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Olympics: When the world comes to town

Updated Monday, 23rd July 2012
The 2012 Olympics will create millions of temporary new neighbours for many Londoners. How will it affect the sense of order?

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Busy station Watching new neighbours arrive can generate a series of anxieties: are we going to get along, will they play music too loudly, will they separate the recycling?

These questions reflect the emotional and affective responses to contemporary urban living in diverse, crowded spaces where we have to negotiate on a daily basis how we live together.

And just when we think we have a semblance of order … the Olympics arrive. Now in London we are expecting about 500,000 international visitors, 90,000 athletes and officials, and over five million UK spectators to temporarily move in next door.

Will they be polite, will they be quiet, will they leave rubbish on our front lawn?


It’s not simply the presence of strangers that creates this sense of disturbance but rather their inherent ambiguity and unpredictability, violating the synchronous strides and shared norms inculcated in our habitual use of space.

To be able to act in expected ways and predict the behaviour of others reduces uncertainty and increases our sense of comfort in public space, not to mention the speed with which we can move around the city.

Writers such as David Sibley (1999 in Human Geography Today, UK), for example, have argued that stability and continuity are important for many of us, and similarly, Peter Marris’ work (1974, Loss and Change, UK) has found that we tend to inherently favour a predictable life.

This sense of order is based on cultural knowledge that creates synchronous spaces in which a group of individuals can attach collective meaning to experience and choose appropriate responses to events.

Cultural knowledge enables us to avoid unsettling, insecure, ambiguity, as well as to be able to guess how others will react to avoid potential collisions. Rather than being boring, this predictability can actually enable social interactions.


Incivility, on the other hand, is more likely to be registered when the flow of the city is impeded. Nothing is more guaranteed to generate a sense of dissonance (the sense of discomfort that comes when cultural norms are violated) than the ‘spatially untethered’ according to Steve Herbert (2008, in Progress in Human Geography).

To be ‘spatially untethered’ is to violate the shared understandings that produce predictability. It is to be disconnected from the cultural practices and knowledge that create space, and that demarcate its ‘correct’ use and understanding of where the boundaries lie between public and private, or right and wrong.

The desire for predictability takes on a particular salience when placed in the context of rapid change and critical mass which the Olympics, and its almost six million spectators, will epitomise.

London has become an unsettled space as roads are blocked, traffic is diverted, new rules are imposed and we make new plans for how to get from A to B to avoid the crowds. Public spaces now have unexpected uses: a commons has become an equestrian stadium and Horse Guards Parade is now a beach volleyball pitch.


The inevitable outcome of these changes is that established practices of meaning and comfort are threatened by the disintegration of a predictable environment.

Normal reflexes, based on knowing which way someone is more likely to move, the direction of traffic, the codes of expected civility in particular spaces, will no longer always apply.

Our habitual patterns of movement around the city will be disrupted by the out-of-place ‘other’ who blocks the flow in acts of unwitting spatial transgression: the tourist who steps into the street looking the wrong way for traffic; the lost souls who stop in the middle of the pavement to check the map; the hapless new arrival taking the Tube who feels the wrath of commuters behind them as they stand on the left side of the escalator and block the right side with a suitcase.


And imagine the anxiety if someone doesn’t queue properly! It will be a period in which the laws of routine and habit are suspended. But before we all start showing symptoms of cultural dissonance in the next few weeks and grumpily withdraw to the shelter of home, there is also something to be gained by a little anomie.

Defer some norms just for a few weeks and see the possibilities of the city. Bend with the tourists, rush hour commuters and high street shoppers. Crowds have their own momentum and counter-intuitively tend to behave in rational ways.

Go with the flow and you’ll get to where you need to be eventually. And if you don’t it wont matter – everyone else will be late as well.

Feel the pleasure of seeing parts of the city that only a diverted bus route could take you to. Remember the sense of freedom of jumping on a bicycle. Use space in ways that it was never intended to be used. Feel what a city is like when the traffic, whether a sports car or a second hand banger, is forced to a standstill. Crowds are a great egalitarian force.

As roads become sidewalks take someone by the hand and promenade through the streets. And I will make a sporting wager that when it’s all over it is this anomie and its unpredictability that we will miss most of all.

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