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

The use of major sporting events to drive development and regeneration has become increasingly controversial. Who gains? Who loses? Since the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona such spectacles have been widely seen as offering a unique opportunity to rebrand places and upgrade problematic sites. However, the planning of such infrastructure typically displaces poor and marginalised residents and small businesses. The Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions estimated in 2007 that globally millions of people had suffered forced removal as a result of development for sporting and other mega events. Are such outcomes justified in the wider public interest?

The Barcelona Olympics created new expectations about the role of sports events in regneration. Photo courtesy of Tom Bendall.

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.”

  • Sam Caslin

    Fascinating article regarding displacement and mega events (has forced me to comment)

    This is a real issue that does not seem to get too widely reported.

    The problem is the difficulties working out the benefits of hosting a mega-event as most of the ‘benefits’ are intangible and hard to associate with the local community (surely there is a firm in London capable of printing some tickets for Stratford 2012).

    My masters thesis was based on how cities go about achieving their own regeneration aspirations if they have a failed Olympic bid. I spoke to people involved in the bidding process for Birmingham and Manchester and it was great to see how they both used the bidding process as a springboard to set out how they saw their respective cities developing over the next 10-20 years. I have to say it was probably one of the most interesting bits of course work I have ever done – though I can not claim to have the ability to do the topic true justice.

    Mega-events are being used as a holy grail for fast tracking regeneration and the harsh reality is that these sort of projects often displace people who have lived in a certain part of a city for generations and who are generally cash poor. Unfortunately I undestand that youre experience in Qingdao is small potatos compared to what else went on to prepare parts of Beijing for the 2008 games. Youre concluding remarks are perhaps the most important.

  • Cliff Hague

    Thanks for this comment, Sam. I’m sure it was a good thesis! I think you raise an intersting new angle, which is the catalytic effect that a bid can have. I know the Manchester situation a little – the Lord Mayor at the time of the Olympic bid lived next door but one to my mother and I had a few chats with him! The bid, which many thought risible at first, was actually far sighted in building a sense of self-confidence in the civic leadership, and developing skills in building partnerships. Cynically one might conclude that an unsuccessful bid can be the most sustainable outcome!

    The intangibility and uncertainty of the benefits is indeed problematic. It should be possible to subject claims to reasonable analytical scrutiny – or at least a kind of risk analysis. In our book “Regional and Local Economic Development” we discuss critiques of the methods of economic impact assessment that are used to justify public investment in the construction of stadia or similar infrastructure for sports events. However, the thrust of my blog is to follow Libby Porter in arguing that the impact on the existing residents should be given significantly more attention, and those people deserve respect.

    You mention the Beijing Olympics. Again I should “come clean”. I was part of the jury for the design for the space around the “Bird’s Nest” Olympic stadium, though my recollection is that most of the site had already been cleared – or was undeveloped land – at the time of the competition. Perhaps for this reason I was less conscious of the displacement than at Qingdao. I was back in Beijing two years ago, and visited the area again. There had clearly been a major upgrade of transport infrastructure and public space, along with new housing that had been the games village. The Beijing Olympics, of course, had the much wider aim of putting China back on the world stage where it certainly belongs. Could that have been achieved with less displacement? I simply do not know.

    • Sam Caslin

      Thanks Cliff. I agree that it is a morally unsavory aspect of big regeneration projects and does need more attention.

      The “right to the city” is unfortunately an ethical argument rather than an economical one and will therefore play second fiddle more often than not. The skill is in regenerating an area without disenfranchising the current inhabitants. Historically I think the UK and particularly London has not been so good at this (Sorry, I appreciate this is meant to be a globally focused blog!). People want a home to live in, a job to go to and perhaps even something pleasant to do in their leisure time. What they end up with is a poorly paid job, if they are lucky and a high street with a starbucks and a tesco express on it.

      I think global cities are being forced to be a lot less sentimental about cultural roots of its boroughs and their traditional cultural and economic characteristics. Mega-cities are becoming a lot more ‘fluid’ and large regeneration projects merely intensify the subtle gentrification processes that have occurred in these cities over the past 50 years. To be competitive these cities have to be dynamic and this dynamism will inevitably mean that people move around a city or even out of a city to reflect there circumstances.

      It should also be noted that people are also dynamic and move in, around and out of cities for a whole variety of reasons and one would hope the ‘forced moves’ are a minority. Forced displacement is unfortunate but in these cases one would hope that the output does provide the inconvenienced inhabitants with greater opportunity. I appreciate this is an impossible thought to buy into when the government bulldozes you’re family home to build a velodrome.

      I now have to disclaim my comments by saying this is an outsiders view as I have never lived in a mega city and have spent most of my life in market towns.

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