Hallmark Sporting Events and Cities
I recently got back to Vancouver from a trip to Cape Town and a brief stopover in London. Three cities, each one of which has recently had or is about to host a hallmark sporting event: Vancouver hosted the 2010 Winter Olympic Games, Cape Town co-hosted 2010 FIFA World Cup events, and of course London has the upcoming 2012 Summer Olympic Games. What did these three cities gain (or lose), from a city-making perspective, in hosting such hallmark events?
Cape Town built a completely new 64,100-seat stadium close to the city centre, on public lands known as the Greenpoint Common. A much smaller older stadium was demolished in the process, and a large area around the new stadium was redeveloped both to better connect it to the city centre and provide more usable public park space. The results have been impressive. The stadium itself is an engineering masterpiece, with its white enclosure and suspended diaphanous roof floating high above the surrounding green space. However, since the end of the 2010 World Cup, the intensity of use has declined and many are wondering if it will turn into a white elephant. The operators and the City were hoping to entice the local rugby union to relocate here from their existing facilities in Newlands (another suburb of Cape Town), but that did not happen, and the stadium is at risk of not having enough events booked to economically sustain it.
On the other hand, the surrounding infrastructure improvements have rejuvenated and reintegrated a large, formerly disconnected and underused sector back into the city. The adjacent urban park is the first large new park to be developed in Cape Town in decades. It is well designed and already well used. The 2.6 km long '2010 Fan Walk' legacy is a linear greenway linking the Central Business District and Green Point, and the adjacent rapid bus lane and station provide an enhanced transit service link to the city centre.
Cape Town continues to enjoy global exposure as a destination city, and the 2010 World Cup infrastructure has only enhanced this. What the new stadium does for the local population is another matter.
As for London, I made only the briefest of stops, and did not get to any of the sites of the Olympics themselves. I did however see major public realm upgrades being made in the central city, such as a complete makeover of Leicester Square. Lord knows it needed it. Heathrow Airport has also developed a very impressive 5th terminal, which functions as a great gateway to the country. But cutbacks to UK Customs service made entering the country through passport control a tedious and slow exercise. How they will cope with the 2012 Olympics influx is anybody's guess. But the reality is that the vast majority of viewers of the Games will be virtual viewers, watching from afar, and the infrastructure that has been developed around London serves to burnish the city's visual presence and reputation as a global city-state. There is also the very real makeover of a large swathe of east London, bringing much needed park space, community and sports facilities to a formerly depressed area.
Finally, Vancouver. What has changed for this city perched at the edge of the rainforest, and on the corresponding edges of global awareness? Well, it has grown up. We have some top class legacy facilities thanks to the 2010 Winter Games. Better transit infrastructure. A major new convention centre. And a $22 million makeover of downtown's pre-eminent street, the Granville Mall. This area attracted huge crowds both during the Olympics and since. Heck, we've even had our very own urban riot.
But the city is struggling more than ever with unaffordable housing, a widening gap between haves and have-nots, a declining share of head offices, and a raft of ever-increasing bureaucratic restrictions that stifles cultural, artistic and entrepreneurial creativity. We need to loosen up.
Still, hosting the Olympic Games has left the city with a greater sense of its own potential and increased confidence. For such a young city just 45 minutes drive from the most powerful country in the world and its much wealthier cities, that's a significant achievement. Vancouver no longer casts covetous looks over its shoulder at Seattle, Portland or even San Francisco. It holds its own in the littoral of west coast cites, and indeed is studied by the others for its own progressive policies. No more inferiority complex here, and pulling off the 2010 Winter Olympics no doubt helped.
Maybe in the end that is the most important thing that successfully hosting a hallmark sport event does for cities: it gives them increased confidence and belief in themselves, and that in turn attracts the kind of positive global attention that money simply cannot buy.