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Olympic Cities and Advanced City-Making - Part 1

Today marks the two year anniversary of the closing ceremonies of the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, and 150 days until the start of the 2012 London Summer Olympic Games. Soon millions around the World will turn their attention to London, and in fact to venues across the UK, for the largest sporting and cultural event on Earth.

Brent Toderian | February 28, 2012, 12pm PST
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Today marks the two year anniversary of the closing ceremonies of the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, and 150 days until the start of the 2012 London Summer Olympic Games. Soon millions around the World will turn their attention to London, and in fact to venues across the UK, for the largest sporting and cultural event on Earth.

While most will tune in for the sporting competition and intense nationalism, global urbanists will also be intrigued by the city-building in preparation for the Games, the unique planning necessary for their successful operations (including incredibly complex transportation planning), and the "look of the city" moves and "spectaculars" that will transform London for the global cameras and tourists. These moves will have both immediate and lasting effects on the cultural and civic life of the host city.

Having been Planning Director for Vancouver over 4 years of preparation preceding the last Olympics - and over the last two post-Olympic years of building on the legacies of the Games - I've had a special fascination with the London Games preparation. These last two years have built on the more after-the-fact observations from my past position, as Manager of Centre City Planning + Design for Calgary, Canada's previous Olympic city. Calgary hosted the Winter Olympic Games in 1988, and is still credited as the first modern-era city to host the Games and make a significant profit, much of which went into local and national sport and civic legacies.



Vancouver's Olympic imagery - source: City of Vancouver  


Over the course of this and other blog posts in the coming months, I'll share my direct observations on the city-building challenges and legacies from the Vancouver and Calgary Olympic Games, as well as my in-direct observations from London and past host cities like Barcelona, Sydney, and Montreal. I'll consider the debates on whether hosting the Olympics is a good or bad thing for a city, the lessons from cities that have done it successfully, and maybe even some observations from cities that benefited from going after the Games, and not getting them.

First, to London, and the "time-clock" for preparation of the venues and city. Construction completion and the hand-over of facilities, always the biggest stress in the year before the opening ceremonies, seems to be going well according to the press. Many existing facilities are being enhanced and retrofitted (often a strategic and responsible thing to do, rather than constructing new), and new buildings like the Zaha Hadid designed Aquatics Centre and the massive Olympic Stadium, appear to be ready for test events (as the saying goes in the Olympics process, they have to be ready - there's no option to push back the Opening Ceremonies).

This first link shows the nature and location of the many venues in and outside of London. The second and third show the Athletes Village, always one of the most interesting city-building aspects of any Games. Be sure to watch some of the videos.

A new terminal at Heathrow will accommodate more and bigger planes (often the most debated aspect around the "sustainability" of any Games), and investments in top-line hotels will be completed in time for the Games. The local narrative describes the investment in the Olympic Park as a way of "revitalizing East London."  

Like many Olympic cities that are largely built-out, much of London's Games will actually happen on the outskirts of the city – Vancouver was one of the few Games in the modern era where Games-related construction and events were scattered across an established city pattern, including Vancouver's densely developed downtown, requiring revolutionary approaches to transportation planning.

The city is also preparing for the huge change to "business as usual" relative to city life and business operations that the Games bring – indeed, this was one of the biggest workload challenges for us in Vancouver, including what was called "17 New York-style New Years Eve celebrations in a row" in our downtown. This London article illustrates how everything must be considered. 

Since the 2010 Games, I've participated in and led many discussions, panels and presentations on the Olympics legacy, what the benefits and costs were for us locally, provincially and nationally, and whether it was "worth it". As you might imagine, opinions have varied and data has been debated, with many perspectives being very emotional and philosophical on one hand, or entirely math-focused on the other (often by the economists on panels), as if "the only things that count are those that can be counted". Often such debates end with people having the same opinions they came in with - their strong, pre-set positions proving relatively impervious to other perspectives or new information.

