When it is complete, several sporting venues including tracks, stadia and a sinuous aquatics centre by avant-garde designer Zaha Hadid will rest on an emerald carpet of landscape. The Olympic Park will cost well over £8bn and it remains at number on the list of the top 100 regeneration projects this year.
But not even the classy design in east London can calm a skittish regeneration sector eyeing the economy. The annual survey of Britain's biggest and best public realm projects throws out mixed messages. The pace of regeneration is slowing, but the impetus that helped us win the 2012 Olympic Games bid for Lea Valley continues to rub off on the UK's regeneration game. Let the building begin.
The Olympic Park races ahead and elsewhere the diggers churn, landscapes go down and buildings go up. Elephant and Castle is no white elephant but a £1.5bn project trampling onwards. At number 100 is Edge Hill, a £133m mixed-use scheme unfolding in Liverpool, and bang in the middle - at number 50 - is Birmingham's New Street Station, a £418m transport hub of hard landscape cushioned with plants.
"It's time for the regeneration sector to start shouting its worth from the rooftops," trumpets Regeneration & Renewal magazine, which drew up the annual list, now in its fourth year. Successes apart, that shouting may have to echo from the highest of the new offices set to strain necks from Dundee Waterfront to Millbay in Plymouth. Spending is down while social housing and leisure elements are stalling.
Overall investment this year dropped by eight per cent on last year, with the biggest fall coming in the public sector - 13 per cent - against four per cent in the private sector. It is not great, but it is not dire, says report editor Adam Branson, who points to the "swinging cuts" to public spending that are all-but promised for next year. It will be 12 months that mark a "deeply worrying future", he forecasts.
Despite large amounts of money promised for regeneration crucibles such as London, a yawning funding gap must be closed if all 100 projects are to see completion, he warns. Total building costs are thought to touch nearly £90m and just over a third is committed. A further £56bn needs to be found and this has led a few sceptics to utter the unmentionable - some of the projects will not be built.
That said, Homes & Communities Agency new business and economics head Steve Carr told Regeneration & Renewal that the findings were not worse but better than expected. This time last year he feared a nightmare in the numbers game. It was strange "how resilient some projects are, how many haven't collapsed", even though the money for schemes had dwindled.
"What's interesting in London is there are lots more regeneration projects committed in local plans and more active regeneration departments in local authorities than was previously the case," Carr told Regeneration & Renewal, a sister title to Horticulture Week. "I think it is partly the resilience of the London market and that there are more opportunities emerging now."
Temple Quarter sums up the rough ride that has been mapped out for regeneration this year. All seemed doomed in Bristol when the developer hit cash problems, but there it is at number 28 on the list. Instead of pulling out, the administrator mucked in and pressed ahead with the mixed-use scheme wrapped up with hard and soft landscape. Around 75,000sq m of offices were built this year by a team that refused to brook any slackening, slippage or compromise of its creative momentum.
Kevin Murray, director of Glasgow-based urban regeneration consultancy Kevin Murray Associates, a former director of multidisciplinary firm EDAW and past president of the Royal Town Planning Institute, is not surprised that many of the projects are powering ahead and raises no eyebrows at what has made the top five - the Olympic Park, Leith Waterfront in Scotland, Brent Cross Cricklewood, Greenwich Peninsula and Wembley City. The state of regeneration, however, is "delicate" and some projects are chancy at best, he says.
"Regeneration is going back to the 1970s in availability of resources, especially finance, and we are entering an era of make-do and mend much like Britain experienced after the oil crash. Today's project backers and local authorities no longer have the money they had a few years ago. The challenge for designers across the board is to make more adaptable and resilient places and spaces."
Resilience is a word that crops up again and again from regeneration experts this year. Murray feels that some schemes will be "parked" for a year or two only to re-emerge "in a different guise, make up and balance". Others, he fears, will almost certainly disappear. Smaller projects with easier funding streams, or ones offering a sound "demographic logic", will, however, almost certainly go ahead.
But landscape, urban design and masterplanning professionals must prepare themselves for a major culture shift, he warns. The age of "large iconic landscape architecture as grand art" is over, according to Murray. Those projects will fall away as budgets dwindle and design cultures change.
Design will hinge more on its social and economic value than its grandness. Smaller works - public realm improvements, sustainable urban drainage networks - will undoubtedly survive. Ten modest projects are more likely to be seen to have greater tangible benefit to a neighbourhood than big-statement design. They will go ahead but the large statements will die. Landscape architects who adapt will play a leading role in shaping regeneration in the coming year and beyond, Murray predicts.
