Friday, 10 April 2015 12:49

Who are the losers in urban regeneration through mega sports events?

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There is global competition to attract high profile sports events, most notably the football World Cup and the Olympics. This has hyped the development proposals of the bidders. As the scale of the specifications has increased, so has the investment and the development impact in the host cities. With this has come a concern to demonstrate sustainability (in its mutable guises) and legacy.

Experience shows that viable uses for stadia once the main show is over are often anti-climactic, if not downright problematic. To give an example, the SuperDome, a 21,000 seat venue built for the basketball and gymnastics at the Sydney Olympics went into receivership in 2004 (leaving the taxpayers with the bills) before re-opening in 2009 as a conference and events centre. Don’t even begin to ponder how the 1.5 million people of Qatar will use the stadia from the 2022 World Cup.

All of this means that planning and design have come to play an increasing role in bidding for and delivering these 21st century global circuses. Professional skills are showcased, and investment is injected into the built environment of places on a scale that would not otherwise be possible. In this process huge areas of cities can be transformed in terms of their land uses, imagery, residents and functions. There are jobs in the construction phase, while service jobs gain a boost during the main event itself. Other post-event benefits are less tangible and harder to demonstrate, but usually relate to a boost to tourism and the capacity to host other similar, but less significant events in the future, along with an improved transport system.

Displacement and opposition

Set against these benefits are the cries of the dispossessed. This week the New York Times carries a report on opposition from slum dwellers to developments for the 2016 Olympics. The plan to create “a new piece of the city” in Rio de Janeiro means demolition of a long-established area of informal housing that is home to 4,000 people. The article has triggered some feisty comments for and against the scheme and the right of the poor to occupy land for which they have no legal right.


The issue of displacement by sporting events was reviewed in an issue of Planning Theory and Practice a couple of years back. Libby Porter from Glasgow University was critical of the failure of the planning profession to really grasp just what displacement means to those on the receiving end. The journal then carried short pieces about the experience of residents forced to move by the London Olympics, the Glasgow Commonwealth games in 2014 and the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. As Porter wrote, they are accounts of “what it feels like to be on the receiving end… human stories of loss, marginalisation and injustice”. Beyond those directly affected there is usually a reduction in the stock of affordable housing.

It was a similar story at the 2010 Commonwealth Games in New Delhi. The politicians saw the Games as an opportunity to present New Delhi to the world as “a world-class city”. However, this involved extensive slum clearance, with residents being either relocated to new housing far away, or simply left to find another plot somewhere else.

A personal note

I remember that about 10 years ago I was invited to be a member of the jury for the design of the Olympic yachting venue at Qingdao in China. When we arrived we were taken on a site visit, which included a walk around what was then a working shipyard. I asked the officials what was to happen to the shipyard, the workers and their families and was told they were all being relocated to another site along the coast. “What if they don’t want to go?” I asked, only to be reassured that they would all move.


So was I complicit in the forced displacement of low income households and businesses to make way for a mega sporting event? Yes, I guess I was. Similarly, all those years ago I worked as a planner on the comprehensive redevelopment of Glasgow. Then much later in my career I was part of a research team that researched “low demand housing and unpopular neighbourhoods” for what I think was then the Department for Environment, Transport and the Regions. We argued that in some situations demolition would be necessary. I still see powers of compulsory purchase – or as the Americans call it “eminent domain” – as a necessary tool of urban planning. I discussed the issue at greater length in a recent book.

The right to the city

So how do you square the circle between the rights of residents and the wider public interest when it comes to the use of land for slums of “higher end” uses? It’s not easy but here are a few propositions. Firstly, the “public interest” case needs to be carefully scrutinised: what interests are defining “the public interest” and what do they stand to gain from it? Private gain from which the original residents are excluded should not be equated with the public interest.
We need to look beyond a utilitarian view of the public interest, a totting up of costs and benefits. Instead the discussion needs to recognise what has come to be known as “the right to the city”. This means amongst other things that the poor and landless have a right to be in the city and to have access to the facilities and advantages that cities can offer. Any relocation needs to be negotiated and equitable, even where those people do not have formal title to land, as is often the case in rapidly urbanising societies.

Furthermore, I would endorse the points that Porter made. Beware a planning process that treats citizens as if they were invisible. She wrote of “the ethos that the poor, homeless and marginalised are simply objects to be removed.” In contrast she argues that planners should see such people as “citizens who matter. They deserve respect for their homes, livelihoods and wellbeing, and to be treated with dignity and care.”

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