Friday, July 27, 2012

The Olympics and the City

I recently wrote about recuperation time in the city, the pause needed for a city to assimilate new elements and to recover from changes in the urban fabric.  (It’s the same thought that Jane Jacobs had when she argued against a “cataclysmic flow of capital” in “The Death and Life of Great American Cities”.  The only difference is that her phrase is proscriptive, while mine is prescriptive.)

The topic comes to the fore this week with the commencement of another Olympics.  Because whatever else the Olympics may be, they are a tremendous source of change in the host city, bringing resources that go far beyond Jacobs’ worst “cataclysmic” fears.

Many host cities, especially for the Summer Olympics, look to use the Games as a way to jumpstart redevelopment, to be their own versions of Robert Moses.  But, as with Moses, the record of those attempts is mixed, with the poor results generally outweighing the good.  Some Olympic cities have effected positive urban transformations that took root soon after the Games.  The more frequent result is a long period of post-Games stasis before additional investment capital brings about a pale version of the initial vision.

Cassell Bryan-Low in the Wall Street Journal recounts the fate of recent Summer Games hosts.  By her accounting, 1992 host Barcelona and 2000 host Sydney eventually received a level of success with their Olympic improvements, but only after years of waiting and additional investment.  Meanwhile, 2004 host Athens and 2008 host Beijing still have many unused facilities.

Looking even further back, Micheline Maynard, writing for Atlantic Cities, considers the legacy of the 1976 Montreal Games.  Long-time Mayor Jean Drapeau, building on the success of the 1967 Montreal Expo, sold the Olympics as a bigger and better city endeavor that was guaranteed to finish in the black.

He was wrong.  The 1976 Games finished in a fiscal hole that took years to fill.  Even in the mid-1980s, the Montreal Games were considered an abject failure.  Today, the vision of history has changed, with the 1976 Games considered to have helped move Montreal into the upper tier of world cities.  But of the remaining improvements that were built for the 1967 Expo or the 1976 Olympic Games, most are tourist attractions, with few serving a role in the day-to-day life of the city.

In an opposing opinion, Vancouver urbanism consultant Brent Toderian writes with enthusiasm about his experiences with the 2010 Vancouver Winter Games.  (Toderian was last seen in this blog quoting H.L. Mencken on complexity.)  Writing in Atlantic Cities, Toderian argues that the Games were a good investment for Vancouver.

Although he describes the downtown redevelopment and the sustainable Olympic Village, he argues that the single greatest impact was the sense of civic and national pride that resulted from the successful Games.  In his words, “if Beijing’s goal was national reputation and identity building, Vancouver’s Games accomplished that in spades, without a single piece of star-chitecture”

However, Winter Games are smaller affairs.  And, with more of the facilities located outside of the urban area, they have a lesser impact on the host city.

Against this backdrop of uneven and generally less than optimal results, London approached the 2012 Summer Games as an opportunity to redevelop a rundown area of East London. 

To highlight the challenge, the London Olympic land-use planners had a flawed example of urban redevelopment on their immediate skyline.  An article for Yahoo News notes that the nearby Canary Wharf project is an example of how not to do redevelopment, with large, sterile buildings cheek-to-jowl with aging and rundown residential blocks. 

(During a visit to London a few years ago, I was unfamiliar with Canary Wharf but intrigued by the architecture, so disembarked from the Tube to look around.  I quickly reached the same conclusion as the Yahoo article.  Architecturally interesting buildings and grounds, but without much human-scale or consideration of how the local residents would likely use the site.  The photos with this post are from Canary Wharf.

I was there on a mild early spring Friday afternoon, the kind of day when the more intrepid folks would begin emerging from their winter hibernation and using the public realm.  And yet, except for a few well-wrapped bankers enjoying beer at the outside tables of a pub, I mostly had the place to myself.  Canary Wharf may be a financial success, but it’s a failure as a public place and as a community.)

The Yahoo article goes on to report the concerns of critics that the post-Games redevelopment plans will fall into the Canary Wharf trap and “will only create an island of prosperity amid run-down neighborhoods.”   Adding to that apprehension is the nearby and newly-built Westfield shopping center, the largest in Europe, that is taking trade away from existing businesses, weakening the ties that held the current neighborhood together.