Since I was not a part of either Vancouver or Calgary's decision to host the Olympics, I don't have a vested interest in defending or condemning the decision to host. I have also deliberately avoided studying deeply any of the competing math about whether such Games make huge profits or huge losses, what spin-off effects they have on ecomonic development or tourism, and so on. I'll let others debate such aspects, although I am in the camp of people who believe that Vancouver's hosting of the Games was one of many reasons why our city and local economy weathered the storm of the 2008 global downturn much better than just about every other North American city.

I'll also let others extol the virtues of how the Games transform local passion, support (including financial), and infrastructure for sport at every level, although I would just note that such advantages are very obvious to me.

My key perspective in the question of hosting the Games is that of a city-builder, and to an increasing extent lately, someone very interested in nation-building and the promotion of a evolving national urbanism. I'm also someone who believes that once that decision to host is made, the job is to make it a huge short-term and long-term success - period. Second-guessing and debating after that does little good once you've set yourself on that path, at least until the Games are over.

From these perspectives, in my observation and assessment, the hosting of the Olympics can be a hugely transformative and game-changing event in a city and country's history, as our Vancouver Games have powerfully exhibited – if they are planned and designed with long term city-building and legacies front-of-mind. More on that, in the next post.


Olympic Village and Vancouver's downtown peninsula - source: City of Vancouver



Vancouver's Olympic Village roof-scape and courtyards - source: City of Vancouver



The transformation of Vancouver's Granville Street


Perhaps an interesting way to finish this first post, many months before the 2012 Opening Ceremonies, is to remember how we in Vancouver were feeling around this time in the lead-up toward the 2010 Games. I wonder how it might compare with the London organizer's feelings and thinking at this stage. Its actually very easy to remember back to 2010, thanks to a timely interview i did weeks before with Nate Berg, then with Places (now with Atlantic Cities), that ran on February 8th, 2010, just before the February 12th Opening Ceremonies. 

Here is some of that Interview, to set the stage for later observations:


Nate Berg: Your city is just about to host the Olympics. What's the mood like there? 

Brent Toderian: There's a feeling of the calm before the storm, but saying there's calm here is probably not particularly accurate. There's still a huge amount to do, but the truth is, when you've spent years working to get to this moment, if you're not ready by now, you probably won't be. So there are finishing touches to be done, but we're ready and the mood is ramping up. People are really enthusiastic about hosting the world. 

Past Olympic cities have talked about the emotional roller coaster that happens before an Olympics, and sometimes you have to go through the troughs to get to the high points. I think our city has had that. But as we get closer and closer to the day, it's just more excitement and less worry. As they say, at this point it's like a luge sled: limited steering, and no brakes.

NB: Tell me about earlier on in the process when you actually did have that steering. What was it like to prepare for these games years before the event?

BT: Certainly the city planner's role starts very early, because it's about putting the planning in place long before you even start construction. I've been here about three and a half years - I came in when we were having to essentially reinvent our design negotiation processes to design the Olympic Village and other Olympic venues. As you can imagine, if we were thinking about the design now we'd be in big trouble. Those steps got done years ago, and it's been fascinating to watch the construction happen within such an expedited time frame, particularly in the Athletes Village, because it's rare to see a community of that scale practically leap from the ground in short order. It usually takes something like an Olympics to have it happen in such a choreographed way, like a conductor making music.



Vancouver's Olympic Village, under construction - source: City of Vancouver


Vancouver's Olympic Village, under construction - photo: Brent Toderian



Vancouver's Olympic Village, under construction - photo: Brent Toderian 


Vancouver's Olympic Village, under construction - photo, Brent Toderian



Olympic Village, completed - photo, Brent Toderian



Olympic Village and Hinge Park - photo, Brent Toderian 


The week I arrived, there was controversy in the newspapers about the competing visions for the architecture of the Olympic Village. Robert Stern had visited the city as a possible architect for the site and had made some comments about the Vancouver model of city building. The vision of a quaint fishing village had been floated in the media, and suddenly the debate was on. From the city's perspective, we had envisioned a world-class sustainable community for the False Creek area long before the Olympics were ever a gleam in our eyes. It was intended to be the greenest community in North America. So the city's vision was for a contemporary, West Coast, highly sustainable community with architecture that is of its time and not seeking to replicate a marketing theme. Ultimately, Robert Stern wasn't selected for the project. 