"We are entering a sphere of realistic design and pragmatic improvements linked much more tightly to social and economic benefits. Designers who fail to spot this change soon enough will be seen as mere dilettantes and won't be taken seriously, which could be a disaster for landscape in the community. Those who want iconic everything, their time is over for the time being."
Not quite over, it seems. Earlier this month artist Anish Kapoor unveiled his £19m red roller coaster-looking sculpture that will lumber over the Olympic Park. The design has fired up the dilettantism debate on a public subsidy element of over £3m. Times columnist Antonia Senior insisted: "Our economy is as crooked and twisted as Kapoor's tower, in no shape to fund anything except recovery."
How many flaky creative types are out there, wonders Murray, who says designers coming out of college for the past 10 years have been brought up on the big masterplan and the grand initiative. That kind of design is unlikely to happen. He has seen projects take 30 years to come to fruition. Welcome back to the "smaller, more evolutionary era" of landscape, architecture and planning.
Salford Media City, 15ha of hard and soft landscape defining offices, a university campus, a tramway and a new BBC headquarters, is forging ahead. However, like many schemes featuring in the top 100 - this £481m project is at number 44 - it has taken a buffeting. Ironically, the downturn helped safeguard the project by slowing construction inflation on the verge of skyrocketing in the early stages of building.
Nick Temple-Heald, whose firm English Landscapes is involved in the Salford Media City project, says: "The market remains strong but is tailing-off. We are still seeing quite a lot of funding from section 106 money flowing back into regeneration. Whether that continues or not remains to be seen. People have not been building private developments for some time, but public schemes are quite strong."
Many development projects, private as well as public, have planning permission but are waiting for funding from any of a number of jittery banks. Temple-Heald is a born optimist, perhaps you have to be in landscape architecture and construction these days, and reckons that funding will pick up. This may coincide with a slow down in public-sector works, but so far "it seems to be holding up", he says.
Like Murray, Temple-Heald also recognises that landscape design cultures must change with the times. "We all have to do things differently and find cleverer ways of working together to keep in control of costs. The squeeze on margins and stronger competition for public-sector work makes it harder, not just for capital schemes but when it comes down to maintenance work," he explains.
"Though budgets have been pretty much set for next year, local authorities are bracing themselves for what they think are going to be cuts. If you know you are going to see your wages fall or, even worse, lose your job, you don't go out and buy a car. We are working with clients to look at ways of reducing costs. It's hard but you can look at this as an opportunity, not a threat."
British Association of Landscape Industries chief executive Neil Huck is not surprised that almost a fifth of the projects that made the list in 2009 have failed to make it onto this year's top 100. Some, like Union Square, a £250m retail scheme in Aberdeen, opened in October. Job done. Others, such as the £1.5bn Silvertown Quays in London's Docklands, hang in limbo with partners and lenders pulling out. Watch this space.
At number 13 last year, the shops, offices and hotel that formed its heart make Silvertown the highest-profile casualty of the top 100. But Huck sees the market gathering pace even though housing is currently "as flat as a pancake". Customers such as Tesco are throwing together plans for developments, he says. It may be tough, but he expects things to pick up as the year goes by.
A telling finding in the top 100 report is the increase in retail development, albeit a marginal 1.4 per cent, against last year. Huck points out that retailers, obsessed about the bottom line, like nothing more than a polished landscape, well thought out and well designed. Trees, shrubs and flowers, after all, are the first thing shoppers see as they swing into car parks and form a crucial "shop window".
Elsewhere, the view is not so rosy, with amounts of commercial space falling by seven per cent and leisure space by a scary 26 per cent. The word on the regeneration block is that a lack of disposable income is forcing families to cancel gym memberships and family days out. But Huck sees a time not too far off when those motionless treadmills will kick into action and the still waters of jacuzzis will begin to bubble once again.
"The growing emphasis on the environment can, and should, be used by landscapers as a fantastic PR tool," he insists. "Meanwhile, the need for housing - 60,000 new homes by 2020 in the South East alone - and monster PFI projects suggest a future that isn't too bleak. Some of the regeneration projects without doubt are in need of a reality check, but momentum is starting to gather pace. If only they can sort out the financial black holes."
