From Rio to Sydney, Olympics host cities spark sustainable urban change

The attention garnered by the Olympic Games is unsurpassed by any other sporting or international event. Cities vie for the honor to host the Games for a chance to memorably showcase attractions, but also boost development which can impact residents’ lives well after the Games have closed.

In the last couple of decades, planners have found inspiration in themes of the environment and urban change and have aimed to raise the bar on the standards for Olympics host cities, striving to be the first in innovation, create the “greenest” city, and enact the most impactful change.

While the success has not always been easy to measure, the following four cities have certainly earned a place on the winner’s podium: London, Sydney, Rio de Janeiro and Barcelona.

Smart inside and out – In many ways, the smart city concept is simply good urban planning that incorporates both advances in digital technology and new thinking in the age-old city concepts of relationships, community, environmental sustainability, participatory democracy, good governance and transparency.

Published on 01.12.2016

And the gold for the “greenest” goes to…London!

London set out to deliver the “greenest” Olympic Games ever, starting by transforming once-contaminated industrial land into an Olympic Park. The pledge carried over to designing buildings with innovations like roof lighting pipes to cut electricity costs and rainwater harvesting, plus sustainably-sourced wood and materials which could be dismantled or recycled.

Planners also launched grassroots initiatives to help East End communities spread the word on sustainability and give practical tips on how to adopt a greener lifestyle. London 2012 went on to win the Gold for Environmental and Sustainability at the 6th International Sports Event Management Awards.

And London continues to evolve. Although the government still struggles to meet the housing goals they promised for the East End, the area benefits from visitors to Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, and the affordable use of venues like the Aquatics Centre and Copper Box Arena. The final word is not yet in, but all signs indicate the catalyst of change still burns bright.

Solar-powered suburb – a successful post-Olympic village

Sydney scores high in the sustainability games

The key to the success of the Sydney 2000 Olympics lay in the meticulous plans for both the Games and the integration of the Olympic infrastructure into Sydney after the Games. Facilities such as the Olympic Park Aquatic Centre and the International Regatta Centre are now used to host other world-class sporting events and entertainment.

Environmental factors played a leading role. Olympic Park buildings and housing were designed to later provide additional urban housing – and are now two of the world’s largest solar-powered suburbs. The “Green Games” strategy also instituted Australia’s first large-scale metropolitan water recycling system, saving 850 million liters of drinking water every year.

On top of all that, Sydney now also has one the country’s largest urban parks (430 hectares), so to a large extent, the greatest success of the Sydney Games was a permanent improvement to the lives of the people who live there.

Rio sets its sights on breaking new records

Rio bore a lot of criticism in the run up to and during the Games, but planners ask critics to look at how far Rio has come and to keep in mind the unique challenges the city faced. Rio is a better place for all the investment, but now the catalyst for change needs to evolve to find ways to spread the benefits to all sections of the population.

Unarguably, the two greatest improvements arising from Rio 2016 were in tourism and transportation. A new downtown tourist hub Porto Maravilha rose up from a once decrepit port area, and includes museums, parks and new housing. Plus, a network of modern transport options better connects the more isolated, poorer areas with the downtown.

Both improvements will create a lasting economic effect, and will help fuel change in areas where it is most needed, such as safety and affordable housing. The impressive Olympic housing units will now go on the market, yet most residents will find the apartments too expensive, and it is hoped that the initiatives to improve the favelas will carry on post-Games.

Rio enjoys improvements in eco-friendly transportation
Beautiful revitalization in Rio – but accessible for all?

Barcelona leads the pack in urban change

While transformation in some Olympics host cities has slowed or stuttered to a halt post-Games, the arc of change which began with Barcelona 1992 continues to reach well into the present-day. A post-industrial city which had languished for years, it created plans that ticked all the boxes: economic growth, sustainable solutions, grass-roots initiatives.

The Olympics in Barcelona transformed the physical infrastructure of the city, creating 2 miles of beachfront, a modern marina, and state-of-the art sporting venues. All of which are still used extensively today, not only drawing visitors, but also providing a sustainable boost to Spain’s sports and training capabilities.

Perhaps most inspiring was how Barcelona residents played a significant role in the success of the Games and in rebuilding their city. Everyone pulled together and mutually benefited. 20,000 new jobs were created in the years before and after the Games, and the economic boost continued to grow. Barcelona is now one of Europe’s most popular destinations.

Port Barcelona still reaps the benefits of the Olympics
Watch how Barcelona outpaces the competitors

The Olympics challenge – true change

While Olympics planning committees sometimes fall short of their goals, they help keep a dialogue going on how to enact true change in urban environments.

Whether investing in sports facilities to promote a sporting event or allocating funds to revitalize a waterfront, host-cities are increasingly learning from the good examples shown here that good planning and a commitment to realizing long-term benefits rather than short-term profits can transform a city for the better.