Parklands + waterways: the natural living heart of the Olympic Park, London.

‘Delivering London 2012: parklands and waterways’, the Institute of Civil Engineers report describes the rational behind the landscaping and waterways regeneration of the Olympic Park.  The parklands and waterways are the natural, living heart of the Olympic Park in London.

“The Olympic Park in London, site of the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games, is an integrated landscape, ecological, engineered and built infrastructure project comprising parklands and venues, restored waterways and a wide range of habitats for wildlife and people.  The waterways running through the heart of the park provided both a challenge and an opportunity. A challenge because they were largely derelict, polluted, inaccessible and prone to flooding.  An opportunity because, lying at the very heart of the park, if designed and restored in the right way they would characterise the Olympic Park.

Olympiv views1

London 2012 Olympic Park,  Source: LDA DESIGN

Significant enabling works were required to repair and reinstate the waterways infrastructure, particularly in the south part of the park where hard concrete river walls and flood defences were affected by years of neglect and under-investment.  The master plans established that 5·5 km of waterways would be restored, designed to manage flood risk, enhance biodiversity and ecological connectivity.

The northern parklands are focused on the centrally located River Lea.   They are more open and ecological in character than the southern parklands, with a more dramatic landform in keeping with the scale of the park. They provide the landscape context for venues and infrastructure, as well as direct visual and physical access to the river’s edge.

The southern parklands are much more urban in feel because they are constrained by the canal-like Old River Lea and City Mill River surrounding the Olympic Stadium ‘island’. The banks to these two rivers extend the ecological landscape of the northern parklands, configured as naturalised river valley slopes . The western bank of the Old River Lea has retained vegetation of willows and reeds.

The creation of a new lock reduced flood risk by controlling the water levels in the park, turning what had previously been tidal into a locked system and creating the opportunity to establish new habitats along the river edges. One of the key decisions in the design of the northern parklands was to culvert the Channelsea River. This allowed the slopes down to the river to be laid back, allowing greater and easier access to the river, better visibility of the river and the creation of much more diverse and larger contiguous habitats.

Pond althletes village

Boats now travel through Three Mills Lock, the first new lock to be built in London in over 20 years. The new lock at Prescott Channel, Bromley-by-Bow, opens up the Bow Back Rivers, a network of waterways in and around the Olympic Park for the first time in decades, creating a green gateway for freight barges to enter the Olympic construction zone.

The River Lea in the northern park – largely inaccessible prior to the games – now accessible to the public in legacy.  As part of the cleaning up and restoration of the river, two ‘wetland bowls’ have been created planted with reeds, rushes, sedges and iris, and with channels as refuges for fish during flooding and for their spawning.

Waterworks River is the flood channel in the southern park. As part of the flood mitigation works, it has been widened by 8 m to increase flow capacity. The 8 m widened strip is planted with marginal aquatic plants to ensure the river works is an ecological corridor and to enhance its visual appeal. Ramps have been built to provide access from the river walk to river level. This will support future long-term use of the waterways by boats, anglers and others.”

Previously, Landscape Interface Studio, Kingston University worked closely with Canal and River Trust, one of 17 partners on the EU Interreg IVC project, “Waterways Forward”, which focused on European policy in relation to inland waterways.  Andrew Stumpf, Head of National Programmes at Canal and River Trust, talks to Landscape Interface Studio about the Olympic site and the contribution of canals and waterways to the Olympic Park’s landscaping.

Further reading: Water unlocks low-carbon route to London Olympics



  1. Gary Grant

    The caption says’ attenuation ponds filter greywater from the Athlete’s village’ but this is incorrect. Greywater (water from sinks and shwoers) definitely does not flow across the park. The underground culverting of the Channelsea River was not done to create ‘much more diverse and larger contiguous habitats’. That is nonsense.

  2. landscapeiskingston

    The main text for the blog post was taken from the Institute of Civil Engineers’ report ‘Delivering London 2012: parklands and waterways’, which describes the rational behind the landscaping and waterways regeneration of the Olympic Park. I have done some further research and hope this helps to clarify the following:

    • Culverting of the Channelsea River
    The Olympic Delivery Authority hired Atkins as the official engineering design services provider and they designed and reengineered the banks of the River Lee and managed biodiversity and habitat creation within the new park. Park master planner and landscape architect LDA Design/Hargreaves collaborated with Atkins on the four-year project, which included hydraulic modeling, bioengineering of the riverbanks, trial plantings, and creation of large urban wetland habitats.
    The new Olympic Park layout included a large wetland bowl and rare wet woodlands, within a landscape of broad lawns, meadows, grasslands, and wooded glens. To make the required space for the park, a neglected section of the Channelsea River had to be incorporated.

    The Channelsea was a tidal river that could have contributed to flood conditions at the new park and nearby communities. The solution required culverting a 328-yard section of the Channelsea by collecting it in a concrete box culvert (10 by 9 feet) from the perimeter of Olympic Park. The culvert also intercepts the overland flow (up to 460 cusecs) from the Dagenham Brook and the River Lee and diverts it back into River Lee within the park. The culvert is buried 27 feet beneath the park’s landscaping.
    Together, the reengineered slopes of the River Lee and the culverted section of the Channelsea River have lifted more than 4,100 residences out of the floodplain in east London.
    Flood risk had to be addressed first before managed biodiversity and habitat creation could be undertaken.

    • Attenuation ponds filter greywater
    The image relating to ponds for attenuation of greywater was taken from an article, “London 2012 Olympic Park” by Oliver Wainwright,
    I have searched through several documents on water management for the Olympic site but have not been able to find anything so far linking the recycling of greywater to the wetland ponds on the Olympic site. Reports describe the ponds being used for flood alleviation and improved biodiversity fed by water recycled from concourse drainage.

    The document, ‘Delivering wetland biodiversity in the London 2012 Olympic Park’ states that, “Wetland planting is also being provided for three new amphibian ponds, summing 0.2 ha. All of the ponds are fed by drainage waters from the Park’s concourse, with the largest having been designed with an adjustable feed from the River Lee to allow maintenance of a permanent water level.” Source:

    “Creating a wetland bowl in the North Park to provide additional flood storage in conjunction with the culverting of the Channelsea River, this allowed the recreation of naturalised wetland, wet woodland and other habitats; improved accessibility and recreational potential.” Source:

    For further reading: Sustainable Urban Drainage, Olympic Park, London – case study. file:///C:/Users/ku35022/Downloads/test.pdf

    • Gary Grant

      As I wrote, grey water definitely does not flow across the park. The underground culverting of the final section of the Channelsea River was not necessary to protect homes from flooding or to create the Wetland Bowl. It was not undertaken to make habitat creation possible. It was done to create a more convenient topography.

  3. landscapeiskingston

    The comment above clarifies …”To make the required space for the park, a neglected section of the Channelsea River had to be incorporated.”

    The Old Ford Water Recycling Plant (WRP), located next to the main site of the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games, is the UK’s largest community wastewater recycling scheme. It treats wastewater from the Northern Outfall Sewer and feeds in to a non-potable network that connects to the Olympic Park for toilet flushing and irrigation, and to the Energy Centre for cooling water. Non- potable water was recycled from the Old Ford Water Recycling Plant and used for irrigation and pond top up in the Athletes’ Village area.

    Greywater from the Athletes’ Village for use as an irrigation source was ruled out due to the infrastructure needed and in addition provided insufficient flow.


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