1 Olympic Park East London 8.09bn
2 Leith Waterfront Edinburgh 4.51bn
3 Brent Cross Cricklewood North-west London 4.5bn
4 Greenwich Peninsula South-east London 4.24bn
5 Wembley City North-west London 3.8bn
6 Canning Town and East London 3.7bn
7 Barking Riverside East London 3.15bn
8 King's Cross Centra Central London 3bn
9 Clyde Gateway East Glasgow 2.6bn
10 Granton Waterfront North Edinburgh 2bn
11 Chatham Maritime, Medway North Kent 1.5bn
11 Elephant and Castle South London 1.5bn
13 Stratford City East London 1.45bn
14 Royal Arsenal Riverside South-east London 1.26bn
15 Middlehaven Teesside 1.25bn
16 Warrington Omega Cheshire 1.24bn
17 Kidbrooke Vision South-east London 1.23bn
18 Glasgow Harbour West Glasgow 1.2bn
19 Woodberry Down East London 1.1bn
20 Glan Llyn South Wales 1bn
20 Arsenal on the Move North London 1bn
22 Coed Darcy South Wales 900m
22 Longbridge South-west Birmingham 900m
22 Selly Oak South-west Birmingham 900m
25 Baglan Bay Port Talbot and Swansea 850m
26 Holt Town Waterfront East Manchester 842m
27 Grahame Park North-west London 830m
28 Queenborough and Rushenden Isle of Sheppey 800m
28 Temple Quarter Central Bristol 800m
30 Sevenstone Sheffield City Centre 779m
31 South Kilburn North-west London 772m
32 Watford Health Campus West Watford 750m
32 Bracknell Town Centre Berkshire 750m
34 Greenwich Millennium South-east London 733m
35 Salford Central Central Salford 650m
35 ESG Herefordshire Hereford 650m
37 Dundee Central Waterfront Dundee 648m
38 West End Leeds Leeds 630m
39 Clapham Park South London 560m
40 The Bridge Dartford 500m
40 Centenary Quay Southampton 500m
40 Heartlands West Lothian 500m
40 West Hendon Estate North London 500m
44 Media City UK Salford 481m
45 Northshore Stockton 480m
45 Ancoats Urban Village East Manchester 480m
47 Eastside Locks Birmingham 450m
48 Greengate Salford 449m
49 Brooklands Milton Keynes 438m
50 New Street Station Gateway Birmingham city centre 418m
51 Ironstoneat Lawley Telford 400m
51 Locking Parklands Weston-Super-Mare 400m
51 Bath Western Riverside Victoria Park, Bath 400m
54 Bedford Western Bypass West of Bedford 381m
54 Upton South-west of Northampton 381m
56 Berryfields Buckinghamshire 368m
57 Avenue Coking Works Derbyshire 353m
58 The Rock Bury 352m
59 East West Centre Stoke-on-Trent 350m
59 Attwood Green Birmingham city centre 350m
59 Kingsway Business Park Rochdale 350m
59 Millbay Plymouth waterfront 350m
59 Gloucester Quays South of Gloucester Docks 350m
59 Ebbw Vale Blaenau Gwent 350m
59 Craylandsand Fryerns Essex 350m
66 Chesterfield Waterside Chesterfield town centre 340m
66 Scotswood West of Newcastle 340m
66 Harbourside West of Bristol city centre 340m
69 Broughton Manor Farm Milton Keynes 320m
69 Westfield Bradford Bradford city centre 320m
71 Severalls Hospital Colchester town centre 312m
72 Skelmersdale Town Centre West Lancashire 300m
72 Sutton Coldfield Birmingham 300m
72 Rochester Riverside Medway, Kent 300m
72 Icknield Port Loop West Birmingham 300m
76 Tattenhoe Park Milton Keynes 279m
77 Park Prewett Hospital North of Basingstoke 276m
78 Oxley Park MK Milton Keynes 271m
79 Firepool Taunton Somerset 270m
79 Graylingwell Hospital North of Chichester 270m
81 Hattersley Hyde 254m
82 Skypark Next to Exeter Airport 250m
83 Oatlands Glasgow 222m
84 PrideinCampHill Nuneaton 212m
85 RochdaleTownCentre Rochdale 207m
86 Bow Cross Near 2012 Olympic venue, London 201m
87 New Islington Manchester 195m
88 St Paul's Place Sheffield 193m
88 Library of Birmingham Birmingham city centre 193m
90 Dalston Junction Dalston, east London 180m
90 Barrow-in-Furness Cumbria 180m
92 Telford Woodside Telford, Shropshire 176m
93 Heart of Slough Slough 170m
93 Victoria Way Ashford Town Centre 170m
95 RAF Staff College Bracknell 166m
96 Magna Park Milton Keynes 162m
97 Broughton Milton Keynes 159m
98 St Andrew's Bromley-by-Bow, east London 150m
98 Littlecombe Dursley 150m
100 Edge Hill Kensington renewal area, Liverpool 133m