The London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games had only small and transient effects on physical activity, mental health and well-being for those living nearby. Although access to sporting facilities and green space improved, local adolescents and their parents did not receive any sustained positive effect on physical activity, mental health or well-being.
This NIHR-funded study assessed the impact of a multicomponent urban regeneration programme linked to the Olympics. It looked at changes in health and well-being of 2,254 adolescents, plus their parents, comparing those from Newham - the area most affected by Olympic regeneration - with three other east London boroughs.
The study found that sport-related urban regeneration programmes are unlikely to be effective for improving physical and mental health and should not be oversold in terms of their health impacts.
Why was this study needed?
Despite large sums of public money being spent on urban regeneration programmes, there is limited evidence about their effects on the health and well-being of those living nearby. In the UK, assessments of previous programmes have found a mix of both positive and negative effects.
It is important for decision-makers to have a realistic understanding of the health effects of sport-related urban regeneration programmes. The London Olympics provided an opportunity to assess the effects of associated urban regeneration on the physical and mental health of those living nearby.
What did this study do?
This was a prospective cohort study of 2,254 adolescents in 25 schools (age 11-12 at the start of the study) and of their parents or carers. It compared those living in Newham (where the Olympic Park is situated), with those in and Barking and Dagenham, Hackney and Tower Hamlets. Self-report questionnaires were used to assess changes including physical activity and sedentary behaviour, anxiety, depression and well-being. Data was collected during the run-up to the Olympics in 2012, and at six and 18 months after it had finished.
The study also included a qualitative analysis of the experiences of 20 families, supplemented by three school-based focus groups.
Study limitations include residual confounding by differences in local population characteristics and the effects of ongoing funding reductions for public services over the period. Additionally, a detailed assessment of individuals’ exposure to urban regeneration projects was not undertaken, and the study excluded young children and adults who were not parents.
What did it find?
- The study found some transient effects at six months, but minimal evidence of sustained changes in physical and mental health or well-being 18 months after the Olympics.
- Changes in physical activity and sedentary behaviours of adolescents and parents were no different between boroughs at 18 months.
- Changes in reported depression and anxiety of adolescents and parents were mostly no different between boroughs at 18 months, although adolescents from Newham were more likely to have remained depressed.
- Wellbeing was unaffected for adolescents or parents at 18 months.
- Residents generally welcomed the cleaner, safer and more unified environment, and felt less socially excluded. However, the regeneration did not address their most pressing concern: a shortage of affordable and social housing.
What does current guidance say on this issue?
No relevant guidance is available.
What are the implications?
This study suggests that although local access to sporting facilities and high-quality green space may be improved by sport-related urban regeneration projects, these might not lead to sustained improvements in physical activity, mental health, or well-being.
Although residents welcomed the improvements to their environment, the Olympics provided only temporary respite from the stresses of everyday life. Decision-makers should be sceptical of claims that such events are an effective way to improve health and well-being in the local area.
Citation and Funding
Cummins S, Clark C, Lewis D et al. The effects of the London 2012 Olympics and related urban regeneration on physical and mental health: The ORiEL mixed-methods evaluation of a natural experiment. Public Health Res. 2018;6(12).
This project was funded by the National Institute for Health Research Public Health Research programme (project number 09/3005/09).
Thomson H, Atkinson R, Petticrew M et al. Do urban regeneration programmes improve public health and reduce health inequalities? A synthesis of the evidence from UK policy and practice (1980-2004). J Epidemiol Community Health. 2006;60(2):108-15.
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