Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Monday, September 08, 2014

(Not enough time for a) 2024 DC-Baltimore Olympic Bid (to make sense)

Mega Festivals as a promotion device.  World's Fairs and Expositions and similar events can be a good way to promote city venues, countries, and to spur regeneration.  But the reality is that the vision and the spectacle don't always pay off, especially for events focused on sports, because expensive, minimally used facilities are required.

See "Big sporting events (World Cup/Olympics), economic development and trickle down economics."

Technically, the New York World's Fair wasn't sanctioned by the the Bureau of International Expositions, which prefers that the event is sponsored by the national government, is limited to six months, and provides space for international pavillions at no charge.

Recently, I wrote about events hosting in Europe as an element of city regeneration, focusing upon three European Union programs--Capital of Culture, Green Capital, and Youth Capital programs, the World Design Festival, and two national programs in Germany, the International Building Exposition (IBA) (brochure)  and the International Garden Festival, which were most recently mounted in the Wilhelmsburg sector of Hamburg and are still open to the public..

Right:  IGS wayfinding sign, Inselpark, Wilhelmsburg, Hamburg, Germany.

I've suggested that the US should start similar programs (Capital of Culture, Green Capital, IBA and IGS), and that Detroit would be a great place in inaugurate a US version of IBA and that DC and the Anacostia River corridor could be a great place to demonstrate a US model of the IGS.

More recently, the IBA organization has extended the footprint of the program beyond Germany, which will include programs in Basel, Switzerland (although this event will involve projects in neighboring Germany and France) and the Netherlands, both scheduled for 2020.

One problem with holding mega events like World Fairs and Olympics in the US is that they are very expensive, and unlike in other countries, the national government doesn't provide significant financial support to such "local" events.  For example, there hasn't been a World's Fair Exposition in the US since 1984, although the country has hosted the Olympics in 1984, 1996, and 2002.

Mega events are too often planned outside of a broader strategic revitalization planning framework.  Part of the difficulty in leveraging these events is that the event is often seen as the end goal and there isn't enough focus on planning to leverage the event afterwards.  London claims to have planned otherwise in the face of the 2012 Olympics, but this remains to be seen.

Liverpool (discussed here) and Barcelona (mentioned below) are examples of having mega event hosting as an element of wide and deep regeneration planning, rather than as a one-off revitalization initiative.

DC Olympics Bid.  The media is reporting ("Group Launches Website for 2024  Olympics Bid," NBC4; "O'Malley backs bid for DC Olympics in 2024," Baltimore Sun) on the announced board structure for the the group preparing an Olympics bid for 2024.  The DC-Baltimore region is competing against Boston, Los Angeles and San Francisco.

The way the bid process works, the country committee decides whether or not to bid, and then coordinates an intra-country bidding process, which results in a final bidder, which is presented as part of a competition against other countries/cities in a selection competition before the International Olympics Committee, which makes the final choice (in a process that is subject to extra-normal "suasion")..

-- DC 2024 Olympics bid website

The intra-country bidding process is a good example of how the Growth Machine/Urban Regime works.  Abstract from "Mapping the Olympic growth machine: Transnational urbanism and the growth machine diaspora":
Theories of growth machines and urban regimes have informed the study of urban political economy for more than three decades, but these theories remain focused on intra‐urban processes. Using a case study of the bidding process and the planning of the 2010 Olympic Winter Games in Vancouver, we explore the transnational dimensions of the urban growth machine and explore common aspects between the growth machine and regime theory literature and the literatures on the entrepreneurial city and transnational urban policy transfers. Through its evolving networks with other urban regimes, Vancouver’s growth machine provides a ready forum in which local elites can acquire specialized knowledge on new urban entrepreneurial strategies elsewhere. Actors situated in different parts of the local growth machine are establishing various connections with urban regimes in other cities, in what is best understood as a nascent growth machine diaspora. Growth machine and regime theories remain valid in their basic conceptualization and maintain their strength through their adaptability to various contexts, but can be enriched by analyses of policy circuits, travelling theories and learning networks.
Mega-events and urban regeneration.  Like most massive special events, sporting stadiums and arenas, and convention centers, the economic and community benefits of hosting tend to be overstated, and the costs understated.

The playing field of "city vs. city" isn't really level because some countries, for geopolitical stature reasons, are willing to provide much of the necessary funding to the host city.

But sometimes mounting such events can be justified as a way to provide a necessary external stimulus to move infrastructure projects forward more quickly, when normally a community cannot manage the will to plan and construct such projects.

-- "The Olympic Games: catalyst of urban change" (graphic below)
-- "Olympic Cities: Regeneration, City Rebranding and Changing Urban Agendas"
-- "An economic analysis of the Barcelona'92 Olympic Games: resources, financing and impact

On the other hand, a lot is built that doesn't support ground up redevelopment objectives and projects can be very much top down, like the shopping mall in London created as part of the 2012 Olympics.

