Planning Lessons from an Olympic Beauty Contest

Ken Bernstein's picture

Last week, my home city, Los Angeles, lost out to Chicago for the right to represent the United States in the international competition to host the 2016 Olympics.  Since an Olympic city selection represents the ultimate inter-urban beauty contest – dare I say, a kind of urban "International Idol" – what did this process tell us about the state of urban planning in two of America's largest cities? 

To be sure, because Los Angeles had hosted two previous Olympic Games, one as recently as 1984, Chicago's selection may have been little more than a recognition that Los Angeles already had its Olympic moment – twice.  But for Los Angeles planners, Chicago's triumph can also be a reminder that we still have more work to do. 

Chicago's selection has to be seen, in part, as a triumph of planning.  Chicago has come a long way in recent decades from Carl Sandburg's "Hog Butcher of the World" and "City of the Big Shoulders."  Chicago wowed the selection committee members with its new lakefront attractions, "green" facilities, dazzling proposed venues, and concentrated downtown vitality.  For Chicago to out-rank Los Angeles on the "wow" factor underscores the ability of urban planning, coupled with concerted political leadership, to spur transformational change. 

As a planner in Los Angeles, I feel passionately that my city, under the leadership of Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and new Planning Director Gail Goldberg, is in the midst of just such a transformation. 

Los Angeles is already far more than the undifferentiated, car-oriented sprawl of the popular imagination.  For example, Olympic visitors would have been shuttled to venues on nearly 100 miles of heavy rail and light rail transit.  But while Los Angeles offers tremendous riches for those who look beneath its surfaces, it still struggles with overcoming lingering, inaccurate perceptions – a challenge Chicago has now seemed to surmount.   

And, ultimately, the almost clichéd, contrasting images of the two cities did seem to play a factor.  The excitement and intensity that compact development could generate – including the idea of a true Olympic "village" on the lakefront – trumped Los Angeles' message of fiscal responsibility and already-constructed, but spread out, venues.   

The public reaction to the Olympic announcement also underscored a challenge for planners.  Los Angeles residents identify with their own communities, but do not always connect emotionally to the larger whole – that they are meaningfully part of the City of Los Angeles.  On the day of the Olympic announcement, Angelenos largely went about their normal business, while "Chicagoland" residents stopped and rooted for their city.  They were no doubt aided by the wall-to-wall coverage on Chicago television stations, coverage that was notably absent in Los Angeles (and certainly noticed by the selection committee). 

The Olympics themselves once served this function: the 1984 Games knitted Los Angeles together as nothing before or since.  They were the high point of a glorious period for Los Angeles – two weeks during a 1980s boom when the world came to a newly world-class city, and even the traffic flowed smoothly. 

As we continue to remake our city physically around a growing transit system, a reclaimed river, new urban parks, and revitalized corridors, Los Angeles planners will also need to rekindle this sense of a larger civic connection.  All of these factors do add up to a great city – and a great Olympic experience.     

Ken Bernstein is Manager of the Office of Historic Resources and Principal Planner of the Citywide Planning Division for the City of Los Angeles' Department of City Planning.

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