Monday, August 13, 2012

Olympics Hangover – Part 1

The Olympics are behind us.  The glorious spectacle of the Summer Games is gone, not to reappear until Rio de Janeiro in 2016.  But the urban planning community continues to chew over the implications of the Olympics.  And justifiably so.  In terms of resources committed and public attention, the Olympics are among the biggest urban projects anywhere.  I’ll share some of the Olympian thinking below.

I don’t expect the North Bay to host even a part of an Olympics in my lifetime.  Nor would I wish for it.  But once we adjust our sense of scale, the Olympics issues have their lesser-scale counterparts in local life.  I try to connect the dots, at least from my perspective, in the interleaved “North Bay Lesson” paragraphs.

Dezeen Magazine reports on a study by Dutch architectural firm XML which argues that it will be increasingly difficult for liberal democracies to host an Olympics.  The argument is that the conflict between the spending of public dollars and benefits that accrue to private businesses is becoming too great to pass muster in a democracy.

Dezeen also notes that much of the Olympic finances are based on television revenues.  With technology changing the way television is viewed, it’s unclear if the television can continue to be a cash cow for the Games.

I found the Dezeen conclusion about the hosting of Olympic by liberal democracies to be both credible and deeply disturbing.  It should be cause for reflection by the International Olympic Committee on what it seeks in the awarding of bids.  And land use professionals everywhere should reflect on what it implies about the ability to implement major projects in a democracy.  Hosting the Games only in dictatorships would be a repudiation of everything the original Greeks intended for the Olympics.

North Bay Lesson: The Dezeen concern about public expenses versus private profits is pertinent to urban development.  In good urban development, rehabilitation of aging public infrastructure is often inextricably bound up with new private development.  This should be a good and worthwhile partnership.  Bbut is often a point on which opponents can focus, claiming unfair benefits to the private sector and sidetracking projects that could benefit the community.

Simon Jenkins of the Guardian takes a pessimistic view on the near-term financial impacts from the London Olympics.  He argues that the recent history of mega-sporting events tells a consistent story.  “Postmortems on Atlanta, Barcelona, Sydney, Athens and Beijing all tell of hotel slumps, unpaid debts, empty parks and subsequent disillusion.”

He contended that politicians, who should understand the tourism reality, have refused to play fair with the facts.  “Had the government said from the start that London was a rich city staging the Olympics as a costly but generous gesture to the world, there could be no further argument.”

Jenkins concludes that the biggest problem is London’s continuing the trend of overly-elaborate Olympic spectacles.  “The real victims of London's mind-numbing mendacity will be the poor and hapless citizens of Rio in 2016. They really cannot afford it.”

I think Jenkins is generally correct in his criticisms, but overly severe.  With the possible exception of Beijing, it seems likely that most Olympics will leave behind some benefits, although it may take twenty years for those benefits to become evident.  And good planning also has a role.

North Bay Lessons: Urbanism is best served by a slow but steady, incremental process.  Making a big splash with an out-sized project is almost guaranteed to include missteps.  Unfortunately, the land-use process offers economies of scale to larger projects.  Communities should look for ways to provide additional encouragement to smaller projects.

DW  reports that the post-Olympics experience for Barcelona was positive and that good urban changes were set in motion by the 1992 Games.

With this argument, and the concrete examples of improvements in Barcelona life offered by the writer, DW buttresses my suggestion above that most Games eventually result in at least some positive municipal improvements, even if twenty years are required.

The London Telegraph reports that the planning team for the 2000 Sydney Games is impressed by how the London planning team didn’t repeat a major Sydney mistake.  Rather than putting the Games at the far extent of the metropolitan area, forcing a transit expansion, London placed the Games where a functioning transit system was already in place.  “It should be obvious that any Olympic legacy is only as good as its connectivity.”

Transit is essential for everyday life and especially for mega-events.  It’s hard to imagine how the London Olympics could have worked if more spectators had arrived by private car.  If anything, many of the reports from London have been about how quiet the streets have been with the spectators packing the Tube and the locals staying home.

North Bay Lesson: The SMART train is a good start, but transit is likely to assume an ever increasing role in North Bay life.

On a lighter note, after recently writing about the new font that was designed to promote Chattanooga, I was intrigued to note that the London Olympics had their own font.  And that Rio has already created a font for 2016.  It seems to be a trend.

I want to like the London font.  It has a style that I enjoy.  And I find that many words, such as “London”, “inspire”, and “excite”, look great in the font.  But I don’t like the way “Olympics” looks.  And any font in which the aesthetics varies between words can’t be a good font. agrees, ranking it the worst font in the world.  Probably an overstatement with Olympics underway, but still not an endorsement.

The Rio font seems a little more balanced, but I don’t find it exuberant enough.  It seems comfortable and laid-back, which is a good Brazilian trait.  But it seems to lack Carnival.  And the Olympics would seem require a touch of Carnival.

North Bay Lesson: In terms of fonts, probably none.  Unless there is an unknown North Bay community of font designers, it seems unlikely that any local community will emulate Chattanooga.  But there is a lesson about how design makes a difference, how having a coherent design is key to presenting a consistent community image.

I don’t see much recognition of that point in the North Bay.  As an acquaintance recently pointed out, Petaluma has a half-dozen different wayfinding systems, each with its own aesthetic style.  We can do better.

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

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