Much has been written in recent months about the Beijing Olympics which have just concluded. From the new iconographic stadia; the Bird's Nest, Watercube et al., to the massive redevelopment schemes and beautification projects undertaken to make Beijing a fitting host for the international spectacle that is the Olympic Games, the world has watched in awe at Beijing's ability to construct and institute urban change with astonishing speed. Of course it has been noted that this is largely due to the totalitarian/authoritarian nature of Chinese government. However, what has been left out of such discussions is a recognition that massive redevelopment by government fiat is not only a characteristic of the Beijing Olympics. In fact, over the last few decades the hosting of the Olympic Games has increasingly come to be seen as the perfect tool with which a host city can push through and garner "public" and institutional/financial support for massive urban redevelopment plans.
Perhaps the best known example of this is the 1992 Barcelona Games. A key element of Barcelona's bid was their plan to use the Games as the driver for major redevelopment of the urban docklands and in doing so to re-establish a connection between the city and it's oceanfront. Following Barcelona's example, cities like Sydney, Salt Lake City and Athens have all taken advantage of the ""Regneration Games"" to push through massive infrastructural development. It has also become clear however, that a key issue for any host city post-Olympics revolves around the twin issues of a legacy and sustainability. To often huge sums are spent on developing and then maintaining the Olympic Parks with little long term benefit to the city. This helps to explain why Sydney touted it's desire to be the "first green Games". In fact they have used the Sydney Olympic Park as a foundation for a new master planned "sustainable" suburb on the site of a former industrial park at Homebush Bay.
The website for the upcoming 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics has a prominent section on their front page which lists all the various ways in which their Games will manage the "social, economic and environmental impacts as well produce lasting benefits, locally and globally." Yet, already news agencies and watchdog groups have decried the games early effects on Vancouver's homeless population and their negative environmental impact (here and here). Meanwhile London's Game's have also drawn criticism of their large scale urban regeneration plans for the Lower Lea Valley and Thames Gateway. Critics contend that costs continue to soar and the original plans for the iconographic stadia have undergone significant revision. Moreover, they charge that there is no real public consultation or democratic transparency in the planning process wherein the Olympic Delivery Authority is both developer and planning body (George Monbiot). Indeed the Olympics are portrayed as nothing more that another neoliberal regeneration scheme which ultimately serves no other purpose than to legitimize the removal and relocation of the poor as part of a government sponsored corporate land grab (here and here).
If even some of the criticism of these "Regeneration Games" proves true what is the solution to creating a more equitable Games? Well, within the context of the London Games a number of London specific as well as more general solutions have been proposed. David Mackay architect for Barcelona's Olympic Village and Port and co-author of the pre-Olympic masterplan for the Lower Lea Valley has pointed out that a key injustice in the London redevelopment plan is the planned removal of hectares of productive agricultural land currently used by Londoners in the form allotments. If London truly wants the Games to be sustainable they should adjust the master plan to promote the continued use of these lands for urban agriculture. Such a move could help to reduce the food miles of the meals served at the London Olympics, would provide economic opportunities for local residents as well as ensure the protection of vital open, productive green space in the heart of urban London (Feeding the Olympics).
HOK Sport and Peter Cook designers of the London 2012 Olympic Stadium have emphasized the "sustainable" elements of the stadium in their proposal. Their design seeks to minimize the quantity of material resulting in a lean, compact and lightweight stadium. The goal being to reduce the amount of materials and the associated embodied energy used in the construction. They have also designed the stadium in two pieces so that the top 55,000 seats can later be dismantled and used at another sporting venue within the UK (See here). Arup Associates have actually taken the concept one step further. Later this year they will officially unveil their new Olympic Stadium concept. Recognizing that with their focus on urban regeneration and iconographic stadia, the Olympics have become too costly for non-developed countries to stage, they have designed a fully transportable stadium that would be owned by the IOC. Rather than having to invest hundreds of millions a country in Africa or South America could rent the stadia from the IOC. All the host country would have to do is invest in the necessary infrastructure. They argue it is not the actual buildings but the reclaimed land, infrastructure investment and Olympic Park which are the necessary urban catalysts. If they had their way the Olympics will become, "the world-touring Olympics, the caravanserai Olympics, the Olympics that pitch up and have a party on Mombasa beach or the favelas of Rio de Janeiro. Imagine fully demountable stadiums, and a 50m Olympic swimming pool pulled around the world by supertankers. The relocatable Olympics would regenerate a region and put it under the world spotlight, energize the local economy, and demonstrate that governments need neither state communism nor rampant capitalism to join the Olympic party." Arup Associates gets ahead of the game on the Olympic stadium of the future
Urban re-generation has longed been charged with the sin of gentrification, of being too authoritarian and of not equitably distributing the benefits of a region or neighborhood's new success. The Olympics are especially open to such criticism because they are such short term events and too often after the Games have moved on the regeneration plan has not. Olympic committees are becoming more aware of these concerns hence the new focus on sustainability and legacy. Hopefully, the continued focus of media and watchdog groups on such problems will encourage the development of new design initiatives and processes which reduce cost, improve transparency and create a greater role for the local within the happenings of the global.
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An ex-liberal arts student now in the healthcare informatics, I am a friend of architects and lover of design. My interests include: sustainability/ecology, urban(isms), learning/teaching, religion(s) and technology. I was raised in NYC, but after almost two decades of living in North ...