How to win the long jump

Martin Earnshaw | 17 September 2012

Who now regards Athens as a world beating Olympic city? Today, the horror stories of abandoned stadia and rubbish strewn swimming pools, though disputed, are commonplace in media accounts of what happened to the Olympic site. The fear that the Olympic Park of 2012 may too become a wind-swept and neglected wasteland in the heart of a stubbornly run-down East London dominates the never ending debate about “legacy” (albeit a debate that was briefly interrupted by a bit of sport).

A recent report by the Centre for Cities, A marathon not a sprint suggests that Olympic cities actually do well out of hosting the games in the long-term. They single out Barcelona and Sydney for special praise for their clear agenda of what they hoped to achieve as a result of hosting their respective Olympiads. London, by contrast, is criticised for an incoherent notion of what the games were for. When the bid was first mooted, the games were billed as the ‘sustainability games’. Over time, the purpose of the games was retooled in response to the political imperatives of the moment, a recent example being the ‘tech-city’ proposed on the Olympic site as an attempt to boost the economy.

According to the Centre for Cities, such short term chopping and changing is self-defeating as a long-term strategy (25 years) would get the most out of the games. Highlighting the 1992 Barcelona games as giving rise to the belief that a hosting the Olympics could regenerate a city, it suggests that such a major civil engineering project involving the restructuring of the seafront would have been unlikely to place under normal circumstances.

Yet strikingly the report fails to ask why London’s approach has been a mess – or even whether it’s actually a sensible strategy to base a city’s strategy for urban improvement around the Olympics. In many senses, of course, it is naive to expect that a city would not seek to maximise the advantages of hosting the games. London, however, took this concern with legacy to new levels, aiming to regenerate East London, showcase sustainability, promote Brand UK, inspire a generation of young sports men and women, deliver a short term boost to the London economy, pull Britain out of recession. But such multi-layered and contradictory demands were not simply a product of a muddled strategic vision. Rather they were symptomatic of the entire approach to the regeneration of cities over the past fifteen years and more where genuine urban vision and the political impetus required to deliver thoroughgoing transformation of cities has given way to reliance on the kudos of cultural projects to deliver an assortment of policy goals.

Unfortunately, during a period when political leaders have failed to make the case for transformational change, a suspicion of ‘grand projects’ and our ability to deliver them has grown. Indeed such has been the virtue made out of the small scale, ‘sustainable’, community based schemes and cultural regeneration interventions, many the Olympic projects, some of which did display genuine architectural and urban ambition, were often viewed negatively with one critics referring to the ‘Olympics scam’. In such an atmosphere, it’s perhaps no wonder that large projects now seem limited to office towers and shopping centres, some of which may be architecturally innovative, but which offer an impoverished broader vision of the future.

There is no reason that the goals of the Olympics such as infrastructural renewal could have been achieved without the games provided the will to realise them had been there. In this respect, perhaps the most useful insight of A marathon not a sprint is its criticism of the crippling obsession with short term cost/benefit analysis which pervades discussion of even such a sure thing as the games. If we are to rediscover a love of grand projects we need to take that insight into account, not be daunted by their costs and recognise that they may benefit us in ways that we do not expect.

A marathon not a sprint by Dmitry Sivaev, 10th September 2012, Centre for Cities, is available here

Martin Earnshaw is a speaker and the producer of the session Urban Hubris and The Great Inequality Debate at Battle of Ideas 2012


Author: austinwilliams

Austin Williams is the director of the Future Cities Project and author of a number of books on the environment and on China. The latest are "China's Urban Revolution" (Bloomsbury) and "New Chinese Architecture: Twenty Women Building the Future" (Thames and Hudson).

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