London Shows that Every City Could Use an Olympics

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[By Paul Goddin for Mobility Lab, published on March 5, 2013]

Artist rendering of development in support of London Olympics

The Summer Olympics serve as a chance for host cities to showcase their architectural prowess. Who can forget the fabulous flyover views in 2008 of Beijing’s Bird’s Nest stadium?

But now nearly five years later, the Bird’s Nest remains largely vacant, and its future unclear. Even one of its creators, Chinese dissident artist Ai Waiwei, has divorced himself from the project, citing in his litany of complaints his opinion that the building is “not integrated with the city’s life.”

Done correctly, though, an Olympics can both demonstrate national pride through architectural grandiosity, as in China, and economically and socially revitalize an ailing part of a city. This is the case in London, where planners have seized on opportunities provided in their successful bid for the 2012 Summer Olympics in order to rehabilitate a derelict post-industrial part of East London.

Ricky Burdett (above), professor of urban studies in the London School of Economics’ LSE Cities program and co-editor of Living in the Endless City, discussed at a recent Brookings Institution seminar London’s vision to use its Olympics’ planning as a way to make it a better place for many decades into the future.

imageAs anyone can see from aerial photographs, apart from a few landmark buildings and the Thames River cutting a swath throughout, London is virtually unrecognizable from above. The layout of the city and its suburbs displays a lack of planning that threatens endless sprawl.

However, in the early 2000s, using its successful Olympics’ bid as an impetus, things began to change when its mayor adopted the London Plan. London already had a great asset in the form of a green belt encircling the city that was essentially a development-free zone. The London Plan improved upon this by demarcating areas inside the belt’s borders where growth was to be concentrated and encouraged through public investment in transit and other improvements and incentives. The London Plan’s development-designated areas are equivalent to the Metropolitan Washington’s Council of Governments’ Regional Activity Centers initiative, in that both have similar goals (to increase density and reduce sprawl, for instance) and were co-opted from Copenhagen’s similar strategy.

London chose the site for what would later be called Olympic Park carefully, selecting a blighted section of East London known for its contaminated industrial buildings. Significant to its selection, the area lies at the nexus of two major transportation corridors coming into London from the northeast and east. Next, the city expended considerable public funds on infrastructure and transit. As Burdett explained at Brookings, when jobs and housing are situated near transit and other public infrastructure, “in many ways, everything else will follow.”

Among London’s other strategies in its Olympics-based redevelopment project:

  • Utilization of green/sustainable technologies
  • Design and engineering of infrastructure that could be scaled down, and structures that could be easily converted to other uses after the Games
  • Incorporation of affordable housing throughout
  • Creation of attractive public spaces
  • Long-term planning

London’s plan seems to be working, as the College of London’s new campus will be located in the newly revitalized area. Further developments are underway as well, as can be seen in the artist’s rendering above.

The lesson, Burdett concluded half-jokingly, was that every city needs an Olympics. Some cities, however, could use an Olympics more than others, and with Detroit on the list of cities being considered for the 2024 Olympics, the lessons from London give hope to even our most distressed places.

And while an Olympics is a redevelopment opportunity writ large, many other cities have similar opportunities with the potential to transform. The Washington, D.C. metropolitan area, for example, includes the mixed-use area surrounding Nationals Park and the current Silver Line metrorail construction project that promises to significantly change Tysons, Virginia in the decades to come.

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