The Sustainability Games

Photo © Populous via ArchDaily

Vanessa Quirk lives and works in Santiago, Chile, where she is a writer and editor at Archdaily, the world’s most visited Architecture site. She studied English Literature and Music at both the George Washington University and Oxford University. When she’s not writing about things urban and architectural, she’s cooking, singing, and practicing Spanish — often simultaneously.

Just like the athletes, every Olympic host city attempts to outdo its predecessors, and following Beijing’s show-stopping performance in 2008, London has a lot to prove. But even before Beijing’s unforgettable opening ceremony, which was seen by more than two billion people, London had already promised to make its mark: the city would attempt to pull off the first sustainable Olympic Games.

Let’s hold off for a moment and assume that that’s even possible. The Olympics are one of the greatest logistical challenges of our modern age (drawing millions of spectators and hundreds of thousands of athletes, media personnel, and workers to dozens of stadiums across the city) and the stakes, particularly in this economy, are enormous. Succeed and enjoy, if not a profit, then a revitalized city with foreign investment pouring in; fail and prepare yourself not just for global embarrassment, but an Olympic-sized debt and thousands of resentful citizens paying it off for years — if not decades — to come.

So why add another complication to the quagmire that is the Olympic Games? Why bother with being sustainable?

You could argue that it’s the morally and ecologically responsible thing to do, that to host an event of such scale and global exposure and not be sustainable would be reprehensible. But, as we all know, morality does not an Olympics make.

So what does? In a word: legacy.

The Olympic Myth

The year is 1984, and Los Angeles has been selected to host this year’s Summer Olympics. Los Angeles was smart: they kept new construction to a minimum, reused their old Olympic Stadium from 50 years prior, and catered to corporate sponsors to help them offset cost. The result? For the first time since 1932, an Olympic host made a profit. The world took notice.

Since Los Angeles, and despite the fact that no subsequent city has turned such a profit, the Olympic bid process has become increasingly competitive, outlandish, and costly. Cities can spend millions simply to be considered by the International Olympic Committee (IOC). Even heads of state get involved — President Obama went so far as to fly overseas to (unsuccessfully) convince the IOC that Chicago was most worthy of the honor.

The problem, which the IOC knows only too well, is that far too many cities get wrapped up in the idea of Olympic glory; they think of the Games as an event that is guaranteed to put them on the global stage (it will) and earn them considerable profit (it most certainly won’t).

Which means that, if you really want to get the bid, you have to realize the true potential of the Olympic Games: to revitalize your city for the long term. Barring major disaster, the Games themselves are relatively inconsequential — it’s the hangover you must be prepared for.

The Olympic Hangover

The example par excellence of an Olympics gone bad has to be Montreal, 1976. A perfect storm of overly-ambitious architecture, governmental spending gone awry, and labor strikes left the city completely unprepared. Come opening day the Stadium was unfinished and the city found itself 1.5 billion dollars in debt (a sum that would take 30 years to pay off).

But Olympic failures needn’t be so spectacularly obvious. Athens, 2004, appeared to be a roaring success: it gave the city state-of-the-art stadiums and a railway system that helped offset its legendary traffic congestion. It is only now, almost 10 years later, that its effects are being felt: stadiums sit empty while the debt incurred contributes to Greece’s current economic meltdown.

On the flip side, there is an Olympic success story — one made for the record books.

With considerable government capital at its disposal, the city of Barcelona decides to use the 1992 Olympics as an excuse to get plans for urban revitalization off the ground and into hyper-drive. Through careful cutting-edge urban planning, Barcelona places the athletic housing complex in its then-derelict docklands and expands public transportation to connect the city as a whole.

The result: a regenerated waterfront marina and a tourism boom. Barcelona, the long-time ugly sister of major European cities, steps gracefully into the limelight.

What distinguishes Barcelona from its Olympic brethren? This idea of legacy, of planning and preparing for post-Olympic life. This is what has characterized the IOC’s most recently chosen hosts: cities that use the Games to leverage plans for long-term urban renewal and growth.

