How Sustainable Are the Olympic Games? 5

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Monday, February 2nd, 2015
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Decaying infrastructure, deserted fields, and facilities falling apart.

These words were used in a 2012 article in The Atlantic entitled Beijing’s Olympic Ruins. That piece reminds us of how many of the Beijing Olympic Games investments lay wasting, and those Games were not unique. Cities hosting the World Cup have faced similar outcomes, as highlighted in the article White Elephants and Wasted Millions.

On any given day somewhere in the world, we are investing in a Games event, building transit, developing housing and installing district infrastructure to celebrate sport and the unity it brings to communities around the world. The current pipeline looks like this:

  • 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
  • 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea
  • 2018 World Cup in Russia
  • 2018 Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast, Australia
  • 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, Japan
  • 2022 World Cup in Qatar

Is this list simply more white elephants, oversized systems, and future wastelands in the making? We hope not, of course, and since the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, coined the Green Games, there has been a concerted effort to embed sustainability and the concept of legacy within the investments the host cities make.

As a resident and sustainability practitioner in the United States’ Pacific Northwest, there is no better example of sustainability and legacy in a Games investment than the Southeast False Creek Olympic Village in Vancouver BC, Canada.

Developed as part of the 2010 Winter Olympic Games, the Village sits on a 17-acre former industrial site, providing nearly 1.2 million square feet of mixed-use development that was built to house athletes from both the 2010 Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games.

Situated on eight city blocks, the Olympic Village contains 1,100 units, 250 of which are affordable and 850 that are market-rate (120 rental and 730 market sales).

All buildings have achieved LEED-New Construction Gold certification, with the exception of the Creekside Community Centre and the Net-Zero Energy Senior Housing project, which achieved LEED Platinum. The LEED Platinum buildings helped push the neighbourhood rating to LEED Platinum under the LEED for Neighbourhood Development rating tool (LEED Silver was the original target).

The city-owned Neighbourhood Energy Utility reclaims waste heat from the sewer system and uses it to warm coolant water via a heat exchange. The warmed water then circulates through buildings’ innovative radiant capillary mat heating system.

The district energy system’s five exhaust pipes are hung with LED lights (the visual effect being “fingernails” atop the pipe fingers) that can be programmed to change colours, corresponding with its energy output and neighbourhood consumption. The energy system is supplying approximately 70 per cent of the neighbourhood’s annual heating and hot water energy demand, and will produce 50 per cent less greenhouse gas emissions compared to conventional energy sources.

The district energy system and multiple LEED rated buildings, and indeed the entire neighbourhood, are but a few of the strategies that have not only been deployed within the village, but have informed city-wide policy in the City of Vancouver.

Although built to accommodate Olympic athletes, the origins of Olympic Village are much earlier, with designs for the site to be an innovative neighbourhood evolving since 1995. Sustainable development guiding principles were memorialised in the Southeast False Creek Policy Document in 1999, setting a clear vision for future outcomes.

In 2005, the City adopted the Official Development Plan for Southeast False Creek that created urban design and sustainability principles, a policy framework for implementation, and recommended strategies. This laid the grounds for strong political commitment, and the willingness to ensure that this investment was a true demonstration project that city leaders would learn from and replicate across Vancouver long after the Games left town.

And as a true demonstration project should do, it becomes a vehicle for learning, showcase, and inspiration. The site is abuzz, and continues to evolve, well after the party left town. The City has developed new and has amended existing policies across the city to include the learning’s. The project incorporated a number of firsts for the City, including integrated water management, green building design, district energy, and urban design.

A Green City Tour of Vancouver is being hosted by the World Green Building Council, Sweden Green Building Council and the Canada Green Building Council (CAGBC) as part of the CAGBC conference in June 2015, providing a unique opportunity to visit one of the world’s greatest sustainable neighbourhood demonstration projects.

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5
  1. Alina Congreve

    The Vancouver projects are certainly fascinating… I had a chance to go on a study visit in 2011 and thoroughly recommend it…..
    There was also a lot of positive learning to come from London 2012 which is captured on the legacy website

  2. Aleks Blumentals

    Great idea London2012 – it does sound a bit unrealistic and too rosy to be very useful – a reflection process ought to be more than that, capture the long term consequences and relationships to the city as a whole is far more relevant from the perspective of the scale of works

  3. Hans Gutscher

    The examples of Vancouver and London 2012 cited in the former comments represent unfortunately a minority of the different olympic games'realisations of the last decades. The majority of those latter served in the first place to emphasize the power and the reputation of the organizing country without any or few reflection concerning the future of the huge infrastructure created for the only games. The choice of the organizing countries or cities are mostly the result of sordid power games if not pure corruption. How can you justify the organisation of winter games in Sotchi at the Black Sea or the football championship in Qatar ? So the answer to your question as to me would be: Olympic games under the today conditions can in no way be sustainable.

  4. Aleks Blumentals

    There is a big confusion between means and goals. The idea of celebratory events to bring countries off their conflictive and divisive feelings has proven its worth to help overcome divisive ideas. Yet the aggrandizement of the celebration with little feeling and or idea alignment, leaves little doubt that organizers have lost the plot, that this 'means' has been corrupted. Even symposia, summits, forums and fairs are little more than spectacles devoid of real substance.

    I must agree with Mr Gutscher, on this path these events and infrastructures do not meet any significant condition of sustainability, even in the apparent "success" cases…

  5. Don Henrich

    Great article to help voters and city residents think through the support of these expensive projects to improve infrastructure and venues. As a resident of Boston where this debate is ongoing this is a helpful + in the article to have the games.