Friday, 11 October 2013

Greenwash olympics

Being a Sydneysider and an academic with an interest in sustainability, it has been an article of faith for me that the 2000 Sydney Olympics were deservedly hailed as a milestone in the history of the event.  Sydney pitched for and won the games by emphasizing the sustainability credentials of the bid.

The sustainability initiatives began with the main site itself, a heavily polluted brownfields wasteland.  Former activities had included the city's main abattoir, as well as industries that had apparently specialized in leaking heavy metals, hydrocarbons and dioxins into the silt of the adjacent harbour bays.  To rehabilitate the site involved the development of pioneering encapsulation and other strategies.  The Athletes' Village was watered down by commercial development interests from its idealistic competition winning scheme, but at the time of its construction still managed to be the largest residential building integrated photovoltaics (BIPV) installation.  Of course it was overtaken very quickly for that particular title, but the village did do the job of proving real estate agents wrong about the post-games marketability of smaller, better designed, more energy efficient dwellings.  For the main venues, the sustainability initiatives were largely in developing analysis and evaluation tools, including embodied energy inventories of materials, that enabled the application of life cycle thinking in their design.  There were lots of other smaller initiatives as well, like district grey water treatment and duplicate reticulation of recycled water.
All-in-all, it has been suggested that Sydney added a 'third ideal' of sustainability to the two Olympic ideals of sport and culture.  No subsequent pitch for hosting the Games has been able to avoid credentialing its bid with claims of sustainability initiatives.
Of course, one of the issues that has undermined this rosy picture, is the difficulty of maintaining a genuine use for the Olympic Games venues after the closing ceremony cheering dies away.  Unless that long-term use is socially and financially sustainable, even better than normal environmental sustainability practices loose something of their cachet. 

There has been a fairly grim, and relentless reporting, of just how difficult it has been for most cities to avoid the stadia and other crowd pleasers turning into white elephants.  Perhaps the worst is Greece, where the financial crisis has resulted in funds for maintenance being withdrawn, and venues literally abandoned.

My interest in this issue was given a nudge when my Chinese speaking partner mentioned a Taiwanese video which extols the success of the Bird's Nest Stadium in Beijing, in hosting a sequence of varied events, and the technological wonders the venue provides to make it all possible.  Very large amounts of money as daily rent are mentioned, as well as the suggestion that the venue is booked out through 2015.  This did not seem to accord with my memory of other discussions on the internet.  My first reaction was that all those articles disparaging the post-games use of the stadium were probably a subtle form of anti-Chinese sentiment, perhaps dangerously out of date with reality.

At first, I thought I had guessed right.  Most googled links seemed to be dated 2009 (the year after the Beijing Games), and like a lot of the blogosphere, they seemed to repeat the same few snippets reporting a disastrous lack of bookings.

But after a while, my collated list of events hosted by the Bird's Nest over the four intervening years started to resemble the ones breathlessly touted in the Taiwanese daytime TV show.  I realized again that you can't believe a lot of what you see on the internet, and that daytime TV anywhere is mainly a totally unreliable mashup with a bent towards sensationalism, when they run out of conspiracy theories.  In this case, they managed to put an editorial spin on a bunch of images, that made it look like technical miracles were performed to change overnight from a football pitch to a car racing track, from competitive skiing on artificial snow to a rock concert.  The reality seems to be that an initial interest by local tourists has dramatically waned, with the 50 yuan entry charge too much for many visitors, and the big events few and far between, with any but the rock concerts and Italian league soccer games failing to fill the 98,000 seats.  The revenue falls well short of the outgoings.

It's thought provoking what other factoids turn up. For instance London's stadium is a deliberately 'temporary' structure, that uses only 10,000 tons of comparatively 'ordinary' steel, compared to 42,000 tons of never before seen alloy needed to hold up Beijing’s Bird's Nest.  That would seem to be a telling comparison of embodied energy and other normal sustainability metrics.  But it's hard to be confident of such information even from an engineering trade site, given the same article quotes the circumference of the stadium in square feet, and passes without comment over listing PVC coating on the retractable fabric roof.

What, if anything, can one conclude?  With considerable certainty: sustainability and the Olympics is an oxymoron.  Even if it does have some identifiable effect on tools and design practices employed by building professionals, and possibly sends some positive messages to the general public, the rhetoric is shameless greenwash.



Justin said...

The Olympics represent the sporting spirit and the sporting culture, many host countries intended to highlight this strong sporting culture through sophisticatedly designed sports centres and this often involves a large amount of investment. Unfortunately, many of these specifically designed sports centres has been struggling to survive after the Olympics due to the lack of initiatives of sustainable designs and as a result, many of them has been abandoned or destroyed after the Olympics.
For many of the host countries in the past, venues from the Olympics have fallen within a few years once the Olympics ended. The 2008 Olympics host country China is also struggling to keep its sports facilities in operation, many of the sports facilities has been abandoned and unused. As a major problem that most country faces, it could take many years to pay off the bill for these sports facilities.
However it cannot be considered as an oxymoron for the Olympics and sustainability, buildings with proven sustainability were able to have a life after the Olympics. For instance, sports facilities in Sydney were built and designed to survive after the Olympics, these sustainable designs has been well maintained and delivering a message to the public that the Olympic spirit continues even when the Olympics ended. London, the 2012 Olympics host city has also impressed the public with its sustainable designs, the use of recycled materials and the applications of energy efficiency measures.
It can be seen that Sydney and London has provided solid evidence to the public that Olympics can be sustainable, buildings designed for similar events should always consider for their long term use. The ‘Bird’s Nest’ could be improved if the materials used were recycled and incorporate the use of BIPV systems. With all the sustainable technologies available, it is our hope to the future architects to adapt the concept of sustainability the Olympics as well as any other commercial buildings.


