Not all Olympic Games are created equal. The economic health, infrastructure conditions, and social and political temperatures of each host city vary wildly. Such factors cannot reasonably be disassociated from the eventual outcomes of each Games. This not only extends to the construction and labor practices that bring the event—for better or worse—to fruition, but to the promises—genuine or otherwise—of smart growth dividends that will follow all that new zoning and fresh urban development.
A city being awarded hosting rights for any Olympiad has historically been cause for celebration and an inflated sense of civic pride. And in nearly every instance, it has triggered construction booms to the tune of hundreds of millions to several billion dollars. Some have clearly squandered the opportunity (Montreal, Athens, Rio) while others fell victim to global turmoil that was largely out of their control (Munich, Sarajevo). But it’s not all cautionary tales and profiles in urban decay.
In the late 1980s, bids for the 1996 Centennial Games were being submitted and the smart money—for reasons more sentimental than practical—was on Athens. But in a surprise twist, the Games went to Atlanta. “We finally won something!” read a frontpage headline in the September 18, 1990, edition of The Atlanta Journal. While so-called Olympic prosperity didn’t touch every corner of the city, several developments have weathered particularly well. The 21-acre Centennial Olympic Park in the city’s center helped catalyze a downtown economic boom and the plaza remains an active and well-maintained civic asset. New buildings constructed for the Olympic Village, which housed 10,000 Olympic athletes, became student dormitories for both Georgia Tech and Georgia State University. The Atlanta Games became an accidental template, in a sense, for future Games to model their own development plans on principles of legacy and adaptive reuse.
The International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) Agenda 2020, adopted in 2014, includes a recommendation for including “sustainability in all aspects of the Olympic Games” and prioritizing “legacy from the outset.” The legacy portion, in broad terms, refers to material sourcing and resource management, human rights, and responsible governance. It also boils down to, as the word suggests, what the city in question has accomplished for itself and its citizens in the wake of hosting a two-week long global event. In other words, will a city build shiny new venues then leave them to rot, or endeavor to build infrastructure that fortifies existing strengths and anticipates future needs?
Next year’s Summer Games in Paris will be the first Olympiad to have submitted a bid in accordance with Agenda 2020. (Los Angeles in 2028 will be the second; in 2017 the IOC awarded both bids simultaneously, the first time this has occurred.) Quite appropriately, the Paris Games are also the first to be organized in line with the Paris Agreement. The Paris Games organizers estimate that previous Games are responsible for releasing an average of 3.5 million tons of CO2 equivalent; they plan to more than halve that output. This is being achieved through various means. For starters, 100% of the sites are connected to the city’s public grid and supplied by renewable energy sources; 100% of furniture and temporary structures will be reused or recycled; and 65% of all mobilized resources (for construction waste, public works, et al.) will have a second life. Paris 2024 is a model in reuse, with approximately 95% of the Games being held within existing infrastructure or temporary venues. (Los Angeles’s “radical reuse” agenda specifies no new construction to host the 2028 Games.) The exceptions are a new Aquatics Center and the Olympic Village to house the athletes.
“Whatever we build, we build to meet local needs,” says Caroline Boeuf, a press officer for Paris 2024. The symbol of this ambition, Boeuf says, is the new Olympic Village that will be dispersed throughout three municipalities north of the city center, be integrated with an existing “eco-neighborhood,” and eventually be repurposed as 3500 new homes. Every building in the new development is fitted with a green roof and any building shorter than 92 feet (28 meters) is made using structural timber, much of it regionally sourced and all of it from eco-managed forests. The Aquatics Center structure will double as an urban solar farm, with more than 50,300 square feet of roof-mounted photovoltaics that service all water treatment needs and a quarter of the building’s electricity.
For Olympic Games to be successful and leave a positive legacy, “they have to fit seamlessly into the long-term master plan for the city,” says Scott Schiamberg, a principal with Perkins Eastman who also served as chief architect for New York City’s bid to host the 2012 Games. Interestingly, in the case of NYC’s failed bid, that legacy occurred because of the bid itself and didn’t need the Games for that vision bear fruit. The re-zoning and revitalization of the Brooklyn waterfront, the world’s largest landfill on Staten Island getting transformed into a public park, and the extension of the 7 Subway line were just some of the legacy projects that were completed on accelerated timetables due to the 2012 bid. “It takes decades for cities to make these kinds of changes,” Schiamberg says. “Some host cities have done a great job of leveraging the Games to accelerate growth.”
Of course, not all growth is good, especially if cities fail to anticipate the legacy of the facilities they are building. Sydney, Athens, and Rio are just some of the examples from recent memory that felt that sting. Not including housing for athletes, the 2012 London Games built six new sports venues and has since made good use of all of them. Rio built nine, Sydney fourteen, and Athens sixteen. Many of those facilities languish to this day, fostering regret more so than serving any civic need.
Short of creating a permanent home for the Olympics – an idea that has been floated by well-meaning urbanists in the past – the Games are indeed a global spectacle that demand much of their hosts, and often take more than they give. Clearly, in light of the IOC’s Agenda 2020, we are at an inflection point. It will be fascinating to see how the legacies of Paris and Los Angeles play out as they tackle the dilemma, as Schiamberg puts it, of “designing for the city of the future while making it work for the Olympics.” These sets of challenges have proven to be wholly incompatible in decades past. That’s partly because the idea of what a particular city needs has been grossly misunderstood. Alas, building a dozen or more specialized venues plus dormitory-style housing for 10,000+ along a city’s outskirts, and with no real plan for their future reuse, is no longer an option.
“The cities that can most afford an Olympics are the ones that least need it, and the ones that most need it can least afford it,” Schiamberg says, speaking with a cadence that suggests this is a familiar thought. Paris and LA are easily among the top ten in the former category. But once more, we shouldn’t be hasty with the word “need.” Established cities need to be building smarter, with more regional sourcing, less waste, reduced emissions, and creative solutions for building reuse. Established cities need equitable growth, with more housing that is efficient and attainable, and accessible via public transit. Once these benchmarks have been reached, it can shift market forces and the impacts are felt downstream within mid-size cities and smaller towns. Given history’s harsh lessons, it’s ironic that the Olympics, of all things, may now be poised to catalyze that level of smart growth.
Assuming that all future Games are modeled after Paris’s approach of, according to Boeuf, “building less and better” and “on what already exists,” the Olympic Games may actually become what they’ve always aspired to: a vehicle for positive and lasting change.
Justin R. Wolf is a Maine-based writer who covers green building trends and energy policy.
Get building science and energy efficiency advice, plus special offers, in your inbox.