Ideas for a brighter future for all

Olympic Sized Problems

Integrating infrastructure, precincts and their impacts

Hosting a major or even mega-sporting event like the Olympic and Paralympic Games is regarded by many (but certainly not all) as a great honour for the host city or country, but it presents some major challenges as well. Until recently there was a significant risk of being left with huge public debt after building new sporting facilities big enough to accommodate large Olympic crowds that would rarely be fully occupied after that occasion. Looking around recent host cities, some facilities have been abandoned, some repurposed and some, like the famous National Stadium in Beijing, better known as The Birdsnest, will be used again when they host the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2022 Winter Olympics and Paralympics.

Abandoned 1984 Olympic bobsled track Sarajevo
The abandoned bobsled and luge track from the 1984 Winter Olympics in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina.

London’s bid to host the 2012 Olympics was one of the first to focus on sustainability through the planned repurposing and reuse of facilities after the event, and it was an ambitious attempt to use investment in Games infrastructure to underpin the regeneration of a substantial part of East London, Stratford, that had suffered decades of deindustrialisation and lack of investment in public services and facilities.  The new processes for identifying future hosts are concerned now with delivering a major sporting event in a sustainable manner, in ways that don’t saddle the host city with crippling debt and leave a legacy of ‘white elephant’ facilities. 

There is also greater recognition now that events and facilities can sensibly be distributed around a larger area, perhaps the metropolitan region rather than concentrating mostly within a single city.  This can present problems of identity though if the host is not a single city, but a metropolitan region or even a State: the International Olympic Comittee (IOC) speaks of ‘Brisbane and Queensland’ being ready to welcome the world to the 2032 Olympic and Paralympic Games while recognising that ‘Australia has a love affair with the Olympic Games’.  In Australia it is often a challenge to reconcile local, State and Commonwealth interests, not least when it comes to agreeing what share of the total bill is to be paid by each.

Bidding to host a major sporting event like the Olympics reflects a desire to be recognised as a globally significant place and a city of renown, acknowledged as a member of the global club of world cities.  And the capacity to deliver a successful event is almost taken for granted now, although that should never be taken as downplaying the technical challenge of organising a major event that passes without disruption and is experienced as an enjoyable occasion by visitors, officials, athletes and their entourages.

"Bidding to host a major sporting event like the Olympics reflects a desire to be recognised as a globally significant place and a city of renown, acknowledged as a member of the global club of world cities."

But, beyond its successful delivery and opportunity to increase one’s global reputation, hosting the event also gives the chance to achieve some more parochial objectives.  These often relate to infrastructure projects that address some long-standing urban challenges: deindustrialisation and economic growth, housing supply or traffic congestion.  The fact that new facilities and infrastructure must be designed, built and open for business by the time of the Games brings a focus to planning and financial commitments that might otherwise be lacking.  There may have been talk of new metro-rail systems or stadia for years, but in our case, whatever is planned and committed to must be ready by the last week of July 2032.

It is sometimes said that winning the right to host a major sporting event has three possible impacts on investment in facilities and other infrastructure: it secures investment that might not otherwise have occurred at all; it brings it forward in time to meet the deadlines mentioned above; and it enlarges or amplifies investment commitments already made. 

Of course, all of this investment occurs in particular places and presents opportunities for place-making and place enhancement.  In some cases, these enhancements will be very localised: a stadium might be rebuilt and served by a new metro-station, creating a new destination, accessible by public transport and a substantially improved public realm.  In others, a cluster of facilities might be built, again served by improved public transport that helps create a precinct with a new identity and significance within the city as a whole.

Displaced
Photo: Dan Stowell, CC BY NC SA 2.0 https://www.flickr.com/photos/danstowell

A fairly commonplace and valid criticism of these types of urban transformation is that they have displaced existing residents or businesses, typically poorer residents and smaller businesses, as part of a process of urban gentrification.  This criticism cannot be dismissed lightly and good planners have long asked of developments: who gains and who loses?  It would be beyond irony for a major sporting event that claims and prides itself on leaving a legacy of sustainable development does so at the expense of some of the most vulnerable and marginalised residents of our host cities.

Critics of investment in major sports events point also to the opportunity cost of that investment, arguing it could and should be used to better effect in solving some of the most pressing problems faced by host cities or countries.  While this can be a powerful argument, if we are able to use that investment to help make many places better, and not just places that are the focal points of the main sporting events, around the host city or region then legacy claims will carry more weight with the majority of residents.  Just as those who eventually go on to win Olympic medals start at their local playing field, track or pool, so modest investment in small scale places serving very local communities can pay big dividends in the future.

Many planners will now tell you that in the Olympics of the 1930s and 40s, town planning was a recognised event!  While I wouldn’t necessarily advocate for its return in 2032, good planning will see Brisbane and other parts of Queensland become better places than they would otherwise have been and a notional medal would be most welcome.

Author

 

Professor Paul BurtonProfessor Paul Burton trained and worked as a Town Planner in London in the 1970s before joining the School for Advanced Urban Studies at the University of Bristol in 1980 to carry out research for my PhD on the redevelopment of London’s Docklands. I worked at the University until 2007 when I left my position as Head of the School for Policy Studies to join Griffith University as Professor of Urban Management and Planning. I am currently Director of the Cities Research Institute at Griffith University. I was a founding member of Regional Development Australia, Gold Coast and currently serve as Vice President of the Queensland division of the Planning Institute of Australia.

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