This week’s featured post is from one of the 2014 AEF traveling scholarship winners, Luc Bamberger, Assoc. AIA.
After observing the spectacle of the 2014 Sochi Olympics, I took a step back and pondered the event as a designer of the built environment. How would the facilities—that required such a massive outlay of resources, estimated at $51B—be used after the athletes went home? Unfortunately, I think the legacy will be short lived. The venues seemed more an exercise of fleeting hubris than long-term place making.
During the summer of 2014, I was fortunate to travel to London and to Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, the site of the 2012 games, to study in person a successful Olympic legacy. It is an example of resources well spent in the creation of not only a world-class athletic forum, but also new neighborhoods positioned to live and thrive into the future.
Prior to taking the trip, I had read much about the years of planning that went into the redevelopment of the site in East London. The coalition of community groups, local government, and private developers appeared committed to not only providing the necessary venues for the games, but also housing, schools, and the infrastructure necessary to connect them to surrounding boroughs and the rest of London. I was skeptical that this might be marketing spin used by the organizers to justify the outlay of nearly $15B. The games that were billed as the austerity games—due to their genesis during the recession that began in 2008—had already ballooned into the territory of other recent games, including $15B for Athens in 2004.
Spending time on the grounds and in the venues of the Olympic Park, I was struck by the life and vitality of the public spaces that had been created. Gardens, playgrounds, waterparks, walking and biking paths were alive with people of all ages enjoying a summer day in East London. Two major venues from the games that I visited, the Aquatics Centre and the Lee Valley Velo Park, have recently opened to the public and are heavily used. The Aquatics Centre was designed to be converted post-games by removing large pods of audience seating to better facilitate day-to-day use patterns. It was encouraging to see these engaging and inspiring pieces of architecture becoming real community places that will be used for many years to come. Both venues operate like any other public recreation center in London, with classes, bicycle and swim meets, and general use, all for a nominal fee. These facilities exemplify the success of the planning, foresight, and overall execution of the Olympic plan.
Outdoor public spaces were equally inspiring and also well used. The park is built around a series of existing canals and waterways that have been cleaned up from their days as a huge industrial wasteland. These canals—along with their walking and biking paths—are the connective fibers that weave through and bind the district together, while also connecting it to the transportation networks of the surrounding boroughs. Gathering spaces are a thoughtful mix of both large and small scale, from formal to informal. The wonders of contemporary British landscape architecture and garden design mixed playfully with an architectural landscape that runs the spectrum from the works of the some of the world’s biggest talents to a humble welcome center that skillfully reimagines the industrial leftovers of the site.
The Legacy Corporation (the local planning authority for the venues and site of the 2012 London Games) set out four priority themes to help guide their actions: promoting convergence and community participation, championing equalities and inclusion, ensuring high quality design, and ensuring environmental sustainability. Through coalition building, planning for adaptation and reuse of venues, and the establishment of vital infrastructure, the group was able to create a place that is vibrant and inclusive, even after the last Olympians have gone home. Time will tell if the housing, schools, and businesses of the newly formed neighborhoods will take root and thrive long-term. At least the future wellbeing and sustainability of the area was planned for and funded, which is more than has happened for the venues of many past games. The area has been left with a strong base of infrastructure—from roadways, rail lines, pedestrian and bicycle paths; to parks, recreation centers, housing and schools—that will serve as a foundation for future vitality.
Of course this all came at a price: nearly $6.4B in public money for just the building and repurposing of the infrastructure from the London games. There has been discussion of Denver hosting a Winter Olympics in the future, which could be an exciting opportunity to leverage an event of this scale to revitalize needed infrastructure in our under-served neighborhoods. However, with the current aversion to public funds being spent on large-scale projects, it would be very challenging to come to the table with enough money to match what was accomplished in London. The charge for us as designers of the built environment is to take the lessons learned—including aligning stakeholder goals and community needs in order to develop well designed infrastructure that will sustainably serve neighborhoods over the long-term—and to apply them to any major project we undertake, beyond just the dream of a possible Olympics, in order to build healthy communities that will inspire and energize all of us for years to come.