Today's one of the busiest days in the Olympic Park, as the Athletics finally kicks off and two additional stadiumfuls of spectators pour inside. But can the Park cope? It's been busy enough these last couple of days, especially at lunchtime and in the early evening inbetween sessions. With a hundred thousand more bodies milling around hunting for food, entertainment or the exit, there'll be a lot more pressure on the main routes between the venues. Up on the tarmac walkways an army of Games Makers are attempting to establish a "Keep Left" policy. It's worked well thus far, and has also prevented too many collisions with oncoming mobility vehicles. The network of footpaths nearer the river has also coped well, not least because most visitors haven't discovered they can walk this way. But there's an unexpected pressure point amongst the landscaped gardens, because people will insist on walking where they shouldn't.
The parklands aregorgeous, definitely a highlight of the main Olympic site. But the number of paths through is limited, and the number of entrances few, which means visitors are starting to wander where the designers had assumed they wouldn't. People don't want to walk along the lengthy zigzag path from the wetlands, so they've been cutting up the steep grassy slope instead. People don't want to walk the long way round to enter the big screen area at Park Live, so they're traipsing through the flowerbeds instead. People who want to reach the giant rings opposite the Basketball Arena don't want to go round the long way, so they're walking straight up the escarpment through the undergrowth. There aren't a huge number of tramplers, don't get me wrong. But it only takes one person to shortcut off the path and all those long months of cultivation are quickly wrecked.
The Park's designers haven't helped themselves in several respects. Several paths take the long route, so the shortcut across the flowers looks mighty tempting. Some of the paths in the Park are dead ends, so perhaps it's not surprising when people decide to continue. The big screens have insufficient lawn space, so spectators are trampling the bedding plants to get a view. One long semicircular lawn near the bandstand has only one entrance, so it's entirely understandable when people decide to head onwards through the vegetation at the far end. Some of the planted beds have low groundcover which is precisely the sort of thing you might walk across in woodland, so why not here? And once one person's walked the wrong way the path grows, and bad behaviour spreads.
LOCOG have started taking preventative action. Additional rope barriers have been added to deter the creation of desire line footpaths. Chains of metal barriers have been erected along the edge of over-tempting flowerbeds, decorated with orange or pink banners for concealment purposes. Signs have gone up saying "Please respect the Landscape so that others may enjoy it", although quite frankly they're a bit obtuse, and most visitors won't realise precisely what they're being asked not to do. When standing at the top of a slope with a trampled-down track ahead, who'd know that this isn't a deliberate footpath. More direct signs reading "Do not walk on the flowerbeds" would be ugly and intrusive, but their absence risks creating a slowburn eyesore.
I realise now how fortunate I was to see the gardens on their first morning - pristine, untouched and unsullied. Back then a number of Games Makers were dotted throughout the parkland, seemingly doing nothing, but they've since been withdrawn and now there's almost no supervision. It's a shame to see the Olympic Park Gardens being disrespected by visitors who don't seem to realise what they're doing. Don't worry, it's only a minor issue at the moment, and the 2012 Gardens in the southern half of the park are barely affected. The parklands arestillabsolutelygorgeous, a true triumph of the Games, but the degeneration can only increase.
The gardeners will have a chance to repair their creation in the hiatus between the Olympics and Paralympics. There also appear to be fresh flowers waiting to bloom at the end of this month, so later visitors should still see a blooming great show. My fear is for the legacy phase, when this becomes Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, open 24 hours a day to the entire local neighbourhood. There's no way that ornamental flowerbeds and planted slopes can survive unsupervised public onslaught, not when they look like genuine access cut-throughs. Let's hope the planners find a solution when the north end of the Park reopens in a year's time, else the Games' bequest to the people of East London may be a masterpiece that peaked last weekend.