Expos have long sported green themes and visions for an urban future. They've also, when at their most successful, served to remake their host cities.
An estimated 73 million people attended an expo in 2010 Shanghai, the largest expo ever held in terms of size and attendance. The Urban Best Practices section of the fair was itself nearly as large as an entire expo. Its pavilions were sponsored by cities around the world, from Sao Paulo to Seoul to Vancouver, showing off their sustainable city-building wiles.
Walt Disney, inspired by the 1964 New York World's Fair and its power to demonstrate new urban strategies, hatched the scheme for a permanent exposition called Epcot in Florida. His original intent was to make it a living urban lab - a real city and permanent fair where residents were guinea pigs. He died before that could be realized, but Disney's vision was all about density and mass transit.
The connection between expos and environment was made explicit in 1974. That was when Spokane (the smallest city to host a fair) turned the event into a positive model for walking the environmental talk. Calvin Trillin, writing in the New Yorker, toured the Spokane fair and decided that Expo 74's legacy was to give the world the gift of the "institutionalized the mea culpa." Even the American Pavilion, he observed, concluded that "the problem's us." That was a long way from the colonial cockiness of the great exhibitions in London, Paris, New York, Chicago, and St. Louis.
The expo also had a major impact on Spokane. J. William T. Youngs, professor of history at Eastern Washington University and author of the definitive book The Fair and The Falls: Expo '74 and Transforming an American Environment, has pointed out the fair's impact on the city was to re-surface and restore the Spokane River. It was, in essence, an environmental remediation project.
It also had the effect of updating and renewing a 19th century, railroad-centric downtown through a combination of new development, an urban park, and a growing interest in restoring the city's collection of historic downtown buildings. Now approaching its 40th anniversary, the fair is a model for what has become the most popular incarnation of international exposition, the eco-expo.
That model is again on display this summer (though mid-August) in Yeosu, Korea, a pretty provincial port city on the southern coast. It too has a small population (295,000). The expo's theme, "Living Ocean and Coast," focuses on water and the health of the planet. Yeosu's expo center is built along a refurbished harbor (New Port Area) and is both on and over the sea itself. It features causeways, artificial reefs, sustainable fish farming demonstration areas, and a huge new aquarium, the Marine Life Pavilion, the most popular attraction with three Beluga whales gifted by the Russians.
Over 100 countries are exhibiting there, and theme pavilions focus on the ocean, climate and environment. Popular are big, digital, 3- and 4-D presentations of the world that portray a grim future for a warmed planet: dying polar bear cubs, melting ice caps, unstable weather, floods, super-storms. The solutions range from tidal, solar, geo-thermal and wind power, to better stewardship of the seas, to an appeal to continue scientific research and exploration. The American pavilion reminds visitors that the oceans take up 70 percent of the earth's surface, but only 5 percent of the sea bottom has been explored.
The fair itself is attempting to walk the green talk too, while boosting its image and economic prospects. Yeosu wants to become a marine tourism center, and it seems ideally positioned to do so, located between two big markets, China and Japan, on a beautiful and undeveloped coastline. There are over 300 islands, many of them uninhabited, off of Yeosu itself and nearby park preserves. Yeosu has redone its port with new hotels and a cruise ship terminal. It has used the fair to improve its drinking water (the tap water is now safe). High rise apartment blocks built for the Expo Village will be converted to housing after the fair.
Yeosu also used the fair to leverage a high-speed rail link from Seoul right to the waterfront. Rising the KTX train from Seoul, a three-hour trip, you pass through country that seems the very model of the Smart Growth vision: rural farmlands intermittently interrupted by dense, high-rise communities, even in agricultural areas. There is little sprawl. The hills are wooded, every bit of arable land used.
There are new, permanent tourism-oriented structures at the Yeosu expo that have environmental twists to them. One is a model of adaptive reuse, the Sky Tower, remodeled concrete silos that have a giant pipe organ attached and an observation deck on top. Instead of building its own "Space Needle," they've recycled older structures to serve that purpose. The Tower also houses a desalination plant and visitors are given drinks of freshly produced fresh water at the end of a tour. The other is a giant ring in the harbor called "The Big O," which emits water, light and flame to become a kind of colorful 11-story-high portal for laser light shows at night. Fair organizers tout this as a greener alternative to the fireworks exhibits so popular at other fairs and in Asian generally.
Also showcased at the expo are cities bidding for the next world's fairs. A big exposition is slated for Milan in 2015 with the irresistible theme of "Feeding the Plant." Beyond that, Astana, Kazakhstan, and Liege, Belgium, are bidding for limited, Yeosu-sized expos in 2017, and a bevy of cities, none of which have previously hosted major fairs, are competing for a bigger, universal expo in 2020: Ayutthaya (Thailand), Dubai (United Arab Emirates), Ekaterinburg (Russia), Sao Paulo (Brazil) and Izmir (Turkey). A number are proposing green themes, though an emerging theme thread is also "connecting" the planet.
Green thinking, sustainability, urban redevelopment, and announcing national priorities are concepts that are keeping world's fairs fresh in the 21st century. The expo idea is not for the landfill, green or otherwise. They seem to be finding energy in recycling.