14 Feb 2014

Going for the Gold: Are the Olympics the Way to Build a Great City?


Sochi, the subtropical city by the Black Sea, is under the spotlight for two weeks as host city of the Winter Olympics – at a cost of some $50 billion. Senior Lecturer John D. Macomber, an expert on real estate and construction, gives his views on whether it’s worth it.

The city of Sochi has pulled out all the stops to host the first Olympic Games in Russia in 34 years. This is an urban planning and megaproject feat comparable to landing a quadruple lutz in the ice skating finals. Beyond the arenas, ski runs, and athletes’ housing, however, what are the lessons in urbanism that can be learned from these Games?

There are three high-level ways an “urbanist” might look at city planning and investment around such an event: purpose, proximity, and payback.

Purpose: Cities need a reason for being; no urban agglomeration springs up and survives just because of structures. Vancouver, Sydney, and Seoul were Olympic sites that started as trading and commercial ports on big oceans and remain so. Sochi is in the Olympic spotlight for 17 days – and then what? The city will not succeed in the long run if there is no other reason for jobs to be established or for people to visit there.

Proximity: Urban layouts are most effective when important activities are close together. Witness the energy in Copenhagen, Hong Kong, or Istanbul. Special purpose cities are easy to plan – around sports venues, lodging, and retail – but if this “purpose” is not a sustainable economic driver, the effort can look counterproductive.

When it comes to past Olympic sites, consider the blight and cobwebs around once grand stadiums in Montreal, Athens, Atlanta, and Beijing. In contrast, look at the effectiveness of the new port in Barcelona and the rebuilt district of East London, projects that were done in conjunction with holding the Games in those cities.

Payback: The payback is never at the urban level. While investment in infrastructure and housing is often touted as justification for holding the Games, this could be done more cheaply without the Olympics.

On the other hand, money does flow into the coffers from the big retail brands. How could the Olympics survive without the likes of Coca-Cola, Dow Chemical, GE, McDonald’s, Omega, Samsung, and Panasonic?

Cities also benefit when their brand gets a boost thanks to flawless Olympian execution (the Beijing and Barcelona Games, for instance). For Sochi, the payback question became more pressing as the complexity and cost of the Games ramped up.

Takeaway: So, what are urban planners to do? To build the thousands of new cities needed in the world and revitalize the hundreds of existing cities trying to grow, it’s crucial for planners and companies alike to look at purpose, proximity, and payback. Hosting the Olympics is a hard way to get there. The Games are for sport, brotherhood, and spectacle, but fact of the matter is, they are usually not a successful path for urban development.

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