Sydney Olympic Park

Sydney ANZ Stadium

Beijing's Olympic Ruins

London 2012 Olympics: How green are the 'most sustainable Olympics ever?'

Anonymous said...

Olympic Games not only affecting the urban development, but also have a profound impact on the prevailing urban planning and social development. There are different methods on how to keep the site works after the Olympics for Sydney, London and China. Personally, i think it is because different countries have different understandings or cultures on sustainability. There is no right or wrong in this case. The aims are the same, but, it is being presented in different ways.

For Sydney’s venues, the sustainable showing on the whole development process from planning, choosing the site, construction, usage during and after Olympics. It did not rely on technology to solve the sustainable issue. For example, 40 out of 200 hectares Olympic Stadium is being built on the site polluted by the industrial and domestic waste. Sydney’s solution emphasis on the environment.

For the Bird’s Nest, as Steve King mentioned in the article, it hosts various types of commercial performances. From the concert to car race, etc. The operation mode for Stadium is different from other countries. Hosting a big event is the weakness part for China, however, due to the large number of population, activities and traveling are the strength. Therefore, i think the idea of changing the site to many functions is good. But, it costs a lot for the labor and instruments. In my opinion, the strategy for the Bird’s Nest may can be seen the sustainability for commercial, it is not for the environment. Beijing’s solution emphasis on the commercial.

Overall, for both countries, they share the same concepts, which are renovating existing stadiums and building temporary stadiums. Sustainability has different understandings according to local conditions.

Anonymous said...

The world has presented regularly events like Olympic Games and World Expo for one and a half century. Cities intending to be nominated have to afford great expense and present themselves as the best site for those events. However, how to keep the expensive site works after the Olympics has become a real problem. Most of the former venues are facing problems like lost of original functions or huge maintenance fee, or even worse, abandoned because of the lack of initiatives of sustainable design. For the host of 1972 Olympic Games, Munich can be seen as a good example of post-Olympics running. After two years of 1972, the stadium held the world championship of figure skating and World Cup. It also served as the long-time home to Bayern Munich and TSV 1860 Munich. The press secretary of Munich Olympic Green believed that the sustainable running was based on the design of the stadium. For example, the stadium is multipurpose and has enough small spaces for media or VIP. Besides, the increasing need for parking space should be concerned too. Although the running was successful, they still need the support from government. This situation got worse after the opening of Allianz Arena, which reflects the influence of urban planning. For the Beijing of 2008, the Bird’s Nest is not material sustainable because the government wanted to present a grand version. After the end of the ceremony, the maintenance cost is around 110 millions dollars per year. The 70% of total income is from the ticket. However, in Europe or America, the TV relay rights and title sponsorship are the major income. For London, they learned a lot from precedents and work with the problem that most of the venues have. The ideal of the temporary stadium is more suitable than the Bird's Nest for post-Olympics. The materials were recycled from building rubbish, which the approach of material sustainability. There has no right or wrong for these sophisticated designs. But the real problem is how to make the stadium keep their functions and face to the reality.

Empty Nest Syndrome for Post-Olympics Beijing
Architecture after the flame goes out
Sport and sustainability
The interview about Munich Olympic Park

Anonymous said...

Reuse. Reduce. Recycle.

What happens to all the wonderful pieces of architecture after the closing ceremonies? That is an important question brought up in the article. In my opinion The Games are getting more and more political. The more money you spend, the bigger structures you build, the more attention you get, the better. It is a clear show off in front of the others.

Take the latest Winter Olympics in Sochi, - the most expensive Olympics in history, said to have cost around US$50 billion. Practically every single venue had to be built from scratch. They have done a good job and, needless to say, impressed millions of people around the globe (let alone impressed themselves, as no one in Russia believed it would actually come true), but what happens after that? What to do with all that expensive and extraordinary pieces of architecture?
Taking into account the past failures of Olympic host cities, such as Athens with most venues becoming modern Greek ruins, and the nest stadium in Beijing, becoming a tourist attraction but not functioning at the full potential, Sochi hopes to avoid that. It doesn't really matter that all these wonderful pieces of architecture are lacking the 'big and famous' names, it is more important that they can be ‘reused’ and ‘recycled’ after Olympics.

Objects are well designed and thought through, some of them are meant to be moved to the other places around Russia where they will get the full use of, some venues are meant to function at its fullest attracting tourists for leisure and sport holidays in Sochi throughout the year.

For example, the Olympic Park is now preparing for the 2014 Formula 1 Grand Prix, and by the look of it, the layout of the track is quite impressive. The stadiums are all ready to host the 2018 FIFA World Cup, some of them are transported to other cities, in order to release the amount of people (and stress) from the host cities, because, let’s be honest, they understand that they are not 100% prepared to host another huge event in one place.

Reuse? Yes. Recycle? Yes. Reduce? Hm, not so much, with $50 billion spent, but at least they tried, and made the ‘wow!’.