Hence why each Olympic city of the last decade (from Sydney to Beijing to Vancouver) has placed being Green as a major part of their legacy plan. And with Sustainability being Green’s mature, more comprehensive cousin, it’s no surprise that London 2012’s “Sustainability Olympics” won them the bid.

But the question remains: are a truly sustainable Olympics even possible? Or is a “Sustainable Olympic Games” just a contradiction in terms?

The Sustainability Games

This year’s London Olympics will draw up to 350,000 foreign visitors, about 5.5 million day-trippers, 300,000 athletes, media personnel, and workforce, and 30 million pieces of inventory — all heading to 36 competition venues, over 100 non-competition venues, and thousands of hotels, restaurants, and tourist attractions all over the city, every day, for a two week period.

Nothing sounds awfully sustainable about that. But London is well-aware of the problem — as they have been from the start.

One of the few cities that integrated sustainability into their Olympic bid from the beginning, London 2012 paired up with environmental groups WWF and BioRegional to base their vision for the Games on the groups’ One Planet Living campaign, which aims to restrict global consumption and pollution back to levels that the Earth can absorb.

Barring the obvious irony of basing an Olympic Games, an event of massive commercialism, consumption, and pollution (think of all those international flights) on restriction, London made a promising start.

Upon getting the bid, they set up an independent body, The Commission for a Sustainable London 2012, to keep them on-track.

Then, taking a page from Barcelona’s book, Olympic planners placed the Olympic Park in East London, the city’s most historically deprived and polluted spot. The park itself was designed to transition into the Queen Elizabeth Park after the games, and will include 11,000 new homes, an expansive network of walking and cycling routes (part of the total 75km added to London), and 45-hectares of wetlands (providing protection from potential flooding, the collection of rainwater runoff, and a home for otters, birds, and 300,000 plants).

Further strides include the drastic reduction of carbon emissions (up to 100,000 tons) through the adoption of Green building practices for the construction of Stadiums. Importantly, it wasn’t just the carbon footprint of construction/transportation methods that was considered, but the embodied energy of the materials used.

But all has not been perfect, however — especially when you consider the effects the credit crunch has had on the Games’ ever ballooning budget.

The Sustainable Compromise

In the era of austerity, it’s not too shocking that the $2.07 billion the city had expected in private investment never materialized. Public funds have been left to foot the bill, originally estimated at £2.4bn, then £9.3bn, and now hovering between £11 and £13 billion.

As a result, sustainability has suffered. Plans for a wind turbine have been scrapped, and London’s pledge to obtain 20% of its energy from renewable energy sources was subsequently knocked to 12%. Moreover, critics have claimed that the athletic housing complex and the impressive Aquatics Centre (one of the few show-stoppers the “sensible” London Olympics has produced), were both planned without careful consideration of current green practice. Frankly, they aren’t sustainable enough.

Yet, that’s not really the point. Ultimately, London is more than aware that a “Sustainable” Olympics is more a question of semantics than possibility. As chair of the Commission for a Sustainable London 2012, Shaun McCarthy put it: “”If we can use the Olympics to change the way things are made or procured and do more net good than net harm, I think we will have a sustainable Olympic Games… All of the organizations involved will learn from it and be better equipped. It’s all about investment in the sustainable future.”

For all the innovative strides London will take — and all the inevitable fumbles they’ll make along the way — the “Sustainable Olympics” is ultimately a symbolic gesture. If you choose to be cynical about it, you could reduce it down to strategy — a way of procuring the bid, and nothing more.

But if I may be so optimistic, London’s pledge to Sustainability is also a purposeful signal to the world: a statement that ecological responsibility is a priority, that our legacy can be a productive, rather than a destructive one, and that a sustainable future, no matter how far away, begins now.

London has lit the torch so that the world can pass it on. The Sustainable Games are here to stay.