The 2010 Winter Olympics kick off today in Vancouver, British Columbia. Design Observer has an excellent interview with Vancouver’s planning director Brent Toderian. These kinds of major sporting events can be a huge opportunity to re-shape areas and integrate larger planning projects into the public support for the games. Salt Lake City’s first light rail line was built in advance of their hosting of the 2002 Winter Olympics, and that starter line has since proved popular enough to warrant massive expansion, even in a fiscally and socially conservative state.
Vancouver’s Olympic Village. Images from City of Vancouver.
Vancouver has seized the opportunity to shape the city through their host duties. Those include the Olympic Village, the Olympic Streetcar pilot program (mentioned previously here), and the rapid transit expansion of the Canada Line. Toderian discusses the physical transformations possible with the focus from events such as the Olympics:
NB: From an urban planning perspective, what impact do you think the games will have on the city?
BT: We’re going to have significant physical legacies of the Olympics, not the least of which is Athletes Village. And on top of that we have our new Canada Line subway that connects the airport to downtown, and a number of athletic facilities, either new or upgraded, that will be sport legacies for the city. But there’s also physical infrastructure and what we call “look-of-the-city” legacies that will make Vancouver more livable. In fact, we’ve spent over 6 million dollars on public art pieces scattered across the city, integrated into the urban realm, that will make the city more attractive long after the Olympics are over. So from a physical city-builder’s perspective, the legacies will be powerful. From a policymaker’s perspective, we have a legacy of new attitudes and standards and policies that have fundamentally changed business as usual for Vancouver. Almost everything we learned in the development of Athletes Village has been translated into new approaches in our citywide zoning, citywide policies and guidelines, or just new attitudes.
When you’re doing a place like Athletes Village, and you very much want it to be a model, our perspective is: What good is a model of it doesn’t change business as usual, if it doesn’t make everything that comes after it better? So in our case, even before the Athletes Village was completed, it was substantially influencing the regional discussion on city building. Many of the exemptions we built into the development approvals have now been built into our citywide zoning bylaw — even before the Olympic buildings were open. Our learnings on passive design have been translated into a passive design toolkit. Our urban agriculture learnings have been translated into urban agriculture guidelines. Our learnings about district energy — we did our first neighborhood energy utility using sewer heat recovery to heat and cool the Athletes Village — has already raised our bar with other major projects. We’ve emphasized that these new projects have to be even better than Athletes Village, and that’s being translated into a new district energy policy for the city. So you see the point of the power of a model. Unfortunately, too many cities do model developments, but years after nothing’s really changed. That’s something we very much wanted to prevent here.
NB: A lot of people think of these big events — Olympics, World Cups — as being a spur for development and physical infrastructure creation, but it seems like you’re taking it further and using it almost as a lab for urban policy.
BT: You have to remember that the second most important moment in Vancouver’s city building history was Expo ‘86. That event changed the way we do things as city builders and really sparked what is now called the Vancouver model. I say the second most important moment because the first most important moment was the refusal to put freeways in Vancouver, particularly through our downtown. But Expo ‘86 was a turning point. It gave the city a huge amount of confidence and started an era of city building that has really defined the Vancouver model. So we’re well aware that this is our second great event, that the Olympics, like Expo ’86, will be transformative not only in our attitudes, but in the way we do business.
We set out from day one to make sure that we were positioned for that transformation. The fun of this challenge is that Vancouver is the most populous urban destination ever to host the Winter Olympics. Our population is about 600,000, in a region of about 2.1 million. And even for most Summer Olympics, the event areas for the Olympics are often on the urban outskirts. Much of the activity of the Vancouver Winter Olympics is in the middle of our most urban environment. So it’s a huge operational challenge to accommodate an Olympics and the huge influx of people.
All too often, the legacies of these games quickly fade into memory rather than physical transformation. Both Athens and Beijing have been saddled with seldom-used venues. Even more frugal Olympic implementations, such as the 1996 Atlanta Games, lack the kind of physical legacy. Perhaps most disappointing was the lack of emphasis on transportation and infrastructure in Chicago’s failed bid for the 2016 Olympics.
However, as Salt Lake City has shown (and Vancouver is positioned to show), these kinds of events can galvanize the kinds of civic investments that will pay dividends for the city long after the last event concludes.
Jarrett Walker at HumanTransit.org is also planning a series of urbanist posts on Vancouver and the Olympics:
What’s special about Vancouver? It’s a new dense city, in North America.
Vancouver is the closest North America has come to building a substantial high-density city — not just employment but residential — pretty much from scratch, entirely since World War II. I noted in an earlier post that low-car North American cities are usually old cities, because they rely on a development pattern that just didn’t happen after the advent of the car. In 1945 Vancouver was nothing much: a hard-working port for natural resource exports, with just a few buildings even ten stories high. But look at it now.
Now, if they can only get some snow. We’ve got lots of extra here in DC.