And Britain has found that while the Olympics actually depressed the number of tourists in 2012 ("Tourism struggles during Olympics," Independent), spending was somewhat higher and there has been an increase in tourism since.

From "Impacts of the Olympic Games as mega-events":
The paper concludes that while the prospect of economic growth is the driving force behind bids for hosting the Olympic Games, the legacies that follow their hosting are difficult to quantify, prone to political interpretation and multifaceted.
The Salt Lake City Winter Olympics had a small surplus, were touted by Mitt Romney as an example of his organizational capabilities, and moved forward a fair number of airport, transit, and roadway projects.  The Atlanta (1996) and Los Angeles Olympics (1984) didn't lose money, but aren't known for having produced significant new infrastructure projects.

In the last 20+ years, the example of Barcelona is one of the most prominent success stories, because they specifically used the spectacle of the 1992 Olympics as a way to move forward and accomplish a wide variety of large scale urban regeneration projects.

Although it must be said that many of the most significant infrastructure projects were accomplished after the Olympics.

Not to mention that Barcelona is well located and has great weather and awesome beaches ("Barcelona: Big kids play in the sand, too," Seattle Times).

Local economic impact.  In terms of generating additional revenue for locally owned businesses, it's difficult to get attendees to go outside of their "tourist bubble" to consume experiences external to the structure of sporting events like the Olympics, or in the US, the Super Bowl or all star sporting events.

Especially because the Olympics and Super Bowl organizations impose onerous restrictions making it almost impossible for small businesses to participate in a manner that is mutually beneficial.

And irrespective of that, estimates are usually overstated, in part because the bulk of revenues from hotel room nights and car rentals are repatriated to national firms ("Super Bowl's economic impact on N.J.: At least 75% below NFL estimates, experts say," Newark Star-Ledger; "Economic impact of NBA All-Star Game may have been overestimated," Dallas Morning News).  Note that the DMN article is particularly good.

In my opinion, most attempts to promote specifically local economic impact in association with such events fail.

Attempts to create community benefits beyond the event.  Some regions have created ancillary initiatives to promote greater community benefits for residents, maybe in part as mitigation, although it's not usually positioned that way.

For example, the Winter Olympics in British Columbia had an extensive cultural planning program, designed to help local communities capture some tourism benefits.  (The planning manuals are great, but the program wasn't successful in generating local tourism outside of the Olympics.)  In association with the London Olympics,

Britain developed a variety of initiatives to promote individual fitness and exercise activity.  They found that more triggers than the Olympics are required to get people involved in personal fitness and wellness activities.

Unused Olympics facilities abound in Athens. Fountain in the Athens Olympics Village, 2014.  Associated Press photo.

Empty facillities as a troubling legacy.  More recently, Greece (Athens, 2004), Russia (Sochi, 2014) and China (Beijing, 2008) are examples of hosting the Olympics as a key element of national policy.

Arguably, Greece's economic depression was sparked in part by the massive spending on the Olympics--most of the venues are unused 10 years later.

But plenty of Olympics facilities are unused post-Olympics ("Beijing's Olympic Ruins," CityLab/Atlantic Cities).  The big Olympics Stadium in Beijing is empty today.  And most of the facilities in Sochi are likely to go unused, as it was an odd location--pretty warm--for a Winter Olympics.  Even Atlanta has some Olympics facilities that are derelict today, 18 years later.

(One of the comments in a GGW entry on this topic makes a good argument that a DC regional bid could successfully utilize preexisting facilities for most of the events.)

Local vs. national government funding.  In any case, given the willingness of some countries to pay to host large spectacles to accomplish geopolitical goals, the financial scale of these events has become much bigger than they used to be--the Beijing Olympics cost $42 billion ("China Counts the Cost of Hosting the Olympics," Wall Street Journal), and US cities are at a competitive disadvantage because of the lack of federal financial support.

The London Olympics weren't that expensive  ("London 2012: UK public says £9bn Olympics wroth it," BBC), but that is likely to be an exception.

Note that in the post-Sochi environment, when decisions have to be put to local residents, some cities are choosing to opt out of competing for the Olympics, in the face of voter disapproval (e.g., "Krakow withdraws 2022 Winter Olympics bid," USA Today).

In the US, for the most part, Olympics events are "locally funded" through a combination of state, local, television sponsorship, and business sponsorship funding.

Ain't got no (enough) time:  the bidding process versus the amount of time required to build infrastructure.  DC is bidding for the Olympics now, in 2014, for a 2024 date.  Ten years isn't very much time to plan, let alone construct, major projects.  In the US, it's not enough time to construct significant transportation projects.

