London is fundamentally different from other Olympic Games’ host destinations in that it has planned the event in reverse, focusing on how the sites will be used afterward and how they will be integrated into neighboring communities. This was the prevailing message taken away from ULI Europe’s Trends Conference, held in London May 30-31. Organizers say a large portion of the £9 billion ($13.9 billion) budget has been spent on preparatory work such as cleaning up contaminated industrial land and clearing polluted waterways that run through East London.

The approach has been to “think big, think long term,” said Adrian Wyatt, chief executive of U.K. property company Quintain. Longevity is crucial, given the fact that Douglas McWilliams, chief executive of the Centre for Economic and Business Research, expects London’s gross domestic product to decline during the Games owing to traffic chaos. There is also an ongoing liability to operate and maintain the venues after the event. Therefore, the advice of Lael Bethlehem, who oversaw the 2010 FIFA World Cup in her role as former CEO of the Johannesburg Development Agency, is to offset these implications by “[using the Games] for long-term investment in our countries.”

University College London’s exploration of East London as a potential site for relocation will make a significant contribution to the long-term sustainability of the area. Birkbeck, University of London, has already relocated part of its campus from Bloomsbury in central London to Stratford—the heart of the Olympic site. Historically, many of the major regeneration projects in London have begun with educational facilities, which are valuable in their contribution to “place creation”—a term used by Andrew Gould, CEO U.K., Jones Lang LaSalle. The regeneration of a run-down area of central London called Kings Cross, for example, would have ground to a halt had the University of the Arts not lent its backing.

Bill Hanway, executive director of operations for planning, design, and development at technical and management support services firm AECOM, said: “You have to leverage the legacy of the Olympic sites, creating and promoting a healthy lifestyle using the Games as a catalyst.” Not only will the Olympic Park become a global attraction, but on a local level it will promote more sustainable living through upgraded walking and cycling routes.

“We always knew what we wanted to end up with; we worked backwards,” Hanway explained. “The urban fabric was part of that story as it developed.” As such, the ability to deliver schools was as pertinent as job creation was important. And employment opportunities are being generated; Westfield Stratford City shopping center has created 8,500 jobs.

London’s housing shortage also was factored into the planning, through the construction of 10,000 to 12,000 new homes. The Athletes’ Village will deliver 2,800 homes, with 1,500 more to be built on the same site post-Games when it will become known as the East Village. The housing there has been designed to accommodate families and individuals and is being retrofitted for the athletes, not the other way round.

Given that the Games are a catalyst for urban development, their biggest impact derives from the opportunity they provide to invest in infrastructure and regeneration, which will leave the longest-lasting legacy. “This will shift the geographic and mental map of London [eastward],” said Andy Altman, chief executive of the London Legacy Development Corporation. The goal is to create a new destination in London for tourists, a model that has proven successful in the past through the creation of a riverside stretch known as Southbank as a result of the 1950 Southbank Exhibition.

East London was little known before the bid for the Games was won in 2005. “Shoppers were going to the West End,” recalled Nigel Hugill, executive chair, urban & civic, Centre for Cities and the Royal Shakespeare Company. “The advantage of bidding was that it turned things into a political imperative.” For example, unsightly electricity pylons were finally removed from Lea Valley Park. Moreover, it would have taken 30 to 40 years to regenerate East London otherwise.

Stratford was chosen because of a convergence of infrastructure there, the precedent having been set at Canary Wharf where a former dock was transformed into a thriving business district during the 1980s and 1990s. Improvements at Stratford include new high-speed rail services from Stratford International, an upgrade to increase capacity and accessibility at Stratford Regional station, Dockland Light Railway extensions to Woolwich and Stratford International, and the East London Line, which connects inner-city Hackney to the subway network. In addition, it is anticipated that, by 2018, Crossrail will link East and Southeast London with the city, the West End, Heathrow, and Maidenhead. At present, however, Eurostar trains do not stop at Stratford—a point of contention, that must be resolved before companies will locate European headquarters there.

Altman said: “The key to this is that it becomes embedded in the city,” facilitated by a transportation network that will allow it to become a seamless part of London. With East London verging on achieving critical mass, McWilliams claimed: “The Olympic legacy is up for grabs.”

Wyatt believes this should apply to London as a whole. “We’re in the midst of a second industrial revolution, the impact of which on cities is difficult to predict,” he said. In his view, London could go further by using the River Thames more for transport; reducing “wasted waste” (70 percent of London’s waste goes to landfills); producing more of its own energy; increasing airport capacity; and simplifying the planning system. “The true legacy could be that the Olympic development model becomes one to emulate,” said Wyatt.

Lessons good and bad can be learned from previous host nations. While many sports venues are practically abandoned in Athens, the Shanghai Expo 2010 facilitated investment in the city’s metro system, airports, and deep-sea container ports. Adding 12 metro routes (increasing passenger volume from 800,000 to 5.5 million), in combination with a plan to accommodate 50 percent of the city’s passenger volume by 2015, will significantly reduce traffic-related carbon emissions.

London Mayor Boris Johnson shared with delegates his thoughts on the outcome of the London Olympic Games: “We will have a new urban landscape with the best infrastructure in the U.K.”

ULI–the Urban Land Institute