The Olympic Park: Planning Lessons from the Past


The Olympic Park, that globe hopping, financial sinkhole of an architectural achievement has long been the subject of awe and fascination, whether all the edifices stay standing post-games or not. Ecological buffs (and the city footing the cleaning bill) are still asking the same questions, this year’s Rio 2016 games being no different—after the fanfare of the games are over: what happens to those Olympic Parks, some of which have been under construction for years, buttered by millions (or billions) of dollars? Do they go to the landfill? Are they repurposed? Or left abandoned in the way of so many great stadiums past?

In simplistic terms, a city can approach the genesis of their Olympic Park in two ways. Method one involves looking at their city, determining where some serious development might lift them up for the long-haul, and using the push and funding of the Olympics to make those plans happen post haste. Method one also looks at the ways in which new construction can be adopted into the city, or how already existing venues can double as Olympian ones with a little temporary expansion. This also ensures that the dreaded “White Elephant” (basically a costly venue that no longer has a purpose but would cost a ton to demolish) that has plagued Olympic Parks in recent memory, is a non-issue, or at least a lesser one. Method two is basically Method one, but without the foresight and planning. As a civic leader or planner, being home to the Olympics sounds enticing, inviting and exciting. A boon in tourist revenue, a bump to infrastructure, your city’s name on the map in shining lights (if it wasn’t already in shining lights). Of course some cities have sliced through this notion, like Boston, when it rejected its leaders Olympic bid to host the olympics in 2024, protesting that it would deprioritize more pressing urban needs, such as funds for schools or other infrastructure. In broad strokes, the evidence to this notion of Olympics boosting a sluggish economy is paltry.

Athens, home to the first “modern” Olympics in 1896 (although the first Olympic games were recorded around 776 BC, they didn’t become consistent until the late 19th century) fell victim to Method two. Bad planning. The country was already deep in debt, but put its taxpayers out another seven million Euros for building their Olympic Park and infrastructure.. Today many of these structures are graffitied, crumbling and abandoned, and many Greeks feel that it is symbolic of its governments lack of vision, misguided indulgence and poor planning.

Let’s take a look at what lessons we could glean from some Olympic Parks past


M.O.: Use pre-existing venues and less developed neighborhoods to give the Olympic Park longevity, and make it easy to dismantle the “extras.”
London didn’t want to add its name to a laundry list of bad decisions made by former Olympic hosts, and so took a hawks-eye view of its city, zeroed in on Stratford, a humble area a fair way from Central London and said “let’s develop the heck out of this.” They built their Olympic Park in Stratford, starting construction as early as 2006, and fashioned many of their other venues out of preexisting ones, with a few modifications for accepting higher volumes of people.

The Aquatic Centre, which hosted diving, water polo and other splashy sports, is one such example. Post-games, this venue was folded into the vision for an oomph-ed up Stratford, serving community members as a gym and pool after its annexed wings were removed, moving the capacity from 17,500 to about 3,500. It most recently hosted an adorable sounding event inspired by Pixar’s Finding Dory, with family swim lessons spurred by the popular sequel.

Under the ledger of preexisting venues, Earl’s Court and its eponymous tube station was used during the Olympic games for indoor volleyball competitions. Post game, this venue, which was outside of the Olympic Park in Stratford by over ten miles, returned to its status as an exhibition and event center. Piece of cake.


M.O.: Use funding gathered for the bid to better your country, whether you host or not!

Sweden’s failure to secure a bid for the 2004 Olympics may have been a blessing in disguise. It developed an “eco-town” called Hammarby Sjostad to help bulk up its promise to host the most eco-friendly games ever held. The small town of just over 10,000 emphasized alternative modes of transport—walking, biking, public buses—to individual car ownership, as well as buildings impregnated with solar cells and closed loop waste, water and energy systems. The village is a feat of what happens when you pre-plan a city for sustainable use, instead of retrofitting it as an afterthought and balking at the bill. Though it never quite had its brush with the capital O- ‘Olympics’, it remains an excellent gesture of what happens when Olympic development is thoughtfully planned and executed. It is also worth nothing that Hammarby is an entirely different village in and of itself, not a planned Olympic village within Stockholm. Where to put these darn Olympic Parks is an issue as old as time.

The plan for the Olympic Village after the winter games folded up shop


M.O.: Convert athlete housing to residential housing (just make sure it works first)
Many people know about the Olympic Park crisis which put Montreal in debt for 40 years post games. (Also to note: this is an incredibly enjoyable guardian article.) Learning from its sister city’s mistakes, Vancouver aimed to convert its 2010 Winter Olympian Village to condos and town homes as North America’s first LEED gold community under the helm of the Millennium Development Group. And ok, it wasn’t that easy. First the city tried to repurpose these athlete dorms as housing, then had a hard time selling them and had to slash their prices, and then tenants complained of problems such as leaks, alleged hardwood floors bubbling after exposure to moisture (from a shower?), and cracks in the walls. As with many other Olympic-themed structures, construction was rushed, liable to crumble the moment the last medal was won. The Millennium Development Group refurbished and shined it up, and now not only is it a nice example of a sustainable mixed housing type community, it is also home to two adorable beavers. By April 28, 2014, the City of Vancouver had paid off its $630 million debt, and made an additional $70 million. Not great, but not bad either.


M.O.: Build outside the city for minimum disruption, and if you’re lucky, you’ll get a brand new suburb too
In 2000, Sydney hosted the Summer games, and built a massive Olympic athlete village in the suburb of Newington. During the building process, eco-friendliness measures were emphasized. The Au Property Observer says: “Environmental sustainability was heavily pushed by the Olympic committee, and every home came with solar panels and water recycling facilities, features that still exist. When it was built, the suburb was the largest solar-powered suburb in the world. Waste water is treated and redirected to the neighboring wetland which was restored as part of the project.” Post-games, Newington was sold to a private owner, and its evolution from athletic village to green-space laden, quaint and sustainability-minded suburb was complete. It currently holds over 5,000 residents and nearly 1,000 homes.



Possible M.O.: Modular venues make for waste not, want not?
Planted squarely in Barra de Tijuca, a developed if not off-center neighborhood in Rio de Janeiro, a city of over 6 million, the approach to the 2016 Olympic Park stadiums is one of modularity. Pieces are built with the intent of making them easy to dismantle and reassemble for future projects, with nary a wrecking ball required. Which sounds great! The parts of The Future Arena, an Olympic handball and Paralympic goalball arena—will be used to create four schools in three different neighborhoods on the East Coast. The 300-acre Olympic Park itself will fall away into public parks and private housing. At least, that’s the plan. We can see this in London’s Aquatic Centre or its temporary structures in parks, so hope remains for Rio’s post game plan. Temporary, modular and pop up structures are certainly gaining in popularity, and they make building within an already packed city just a little easier—especially if the materials go back into that same city instead of appearing on a taxpayers invoice and diverting from public improvements. Hopefully Rio will stick to its plan, and the multi-billion dollar 2016 Olympics will not go the way of the Arena de Amazonia, referenced in a recent article on how the $550 million sports stadium constructed for the 2014 world cup is now struggling to schedule events, and mostly sits as an extravagant mistake.