If ever there were a literal example of 'green shoots of recovery', it's the Olympic Park in east London. Before work started in 2006, the 2½sq km site was peppered with redundant buildings and included a Victorian landfill site. The River Lea struggled through, its waters contaminated by industrial leakage and choked by Japanese knotweed.
Today Phil Askew, who project-managed the 45 hectares of parkland for the Olympic Delivery Authority, says the whole place has changed radically. The landscape has been beautifully contoured by Hargreaves Associates and LDA Design, who together led the development of the masterplan. Every trace of knotweed has been eradicated, and the soil thoroughly cleansed of pollutants. 'Nothing is untouched,' says Phil.
The park is divided into two areas. Visitors to the London 2012 Olympic Games and Paralympic Games who are after dazzling colour should head south, where there is an 'urban, festival landscape', according to Nigel Dunnett. He and James Hitchmough, leading experts in creating schemes that are as ecologically sustainable as they are beautiful, have sown a meadow of suitably golden annuals — a 'ring of fire' — around the Stadium, which will flower during the event.
Stretching along a strip of riverbank between the Stadium and the Aquatic Centre is the 2012 Garden, designed to make an equally powerful visual impact on visitors as they arrive from Stratford station. Nigel boasts it is 'the largest area of perennial garden planting anywhere', and it has been divided into four zones representing the history of plant introductions into Britain: Europe, America, Africa and Asia.
Sarah Price — one of the hottest young designers around, and known for her 'painterly' eye — has been in charge of the detailed planting here. She laid it out last year, so the plants have had time to settle in, and it is far from what you would expect in a traditional British border. 'Most gardeners haven't seen how plants grow in the wild,' she says, so she has tried to emulate this, creating a complex tapestry of colour and texture through which visitors will walk.
To the north of the park, the landscaping is more naturalistic, with thousands of native trees, perennial meadows and flowering grasslands, all designed with long-term sustainability in mind. The Lea flows smoothly through a bowl filled with more than 300,000 wetland plants, which not only provide a habitat for wildlife but also a flood defence for housing in the area.
Long after the medal podiums have been taken down, the legacy of the Olympic and Paralympic Games will live on. Come 2013, the site will reopen, increasing by 50 per cent, as the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, the largest new urban park in the UK for more than 100 years — and certainly one of the most exciting.
Caroline Donald is the gardening editor of The Sunday Times. She also runs Damson Tours, bespoke trips to the English countryside.
Read more: behind the scenes at London's Olympic Park.