he adds.

Following the Greenway Walk reveals another section of interesting meadow planting called ‘Fantasticology’. Professor Dunnett explains: “Annual seed has been sown in panels that are laid out to mimic the footprints of the factories that were here at one time.”

London 2012 Gardens

The 2012 Gardens are likely to be another firm favourite. Sited on both sides of the main Stratford Walk entrance, they celebrate the diversity in our gardens thanks to the British passion for plant collecting and they will be a haze of vibrant colour. Waves of planting that represent Western Europe, the Americas, Asia and the southern hemisphere run alongside the river and form a timeline of plant discoveries from the 15th to the 20th century.

Designed by Professors Nigel Dunnett and James Hitchmough, RHS Gold medal-winning landscape designer Sarah Price and the teams from LDA Design and Hargreaves Associates, the 2012 Gardens each use the same approach: formal clipped hedges and strips of perennials and grasses are contrasted with wilder-looking ‘field plantings’.

‘Field planting’ is a new approach to planting design. Rather than having a plan showing the position of every plant, combinations and ratios are worked out and then plants are laid out randomly but according to their proportions in the mix. James Hitchmough explains, “The planting mix in the South African section is based on nine perennials per square metre. The perennials are then randomly planted within this area to give a much more naturalistic feel.” This technique is much quicker to implement than working to a very specific planting plan and proves to give a very natural effect.

The western Europe garden illustrates the grasslands from which many of our best-loved herbaceous perennials originate. Rich in biodiversity, these grasslands have almost disappeared due to the development of modern farming techniques. Key plants include Lythrum salicaria ‘Robert’ (purple loosestrife), Succisa pratensis (devil’s bit scabious), Lychnis chalcedonica and Leucanthemum x superbum ‘T.E. Killin’.

2012 Garden, Americas credit: Sharon Hockenhull

In the temperate Americas section are the prairie and woodland plants discovered from the 17th to the 19th centuries that are still very much at the forefront of modern planting design. Many of our summer- and autumn-flowering plants, such as asters, echinacea, rudbeckia and eryngium originate from the prairies, a habitat that is now amongst North America’s most endangered ecosystems. These plants are important to British gardens because they offer a rich supply of nectar and pollen late in the season when most of our native plants have finished flowering.

The plant discoveries in Africa, Australia and New Zealand in the 18th and 19th centuries are the focus in the southern hemisphere garden. A passion for the exotic characterised this period and many tender specimens were introduced into Britain. As the climate continues to change, plants such as angel’s fishing rod, red hot poker, orange New Zealand sedge and pineapple lily will undoubtedly play a bigger role in our gardens.

2012 Garden, Asia credit: Sharon Hockenhull

The temperate Asia garden represents the golden age of plant collecting in the Victorian era and the 20th century. Plant hunters explored the woodlands, meadows and mountains of China and Japan bringing home specimens such as rhododendrons, camellias and magnolias. The 2012 Garden planting focuses on textural herbaceous plants from woodland glades, forest edges and grasslands and includes swathes of Japanese anemones, hostas, irises and tiger lilies.






Great British Garden

Continuing the theme of Britain’s passion for gardening, London 2012 joined forces with the Royal Horticultural Society to launch the Great British Garden competition. Winners Rachel Read from Essex and 12-year-old Hannah Clegg from Wiltshire impressed the judges with their ideas and have since been working closely with the design teams. The garden has three areas representing bronze, silver and gold medals and these colour themes are picked up in planting that includes wildflowers, grasses and cottage garden plants.

There are also many playful elements in the garden including a sculptural living willow screen and tunnel, a sand pit, a human-sized sundial and a frog pond. The centerpiece of the garden is an oak grown from an acorn collected from the tree that Baron Pierre de Coubertin planted in 1894 to thank the citizens of Much Wenlock for inspiring the foundation of the modern Olympic Games. It will bear golden acorns engraved with the names of special Olympians and Paralympians.

Great British Garden credit: Sharon Hockenhull


North Park

The London Way concourse forms a defining bridge between the North and South Park. At this point, the landscape loosens with wilder perennial meadows, wetlands, dry and wet woodlands, swales and rain gardens. Here, close to the Basketball Arena, the banks of the River Lea have been pulled back to create a wetland bowl which has allowed the creation of reedbed and wetland habitats and also acts as an inbuilt flood defence system.

Wetland bowl credit: Sharon Hockenhull

A giant double-sided screen will be constructed in the middle of the river here forming the ‘Park Live’ experience; a very technological contrast to the natural setting. Visitors will be able to watch the games live from the sweeping spectator lawns either side of the river.

The wetland planting is on a massive scale, with more than 300,000 plants, including reeds, rushes, grasses, sedges and wildflowers, added to what is now the largest urban river and wetland scheme in the UK. Before construction started, cuttings and seeds were collected from existing native plants and these were grown off site in coir mats until the rivers were dredged and cleaned and ready for planting.

Tucked away along the River Lea, two wet woodland areas have also been created which offer a unique habitat for a range of creatures including insects, amphibians and birds.

Swales and Rain Gardens

The Olympic Park landscape is clearly not just about looking good for the games. The commitment to sustainability and biodiversity is reflected not just in the new habitats that have been created, but also in the approach to dealing with stormwater. Instead of excess rainwater being fed into drains, it’s absorbed by a series of planted swales and rain gardens which take up some of the water and allow the rest to return slowly to the river system. The swales, long, narrow troughs filled with lush vegetation, act as a natural and beautiful drainage course.

One of the swales credit: Sharon Hockenhull

Subtlety in design, commitment to sustainability and the recreation of the natural within a highly technical and modern urban space, make this incredible development unique. “This is by far the biggest parkland area that has been created in the UK in the last century and once the Olympic Games have ended, the responsibility of developing the site further into a 100-hectare parkland combined with housing and leisure facilities will be handed over to the London Legacy Development Corporation,” says Phil Askew, Project Sponsor of Parklands & Public Realm at the Olympic Delivery Authority.

The Olympic Park is not just a transient showpiece parading our horticultural prowess; it is also set to be a visionary example of what modern urban parkland can be. As the Olympic torch passes on to the next host country, the Olympic Park will become somewhere for future generations to live and be inspired.

Olympic Park map




Leave a Reply