Launch Slideshow

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When the Olympics come to town …

When the Olympics come to town …

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    City of Vancouver Engineering Services General Manager Peter Judd (right) with fellow city employees Randy Pecarski (left), then the acting director of planning assistent, and Susan Harvey, “Live site” executive producer. Photo: City of Vancouver

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    Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Vancouver schoolchildren welcome the Olympic Flame to the Canadian Pavilion. Photo: VANOC

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    View of the biathlon course at Whistler Olympic and Paralympic Park. Photo: VANOC

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    This map shows Olympic venue locations and planned road closures during the 2010 Winter Vancouver Olympic games in British Columbia, Canada. Photo: City of Vancouver

PW: How did you address these challenges?

PJ: We created a social marketing campaign with our partners via Facebook and press announcements to help employers alter their hours and employees plan their commutes using alternate modes of transportation like walking, cycling, and transit. We mailed detailed booklets to all residents on road closures, venues, and schedules. In the month before the Olympics, we held a series of “practice” days where employers and employees were encouraged to implement their plans.

The organizing committee pushed spectators to access venues via public transit by including a daily transit pass with the purchase of an event ticket. That approach was amazingly successful. There was so little traffic or parking downtown during the games that we were concerned people might switch back to driving, but it didn't happen. We had contingency plans to throttle back some of the road capacity coming into the city, but we didn't need to use them.

PW: Record numbers of people walked, cycled, and used public transit during the event. Has the trend continued?

PJ: Because the Olympics coincided with the opening of a new subway line, people got to experience the benefit of that line right away and ridership exceeded projections three years earlier than anticipated. So, yes, the benefits continued.

But Vancouver's been moving this way for many years. We have high transit, walking, and cycling rates because we‘ve made land-use decisions that let people live near where they work, and because we've continued to improve transit. In the last 15 years, population and jobs in the downtown area have gone up 75% and 26%, respectively. The number of people entering downtown is up 15% but the number of vehicles entering the area is down 25%. Car ownership and commute times are also down.

PW: What projects occurred because of the Olympics?

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City of Vancouver Engineering Services General Manager Peter Judd

PJ: We had a very deliberate strategy not to build special-purpose facilities to serve the need for venues. Instead, we repurposed existing facilities and advanced their reconstruction. The International Olympic Committee helped by agreeing to use a Canadian-sized rink for ice hockey instead of the usual international size.

Similarly, while we advanced sidewalk construction and accessibility ramp construction near venues to complete the networks in those areas, we used existing capital funds. The city set aside a $20 million legacy fund for the Live sites, Vancouver house, special lighting, public art, and those additional things that cities have to do to dress up for the occasion.

The biggest project completed in advance — which was essential to make transportation work during the Olympics — was an approximately 20-kilometer (12.4-mile) subway from the airport to downtown. This had been planned long before the bid was won, but winning the bid provided a deadline. I wouldn't say this occurred as a result of the Olympics, but there's always debate about what's an Olympic-related project/cost and what isn't.

PW: What's become of these projects since the Olympics?

PJ: All of the facility renovations and replacement facilities have been very beneficial — not just because of the upgrades, but also because of the sustainability features that were added. The curling rink is next to a swimming pool, for example, and waste heat from ice-making is used to heat the pool. At the Olympic Village we built an energy utility that uses waste heat from the sewer system to create hot water and space heating for the entire area. There's been a significant reduction (67%) in greenhouse-gas production related to those facilities.

The subway has had the most lasting impact on transportation patterns. Called the Canada line, it replaces public bus service and is the quickest way to get from Vancouver International Airport to downtown Vancouver, with a travel time of 15 minutes.

PW: What was the biggest advantage to being an Olympics host city?

PJ: There aren't any perks. It's a ton of work. It's also a huge opportunity, though. For example:

  • You'll develop much better working relationships with all the various agencies you deal with. This will be a legacy for emergency management and event planning.
  • Although it's a lot of work, it's tremendously rewarding and a very emotional experience for staff once they get through to the actual games. They feel proud of what they accomplish as a group, especially when the world media recognize that.
PW: What was the biggest disadvantage?

PJ: For at least two years, everything else gets pushed aside.

PW: What was the most important lesson you learned?

PJ: Know why you're hosting — what your objective is — and stay focused on that. You can spend money on a lot of things, but if they're just nice to have and don't contribute to the goal then don't do them.

Also, right upfront we recognized that as a city of 600,000 people, we didn't have the resources to be the host. When asked to do so by the business community and the provincial government, we said we'd do it only if the Province of British Columbia backstopped additional costs, which it did. That was essential. (Editor's note: Vancouver did not pay for security, and the province supplied additional municipal services during the games. For a breakdown of costs, see the sidebar on page 46.)

PW: What advice would you give to a public works director working for an Olympics-hopeful city?

PJ: The important issues around municipal responsibility don't come through the official channels very well, so during the bid phase go and meet colleagues in previous host cities. Find out the details for yourself — and make no assumptions about who pays.

If there's any gray area, get it clear at the beginning. At the end of the process the organizing committee will always be out of money and the city can get left holding the bag. It's your job to make sure early that that doesn't happen. Your taxpayers will thank you, because enormous amounts of money are involved.


WEB EXTRA:

London 2012: A look at the summer Olympic games from several different design and building aspects

From Architectural Lighting, June 2012, with expanded web content:
London's legacy: In lighting the Olympic and Paralympic Games, designers balance the needs for a high-profile identity today and a character that's appropriate for the years ahead.

From Architect Magazine, Jan. 2012:
An Olympic feat:Three new stadiums for London's 2012 Games combine structure innovation with sustainability to ensure a positive legacy long after the torch moves on.

From Pool & Spa News, May 2012:
London calling: The London Aquatics Centre was built for the Olympic Games this summer, but designed to stand the test of time.

Additional coverage:

Read Arch Daily's three-part series: “How (not) to host the Olympics” Part I / Part II / Part III

Did London succeed in making the 2012 Olympics truly sustainable? The Atlantic Cities contributing writer Amy Southerland seems to think so. Read her articles: “Olympic dreams: raising the bar on sustainability” and “Green from top to bottom, today and tomorrow.”

London is not the first city with goals to “green” the Olympics. Read “What Vancouver gained by hosting the Olympics,” and “3 lessons every Olympic city should take to heart,” by The Atlantic Cities blogger Brent Toderian, president of TODERIAN UrbanWORKS, a Vancouver-based city planning and urbanism consultancy, and a global consultant, writer, teacher and speaker. He was past director of city planning for Vancouver (2006-2012), and is founding president of the Council for Canadian Urbanism.

To read full municipal, provincial, and federal financial reports and learn more about the economic impact of the 2010 Olympic Games on British Columbia and Canada, go to the B.C. Ministry of Finance Olympics page.