Richard Burdett, professor of urbanism at the London School of Economics, succinctly expresses the challenge for the post-Game planners.  In his words, the redevelopment will be a success “if it feels like a normal part of the city – and I think that’s the ambition of the project.”

To their credit, the London planners recognized the enormity of the task and the history of failures and partial successes.  Juliet Davis, writing for British Politics and Policies for the London School of Economics, was a member of the planning team and provides an overview of the process.

She starts by describing the prior conditions in the area now occupied by the Olympic Village.  It was an area of low-income residents, with 42 percent in the bottom five percent of household income.  It was also subject to high levels of transience.  Davis notes that the site is near the boundaries of several older cities that were swept away in the 1965 creation of Greater London, but not before leaving a legacy of fragmented planning.

Davis then notes two specifically troublesome elements of the long-range planning.  First, the extent of the redevelopment was so broad that much of the existing development had to be swept away, creating what Davis calls a tabula rasa.  But that blank slate included wiping away churches and clubs that the local residents, poor as they were, held dear, thus assuring local opposition and resentment.

Also, investors were eager to see a successful long-term vision of the redevelopment, with illustrations showing healthy and prosperous residents.  In Davis’ words, “People had to appear to be happy in these images.  They could not smoke or drink or display hallmarks of dysfunction or poverty.”  Therefore, it had to be assumed that the current residents, the folks who redevelopment should have been aiding, would be relocated elsewhere.   Thereby bringing the Canary Wharf concern into play.

Davis sums up the challenge faced by the planners in a final paragraph that is heavy in planner jargon, but still worthy of pondering:

The challenge of creating a positive legacy in terms of communities lies in two key areas.  Firstly, it depends on designs that genuinely facilitate social relationships that can both endure and evolve.  Secondly, it depends on how people are reengaged in the site over time.  In the short term, this engagement lies in the democracy of the urban planning process.  Longer term, it is about the capacity that inhabitants have to creatively inhabit the venues, spaces and new developments on the Olympic site and, to create their own urban cultures and futures.

The last sentence beautifully captures the recuperation process that I believe to be so important.

Lastly, Feargus O’Sullivan of Atlantic Cities compares the Beijing and London Olympics.  He gives the edge to Beijing on architecture and opening ceremonies, but suspects that overall London may come out ahead because of their long-term vision for redevelopment.  As he describes it, the key is “planners displaying a real effort to avoid the post-Games dereliction of some previous hosts.”

Lest anyone misconstrue my message, I love the Olympics and eagerly await the chance to be reacquainted with the broad reach of the Games, broad both in geography and in range of athletic endeavor.  Like many, I may grumble about the hype, the commercialization, the nationalism, and the frequent rule-bending, but I believe, at its core, that the Olympic ideal is good and worthy of emulation.

And the story of the South Sudanese runner who will be allowed to compete under the Olympic flag is a reminder of all that can be good about the Games.

With that said, how do I reconcile the Olympics with the potential for harm to the host cities, a fate that London, despite their aggressive planning, might still not be able to avoid?  By dusting off an idea that others have proposed.  I suggest that a limited number of “permanent” host cities be selected.  Perhaps ten total, five each for the Summer and Winter Olympics.  The host cities would then be put on a twenty-year schedule.

With a guaranteed return every twenty years, most Olympic venues can survive for more than one Olympics.  A well-built track-and-field can survive three or even four re-uses.  (My grandfather worked on the construction of the Los Angeles Coliseum for the 1932 Summer Olympics.  After several facelifts, it remains in use for college football 80 years later and could probably host another Olympics.)

Even if a facility such as an aquatic center or velodrome can only be used for one or two Olympics, its replacement can be built on the same site, minimizing the disruption to the urban fabric.

I understand that selecting ten Olympic host cities for perpetuity would be controversial, with the also-rans feeling permanent exclusion.  However, that downside seems an acceptable trade-off for the potential damage that is now done to two new host cities twice every four years.  Not to mention being a less expensive approach.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (

No comments:

Post a Comment