My undergraduate dissertation explores how park users encounter and experience the designed spaces of the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in East London. The park integrates recreational, ecological, and hydrological approaches to riverine park design in a way that blurs the boundaries between city and park, nature and culture, land and water.
This project builds on sixteen conversations with users of the Olympic Park, my own impressions of the Olympic Park’s spaces and volumes, and design texts published about the park. It explores how people experience and encounter the park as socio-ecological hybrid across three themes: ‘affective impressions’, ‘plantings and habitats’, and ‘by the water’. These map onto the three design concerns brought together by the riverine park nexus concept: recreational, ecological, and hydrological.
Conducting interviews with park users counters an over-emphasis in existing academic literature on design intentions rather than on how people experience highly designed spaces. It is vital to consider how park users encounter and animate the spaces and volumes of landscapes like the Olympic Park because urban parks are designed for people.
Park users encounter the Olympic Park as a series of more-than spaces that are dynamic, complex, and lived-in by humans and nonhumans. Because the park is a hybrid landscape melting the boundaries between humans/nonhumans, city/nature, and park/city, human and nonhuman worlds collide in the park’s spaces in delightful ways, delivering a distinctive sense that there is ‘more around you’.
My dissertation demonstrates that the deployment of recreational, ecological, and hydrological design strategies to riverine urban parks, in a way that rides with the messiness of cities as hybrid and more-than-human, is not only beneficial for urban hydrology and ecology, but can also contribute to enjoyable, intriguing, and restorative experiences for human park users.
The Riverine Park Nexus
Riverine parks are hybrid socio-ecological spaces that combine, reconfigure, and metabolise human, nonhuman, and non-living elements through design to satisfy a multiplicity of human needs. My dissertation proposes the novel conceptual framework of the riverine park nexus to explore the design of these parks.
The riverine park nexus refers to an approach towards designing riverine parks that balances recreational, ecological, and hydrological considerations:
1. recreational: riverine parks as designed to maximise enjoyable and restorative experiences as they are inhabited and used by human park users
2. ecological: riverine parks as designed to accommodate nonhuman inhabitants and to maximise pleasant nonhuman-human interactions (‘contact with nature’)
3. hydrological: riverine parks as front-line defences against urban flooding
The Olympic Park collapses a city/nature dualism in generative, landscape-scale, and forward-thinking ways through a more-than-human design approach that integrates the recreational, ecological, and hydrological concerns of the riverine park nexus.
The complex nature of the spaces and volumes of the Olympic Park, consisting of a series of zones and levels that run into and blur into each other, creates a series of ‘parks within parks’. Each have a different feel and character, accommodating contrasting experiences and practices within the singularity of the Olympic Park.
Plantings and Habitats
Opportunities for contact with ‘nature’ are embedded in the ecologically-mindful designed spaces of the Olympic Park. These opportunities are frequently generative of delightful experiences for park users, such as enjoying the perfumes of flowers, following the life cycles of swans in the waterways, and having a sense that there is ‘more around you’. In this way, park users’ encounters with the Olympic Park, because of how it deploys ecological approaches to riverine park design, are distinctively more-than-human.
Designing riverine parks to have high levels of habitat complexity, as the Olympic Park does, is a productive strategy for increasing opportunities for humans and nonhumans to interact in riverine parks.
By the Water
More-than-human encounters with the Olympic Park are also more-than-animal and more-than-plant. Water gained agency in participants’ encounters with the Olympic Park as nonhuman actant. This is because the park was designed to work with water through water-sensitive hydrological design strategies.
The Olympic Park’s landscape design makes space for the River Lea’s dynamics to operate and surface, intriguing park users and inspiring a sense of curiosity. Spotlighting river dynamics through river rehabilitation can deliver benefits to park users beyond improvements in flood protection and habitat quality.
The result is that water in the Olympic Park yields a restorative affect of ‘getting out of it’, a sense of immersion enabled by the integration of water, city, and park throughout the Olympic Park’s landscape design.