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The lives of others

Tilo Mahn / jiAugust 10, 2012

What happens when the athletes move out? London's Olympic organizers are considering how best to secure the long-term legacy of their Olympic village. And they may well have found the answer - in Munich.

The Olympic village in Munich; Photo: Gerhard Rauchwetter
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

When British envoy James Watson visited Munich in September last year, he had a clear mission - to give a new face to the deprived neighborhoods of East London, where the Olympic Park is located, and provide a long-term legacy for local residents.

Munich is where he sought inspiration. Because for almost 40 years people have been living happily in the the former Olympic Village there, and the area has established a strong sense of community. Watson wanted to find out how to turn what would serve in the short-term as athletes' accommodation into an attractive prospect for investors and for residents.

Model settlement

Munich's success as a village with real identity stems largely from its local residents' association, which was set up shortly after the Games in 1972. The residents' group still shapes the community to this day. When the first people moved into their flats in 1973 they found the kind of infrastructure that is well-suited to young families rather than athletes. The village was constructed with the clear separation of pedestrians and vehicles; there are quiet terraces with green spaces in between, and easy access to shops and local amenities.

The former Olympic village in Munich from the air Photo: Peter Kneffel dpa/lby
Munich's former Olympic Village is now a sought-after residential areaImage: picture-alliance/dpa

"All of that was very 'in' back then. But it was implemented here on a huge scale - we'd never seen anything like it," says Ludger Korinternberg, who moved into the Olympic Village in 1975. As an architect he had followed its development closely.

He was convinced by the need for a social housing estate in the north of Munich, protected from traffic noise. That's why he got involved in the residents' group.

In 1972, the news magazine Der Spiegel described it as a "model development between the town gas works and BMW's factory buildings."

The voice of the people

Today, Manuela Feese-Zolotnitski is head of the residents' association. She moved into the Olympic Village with her family in 1999 - after the protests against chemical emissions, including those from the nearby BMW paint shop.

"That was the period of the student protests," she told DW. Some parts of the village now serve as student accommodation. "It was a time when people simply paid more attention to the sociological side of things. They even involved psychologists in the planning of the village."

Where nowadays architects and landscape engineers are given responsibility for such projects, back then it was the residents who had a big say. They came up with designs for playgrounds in which children could learn creatively, and ideas for community centers for local residents. Alongside the unique nature of the construction there was, according to Korintenberg, an "enormous positive social potential there" from the very beginning.

1191834 Great Britain, London. 07/26/2012 Athletes are photographed against the backdrop of the Olympic rings in the Olympic village in London. Alexey Kudenko/RIA Novosti
London is looking to Munich for ideas on how to turn the 2012 Olympic village into a thriving local communityImage: picture alliance / dpa

The residents still come together at annual meetings or other events, organized by the association or by the city authorities.

"We always took our problems to the city council as well - after all, they're also town planning issues. We tried to influence them with targeted information, and this proved successful," says Korintenberg.

Those meetings meant the residents had personal contact with those in charge, including the then deputy mayor, Christine Strobl. There were cultural organizations and programs for young mothers. Today the residents' group wants to improve the range of shops and local services so that they better fulfill the needs of those living there.

"The residents' group is rather like a mouthpiece. You can turn to it if you need some weight behind you," says Feese-Zolotnitski.

An organic village

The village, with its 1,800 apartments, some in high-rise blocks, others in bungalows, is booming. Monika Shah left her beloved district of Haidhausen in 1983 so that she and her young son would have better access to green spaces.

From the very beginning we were on first-name terms with our immediate neighbors, who also had a small boy," she says. Shah and her husband ripped out the partition walls and created a living space that was perfect for a growing family. They live directly opposite the apartment where, on September 5, 1972, the Palestinian terrorist group "Black September" took 11 members of the Israeli Olympic team hostage, ultimately murdering them. Shah watches from her balcony as people come to pay their respects.

Relatives carry coffins at a memorial service to victims of the 1972 Munich terror attack
People come to commemorate the attack on Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich OlympicsImage: picture-alliance/dpa

"Sometimes groups come from Israel. I can hear them singing. It's almost a shrine for them." Shah, a history teacher, has learned to value the area in all the years she's lived there. 

"Other parts of Munich aren't such an organic whole, the way the Olympic Village is. The crucial factor is that there aren't any individual houses here; instead it's a whole, like one big creature. That brings people together," says Ludger Korintenberg.

British envoy James Watson also came away with this impression. In a press release on his return to London, he wrote that London's "East Village" should offer a "modern and sustainable way of life in the heart of the new neighborhood." An idea inspired by Munich.