Many local architects became highly engaged, including Canada's most famous architect, the recently departed Arthur Erickson, who with his partner Nick Milkovich did a number of the signature buildings with Walter Francl, who's also one of our best local architects. Relatively quickly, we had an architecture and an urbanism that is very much Vancouver, not star-chitecture - and a great opportunity to showcase the Vancouver model of city-building, with a strong partnership between city planners and private sector local designers, architects and developers to create something that would blow the world away. And I think that's what we've managed to achieve in the Athletes Village. But as you can imagine, going through that process and having those debates is never easy. 

NB: From an urban planning perspective, what impact do you think the games will have on the city? 

BT: We're going to have significant physical legacies of the Olympics, not the least of which is the Athletes Village. And on top of that we have our new Canada Line subway that connects the airport to downtown, and a number of athletic facilities, either new or upgraded, that will be sport or civic legacies for the city afterward. But there's also physical infrastructure and what we call "look-of-the-city" legacies that will make Vancouver more livable and vibrant. We've spent over 6 million dollars on public art pieces scattered across the city, integrated into the urban realm, that will make the city more attractive long after the Olympics are over.

So from a physical city-builder's perspective, the legacies will be powerful. From a policy-maker's perspective, we have a legacy of new attitudes and standards and policies that have fundamentally changed business-a-usual for Vancouver. Almost everything we learned in the development of Athletes Village has been translated into new approaches in our citywide zoning, citywide policies and guidelines, or just new attitudes. 

When you're doing a place like Athletes Village, and you very much want it to be a model, my perspective is: What good is a model of it doesn't change business-as-usual, if it doesn't make everything that comes after it better? So in our case, even before the Athletes Village was completed, it was substantially influencing the city, and indeed the regional discussion on city building.

Many of the "green" zoning exemptions we built into the development approvals have now been built into our city-wide zoning bylaw - even before the Olympic buildings were open. Our learning's on passive design have been translated into a passive design toolkit. Our urban agriculture learning's have been translated into urban agriculture guidelines for the city. Our learning's about district energy - we did our first neighborhood energy utility using sewer heat recovery to heat the Athletes Village and much larger area - have already raised our district energy bar with all other major projects across the city. We've emphasized that these new projects have to be even better than Athletes Village, and that's being translated into a new district energy policy for the city. So you see the point of the power of a model. Unfortunately, too many cities do model developments, but years after, nothing's really changed with business-as-usual development. That's something we very much wanted to avoid here.

NB: A lot of people think of these big events - Olympics, World Cups - as being a spur for development and physical infrastructure creation, but it seems like you're taking it further and using it almost as a lab for urban policy. 

BT: You have to remember that the second most important moment in Vancouver's city-building history was our hosting of Expo '86. That event changed the way we do things as city-builders and really sparked what is now called the Vancouver Model. I say the second most important moment, because the first most important was arguably the refusal to put freeways in Vancouver, particularly through our downtown, in the late 60's. But Expo ‘86 was a pivotal turning point. It gave the city a huge amount of confidence and started an era of city-building that has really defined "Vancouver-ism". So we're well aware that this is our second great event -  that the Olympics, like Expo '86, will be transformative not only in our attitudes, but in the way we do our urbanism. 

We set out from day-one to make sure that we were positioned for that transformation. The fun of this challenge is that Vancouver is the most populous urban destination ever to host the Winter Olympics. Our population is about 600,000, in a region of about 2.1 million. For most Summer Olympics, the event areas for the Olympics are often on the urban outskirts. Much of the activity of the Vancouver Winter Olympics is in the middle of our most urban environment. So it's a massive operational challenge to accommodate an Olympics and the huge influx of people. 

