Brent Toderian

Done right, the Olympics can increase a city's public spaces and public transportation use.

Earlier this week I wrote about how Vancouver’s 2010 Olympics energized and transformed the city through the power of "collective experience." The Games also acted as catalyst for many physical city-building legacies, changes that while generally positive and powerful, show signs of a more mixed legacy.

The significant investment into widening and improving the Sea-To-Sky Highway between Vancouver and Whistler, for example, was a boon for economic development - but it also had negative environmental impacts and adds to our carbon footprint.

The award-winning Athletes Village, rebranded as the "Village on False Creek,” has become a globally lauded and highly studied model for green and livable community planning and design. It's been dubbed “the greenest community in North America” by the US Green Building Council. However, locally its been impacted by harmful partisan politics, bad press, rushed construction and initially inflated asking prices.

On the other hand, the Olympics spotlight on homelessness drove the release of significant Provincial funds for new social housing construction at 14 city-owned sites. Without the Games, I suspect we might still be waiting for that investment. Similarly, the Canada Line subway connecting downtown to Vancouver International Airport may not have been a funding priority without the Games. Since its completion in 2009, it has shattered ridership expectations.

Other legacies include an extremely popular “streetcar pilot” that may well catalyze new LRT investments; a streetscape redesign that reinvented Granville Street as a vibrant public space; dozens of public art installations; and small details like new ubiquitous way-finding kiosks.

Olympics 2012 bug
London gets ready for the Summer Games See full coverage

Thinking more broadly, here are three lessons for potential host cities, to ensure the best outcomes for long-term city-building.

Every built facility should lead a long and valuable life

Too many Olympic facilities are built to be temporary, a pure cost with no value for the commonwealth or community. At its worst, the Olympics can be a global model of our “throw-away society.” Surely more creativity could lead to better after-uses and retrofits.

This is a tough challenge for the Summer Games, which have larger facilities than Winter Games. But part of the problem is the intense pressure to build sexy new iconic architecture rather than re-purposing (and enlivening) existing facilities.

Architectural magazines and critics deserve criticism for such pressure. I recall the slams leveled against Vancouver for failing to employ international starchitects or iconic statement buildings. From our perspective though, Beijing’s Birds Nest is the true failure. Predictably, it has become one of the most irresponsible Olympic white elephants in recent memory.

When I was interviewed by Places Journal in 2010, this is how I put it:

I think that the way we’ve handled (responsible architecture) very much matches our values as a city. What defines Vancouver is a strong ethic of sustainability, inclusivity, consultation, and hopefully social and environmental responsibility. So we didn’t set out to wow the world with starchitects and world-class architecture that we may or may not be able to use in the future. All of our facilities are readily convertible into civic and community uses. We know how our facilities are going to be used the day after the Olympics are done.  

If you walked into the Hillcrest Community Centre and happened to miss the signs noting its history, you might never guess it was the location for Olympic Curling. You might not guess that the Richmond Oval was the home of Olympic speed-skating either. Both are extremely well used community facilities, in Hillcrest’s case as a skating rink, swimming pool and library branch.
If you don't really have a viable use for that huge stadium after the Olympics, it just might be that you’re not the kind of city that should host the Olympics at all.
Design and encourage a city-wide Olympics Civic Festival
In a recent article in the Calgary Herald, urban sociologist Harry Hiller, author of Host Cities and the Olympics: An Interactionist Approach, described the difference between a highly planned, "elitist" Olympics experience, and a kind of spontaneous, civic festival atmosphere. After studying Vancouver’s Olympic experience, Hiller had this to say:

The day the Olympics started, all of a sudden the city became a different place,” says Hiller, Director of the Cities and the Olympics Project. “People were surprised that this happened. There was some opposition for the first two days and, after that, it basically melted away.”

In his surveys conducted a month before Vancouver, 50 percent of those surveyed thought the Olympics would have a positive impact. It grew to 80 percent by the end of the 2010 Games, he says.

During the 2010 Games themselves, I wrote this, for Planetizen:

Perhaps the best example of great urbanism on display is the way the streets, squares and former parking lots have all been transformed into LiveCity sites, international houses, and constant street celebrations! Everywhere you look the crowds are massive, among street buskers and bands, impromptu street hockey games, in-street TV network installations … 

Canadians and visitors have come together to create a fantastically friendly and passionate street scene that never seems to stop. Olympic officials are saying that perhaps only the Sydney Summer Olympics is comparable in terms of the energizing of the public, and the City’s public realm. It is absolutely thrilling to see and experience and may very well permanently transform our mind-set as a city and citizenry about our streets and public spaces – another huge legacy of these Games. Already it has re-ignited the discussions on pedestrianizing our Granville Street and many others, sparked confidence around a much bigger sidewalk patio culture, and on and on.

Although the people themselves truly deserve the credit for this phenomenon, it was made possible by design. Vancouver set out to expand the Olympic experience throughout the city, to energize our public life for everyone, especially families and all those without tickets. We closed key streets and turned them into linear squares and strolls. It might have failed, if the people hadn’t embrace it. Instead, it succeeded beyond our wildest dreams, culminating in the iconic images of flags and fans filling Granville Street after Canada’s gold medal hockey win.

The legacies of this have been huge. Since then, through the Viva Vancouver Initiative we’ve been transforming streets and spaces with a strong public place-making lens, even adding such a focus to all of our transportation planning with the slogan “more streets in our life, more life in our streets!"

The Olympics can change how a city gets around

Arguably the greatest challenge to any host city is creating the Olympic Transportation Plan. The requirements for dedicated lanes and security-related bridge or road closures are a huge handful. The need to move hundreds of thousands of ticket-holders and tourists around city-regions is a staggering logistical puzzle for any host city.

In Vancouver, it was determined that for the Olympics to function, we had to decrease regular car trips by 30 percent. Vancouver is already a city that has had significant success moving people from cars to walking, biking and transit over several decades. Dropping car trips dramatically further would be no simple task.

From the start though, Vancouver saw this challenge as a huge opportunity. Dropping car trips so significantly would be a glimpse into the future, of a transportation system needed with significant population growth. Essentially our Games could potentially represent the largest traffic trial in North American history!

It worked. During the Games, transit trips jumped from 38 percent to 51 percent of the overall trips in the city, and walking and biking trips doubled.

In all, over 60 percent of all trips made during the Olympics were made by walk/bike/cycle, up from 40 percent. Ironically many of our Olympics-mandated requirements, such as dedicated buses to move officials around downtown, were cancelled because those same officials really enjoyed the walk.

Most importantly, post Olympics research found that over a quarter of those who got out of their cars and tried transit, biking and walking, stayed out of their cars after the Olympics ended, and many more came back to transit in the intervening years, citing the Games as a perception-changer.

In short, the largest traffic trial in North America was wildly successful. It gave us the glimpse we wanted of the future, and set us on a path that now includes considering removing Vancouver’s viaducts, and our recent Greenest City goal of 50 percent of trips by walk/bike/transit by 2020 (maybe sooner). The Olympics moved us to think about our movement differently, a powerful legacy.

The 2010 Games were a key moment and catalyst in the evolution of our model of urbanism, often referred to as Vancouverism. I hope other potential host cities, and the Olympics movement itself, can benefit as much as we have from these insights.

Images courtesy of the City of Vancouver

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