Significantly, while Barcelona accomplished many projects during the 7 years ahead of the Games, they have continued to plan and implement in the period beyond the Olympics and have constructed large scale infrastructure projects as within the regeneration planning framework within which the Olympics was but one element.

More than a ten year timeline is required to create truly transformational infrastructure projects as part of the hosting of an Olympics Games or similar mega event.

The bidding process as a way to develop a stronger framework for regional cooperation.  Personally, I am not likely in favor of a bid because it would mean that DC would have to build an "Olympics Stadium" that becomes a new stadium for the Washington Redskins football team.  DC would have to host the stadium because the right level of stature wouldn't be accorded to a facility in the suburbs.

Such stadiums are a waste, because football stadiums are little used and a financial drain for local communities, especially for DC, because there wouldn't be a State Stadium Authority to step in and provide a goodly amount of the funding, as there tends to be in other places, including Maryland. Alternative uses for such sites tend to have better economic return.

However, there is an interesting journal article ("International urban festivals as a catalyst for governance capacity building" Environment and Planning C: Government and Policy") about Lyon, France, and how even though they were unsuccessful in bidding for the 1968 Olympics, the bid process did lay the groundwork for improvements in regional cooperation and organizational capacity, as well as various infrastructure projects, such as a tram system.

So from the standpoint of building a stronger foundation for regional cooperation and lining up the financial commitments for significant investments in transportation and housing infrastructure, I am not against the DC-Baltimore region "bidding" for the Olympic Games.

Despite the reality of the profit imperative of the Growth Machine/Urban Regime and the ethically challenged environment that this often creates, the reality is that these coalitions are the basis of local political economy and we "have" to work within those frameworks.

Recommendation:  Preparing a bid for the 2032 Olympics makes a lot more sense.  While I have reservations about a bid, especially if DC is stuck building a new football ("Olympic") stadium, I can see the value of a bid in terms of improving regional cooperation and laying out a stronger agenda and plan for accomplishing and accelerating significant infrastructure investment, especially for high capacity fixed rail transit.

However, ten years is not enough time to accomplish very much and more recently, regional agencies haven't the best track record for project realization--e.g., by the time it opens for revenue service, DC will have spent about 13 years from the planning phase to open a relatively short streetcar line less than 2.5 miles in length.

So I think that for such an initiative to truly have impact, it makes more sense for the DC region to lay the groundwork for an Olympics bid in 2032--18 years from now, rather than in 2024--to provide enough time to plan and build large scale infrastructure projects yielding significant future benefit.

Yes, bidding for 2032 isn't presently on the agenda for the US Olympics Committee or the International Olympic Committee.  

But that doesn't mean that the area couldn't begin preparing such a bid, long term.  The precedent is Liverpool, which began preparing a bid for hosting the European Capital of Culture, almost 5 years before the UK was slotted to participate.

This gave the city far more time to build the case for a bid, and to plan and finance improvements, than any other contenders.

More importantly, the bid preparation was but one element of a broader strategic regeneration plan.

And that's the main point.

The Olympics in and of itself doesn't do that much for local improvement, which should be the primary point of having it, then building in the time to plan, design and construct non-sporting infrastructure improvement is the primary local benefit.

Otherwise, were DC to get the 2024 Olympics (an outside chance at best), the only thing that really comes out of it is a new RFK Stadium for a football team, and maybe the extension of a streetcar line within the RFK campus and the construction of an Olympics Village housing complex in Ward 7.

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At 8:57 AM, Anonymous Alex B. said...

All good points, but there's one problem: You can't just plan on a bid for 2028 or 2032.

While it's true that many unsuccessful bids help lay the ground work for planning and cooperation (e.g. getting something out of it if you lose), they're all predicated on the idea of winning the bid.

If any US city wins the right to host the 2024 games, then another American city (in all likelihood) will not host again in either 2028 or 2032.

If you wanted to argue that the IOC and the USOC should lengthen their bidding processes to allow for more lead time, that would be one thing. Tokyo won the 2020 games after losing out in the 2016 bidding process. But that's more of a 'happy accident' of adding four more years to plan.

At 3:13 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

Good point.

At 8:06 AM, Anonymous charlie said...

The Barcelona success was about branding; it is an amazing city that was relatively unknown until then. Great food, beaches, hills, shame about the Catalans.

DC is a nice city, the region is rather blah, and the natural beauty is very low. You can only put so much lipstick on a pig.

And we don't have the local corporate support to pull this off. Not enough money here.

At 4:24 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"DC is a nice city, the region is rather blah, and the natural beauty is very low. You can only put so much lipstick on a pig."

So why are you here? Just a way-station on the path to something more glamorous? Inquiring minds want to know.

At 4:28 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...


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