NB: Well, it sounds like a big challenge. And if we look back at other cities and other places that have hosted these events, there's a lot of mixed opinions about how well things have turned out. You look at Athens, which is really struggling to pay off the price of the venues they built for the 2004 Summer Olympics. Even some of Beijing's beautiful venues are sitting empty and unused.

BT: There has been some comment that Vancouver hasn't been ambitious enough in its new facilities and particularly its architecture. When you're being compared against the most recent Summer Olympics in Beijing, with the Bird's Nest and the Water Cube - well, fiscally responsible cities could kill themselves trying to compete with that kind of expenditure, and we have a very small fraction of that budget. Summer Olympics and Winter Olympics are two very different beasts in terms of scale and funding.

But having said that, I think that the way we've handled this very much matches our values as a city. What defines Vancouver is a strong ethic of sustainability, inclusivity, consultation, and hopefully social and environmental responsibility. So we didn't set out to wow the world with starchitects for single-purpose buildings that we may or may not be able to use in the future. 

All of our new buildings and facilities are readily convertible into civic and community uses, and are highly integrated into the civic and community fabric. We know how our facilities are going to be used the day after the Olympics are done. And they're all part of making our livable city even more livable. As a city that set out to make the greenest and most inclusive Olympics, not the most architecturally exuberant Olympics, our results go a long way to meet our initial goals and values. Are we sustainable and inclusive enough, even though that question is an oxymoron? People will debate that for years.

And it just so happens that we ended up doing all of this when the world is going through a staggering global economic downturn. So the importance of that fiscal responsibility is even more obvious.

NB: When you think about the city as a broad place, you're investing a fairly large amount of money to host what is essentially a two-week event. Do you think it's going to be worth it for the city as a whole?

BT: Part of the legacy is in actions that may not have otherwise occurred. There's a very strong and I think healthy debate about whether we should have spent all this money on reducing homelessness - but to some extent this is a false choice, because that's never how budget choices ever really line up. As an example, would our federal and provincial government have spent that money to solve homelessness or would they have spent it in other parts of the country, doing other things?

The Olympics actually spurred spending that hadn't been happening in the areas of homelessness and social housing - until it became obvious that the Olympics were coming. That kind of spark is something that's hard to quantify in terms of value. One can argue that the money should have come long before the Olympics were announced, and I would agree with that. But it's still fair to say that the Olympics sparked the expenditure for things like social housing and transit. The Canada Line subway is an example. Some might say the money would have come anyway, others would say that when the economy gets tough, as it did of course, you can never count on the money. The thing about the Olympics is it usually means the money arrives.

NB: You talk a lot about the day after the Olympics, but what about one year after? What's the city going to be like then?

BT: I think there will be a feeling of greater confidence and maturity. To know you can host this kind of event successfully gives you the confidence to feel you can do just about anything. Economically, it's truly a world-class opportunity for both tourism and job growth potential. Physically, we will have new models for our urban pattern. I think the Olympic Village essentially shatters the myth that there's one type of building in Vancouver, the podium-and-point tower. It's never been true. The attention that we'll get with the Athletes Village illustrates how well Vancouver has done mid-rise for years, but frankly Athletes Village takes it to a whole new level. 

I can't decide whether it's Vancouverism 2.0 or if we're on 4.0 by now. I think a goal is to make sure that financially we come out ahead of the game, even in the context of the economic downturn. But from a physical city building perspective, it's already a game-changer in so many ways. Architecture and urban form, neighborhood form, district energy, passive design, green roofs, urban agriculture and a new level of public realm design. It not only changes everything for us, but international urbanists and architects are going to be coming to study the results for some time.


I wonder how familiar my interview would seem, to those working hard in London to be ready to host the World later this summer. I wish the organizers great fortune and success, and much fun in this once-in-a-lifetime experience!

Part two of this post will come in a few weeks, focusing on the legacies and observations here in Vancouver two years later. Part three will have more observations from London, and many past host cities, on the connections between Olympic legacies and advanced city-making.


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