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London Hosts the Olympics: How Success for People Is a Failure of Place

A living, breathing example of how we misunderstand the inequity of poverty.
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Aerial view of the Olympic Park in April 2012. (PHOTO: BALDBORIS/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

Aerial view of the Olympic Park in April 2012. (PHOTO: BALDBORIS/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

Do you live in an escalator region (ER)?

Stage 1:  ER attracts many young people with promotion potential at the start of their working lives – 'stepping on the escalator'
Stage 2:  ER provides the context where these in-migrants achieve accelerated upward social mobility – 'being taken up by the escalator'
Stage 3:  ER loses through out-migration a significant proportion of those gaining from this upward social mobility – 'stepping off the escalator'

Yes, the ER loses thanks to brain drain. Places develop, not people. Now take that model of upward mobility and apply it to the prospects of distressed London neighborhoods benefiting from hosting the Olympic Games:

The five London 2012 host boroughs (Newham, Hackney, Waltham Forest, Tower Hamlets and Greenwich) agreed the first draft of a Strategic Regeneration Framework, which set out the long-term benefits they hope the area will receive from the Olympic and Paralympic Games in 2012. This document emphasises the concept of convergence, setting out an aspiration that:

‘...within 20 years the residents who will host the world’s biggest event will enjoy the same social and economic chances as their neighbours across London.’

The evidence is clear that residents of the five host boroughs are now significantly worse off than the average Londoner in terms of education, income, households dependent on benefits and many other variables. The host boroughs represent a significant pocket of deprivation in the heart of the capital. Local leaders want to use the 2012 Olympics as a catalyst to change this situation. However, there is concern that although households in the five boroughs will gain, these families may then move out of the boroughs, to be replaced by more deprived incomers-leaving the deprivation profile of the boroughs more or less unchanged.

Economic convergence is the policy goal. Every borough is as a desirable place to live as all the others. One neighborhood is as good as the next. This geographic framework is how we understand the inequity of poverty. No place should be worse off than the rest. Social justice is served.

To date, this report is the best example I've found of the absurdity of place-based economic and community development. Moving the prosperity needle for households doesn't matter. Moving the needle for a piece of turf, a borough, does.

Promoting the development of an escalator region for the economic convergence of people should be the policy goal. Place, community, is a means to an end, not an end in and of itself. People develop, not places.