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An Olympic Legacy: The Courage of an Aspirational Vision

The 1948 Olympic Games helped inspire England to lift itself out of the ashes of World War II and start anew. Photo courtesy of Flickr user quiquemendizabal.

After the new World and Olympic Records are inked in the books (albeit digitally), the athletes, media and visitors depart, organizers and volunteers recover from the hang-over, and the traffic ebbs, only one question will remain: What will the legacy be to London?

It won't be the debt—£8.0 billion ($15 billion U.S.) is the estimated number—and less than that to be returned in reciprocal tourism money spent. This spreadsheet is only part of the equation, and doesn’t fully account for the impact the games will have, both locally and globally. To borrow from Churchill, "the courage to continue is what counts." The long days of training without reward; the dedication, courage to strive, and belief in surpassing what has been done before...the true legacy is one of renewed vision and optimism.

In a country that has suffered during the global financial crisis, and whose cities outside London have been subject to multi-generational decay, the Olympics offer optimism for the future for the British Isles. There is symmetry between this year’s games and the last ones held in London in ’48.. The ’48 London Olympics helped Britain rise from the shadow of the Second World War and overcome one of the most devastating conflicts of all time.

Following London, the games visited Helsinki (’52), Melbourne (’56) and Rome (’60). In each case, they fostered national pride and catalyzed urban transformations of infrastructure, public open space and buildings that have contributed to quality urban environments. Little wonder that these cities, particularly the earlier, consistently rank among the top livable cities in world indices.

Enter the modern games, Tokyo (’64). These were the first games to be telecast live in the United States via a newly completed trans-Pacific cable. The venues and housing are still in use today, as is the Bullet Train—the first legs of which were part of an ambitious transportation modernization effort catalyzed by the Olympics and Japan’s desire to be highly visible on the world stage.

The ensuing cities to host the games all used the Olympics as a catalyst for urban and social transformation to varying degrees and levels of success. Each time the Olympics visited a smaller city, Munich (’72), Montreal (’76), and Barcelona (’92), the urban legacy has proven to be one of design execution, renewed athletic venues, and better infrastructure and landscapes. Each legacy element has helped position these cities high in global livability rankings. Admittedly, Barcelona still struggles with adapting the venues it created, but the new neighborhoods built near the port have transformed that part of the city and influenced regeneration practitioners.

Like Barcelona, Sydney (’00) sought to redevelop the geographic center of the city, which at the time was known for its brick-pit, abattoirs, and second tier industry fronting the Parramatta River. Sustainability was added to the design aspiration. Sydney’s Olympic housing raised the bar for housing throughout the city. Today, 50 percent of Sydney-siders live in multi-family apartments that are well designed and a great advance on three-story brick walk-up flats that had been the norm throughout the 70’s and 80’s. Mid and high-rise apartment life—near transit, in places of great design, with strong urban amenities—are now part of Sydney’s urban landscape. In many ways, this is partly attributable to the catalyst the Olympics provided.

Both Athens (’04) and Beijing (’08), all political and debt innuendos aside, helped renew or upgrade infrastructure that was already in great need, and were simply the catalyst of re-positioning each city in a global world. The true legacy will be what each city does to husband the catalyst and aspiration that the Olympics have provided. In particular, we hear that the Bird’s Nest is lying decrepit now, as the long term aspiration of the Olympics in China was not fully described from the start. The more successful Olympics are those that have a stable urbanity and understand that they are in need of a fillip—a dose of positive energy to re-incentivize the urban regeneration industry.

And so, a return to London for 2012.

When the London Docklands Development Corporation was established in the early 1980’s as a tool of renewal for London’s East End, it addressed regeneration of obsolete docks that had taken centuries to build, housing, open space, transportation, and the then impending commercial land shortage in the City as the last sites left vacant after WW II were taken up. Conveniently, the Leah Valley was excluded from the LDDC’s influence. Only so much could be done in a 10-year Act of Parliament!

The insight of the London Olympic plans is not the co-opting of the city’s parks and existing venues and their subsequent return to the people. Nor is it the justification of big public expenditures like the Millennium Dome and the New Wembley. It is the belief that East End can become a highly sustainable series of communities, and the support of this vision through new amenities, a restored great park space, housing, and community, that will be a catalyst for renewing and improving a place that had for many generations has been the working center of greater London. I wonder how a livable neighborhood survey will rank the Leah Valley in a generation and hope it will be well received.

Next it’s up to you Rio de Janiero (’16), to accept the challenge of using the Olympics as a catalyst for establishing an aspiring vision for your urban future!

Lewis is Director of Urban Design at Gensler, San Francisco. Lewis dedicates himself to creating great spaces, both public and private. He has written about the ongoing metamorphosis of our cities and seeks to find the poetry in the rhythms of an ever-changing urban landscape. Lewis sees the greatest opportunities in an integrated approach between urban design, planning, architecture, and landscape; in this fusing of disciplines, he finds approaches to urban life and sustainability that are inspiring, dynamic, and marked by hopefulness for the future. Contact him at lewis_knight@gensler.com.

Reader Comments (1)

Might we step it up a notch, ask the have the world bank get involved, fund a "public legacy" project as part of the bid and/ or require the IOC bid to mandate such work?
08.7.2012 | Unregistered CommenterRosemary

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