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Aerial view of sports facilities (Source: dpa)
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Urban transformation

July 26, 2012

The Olympics are about more than just sports these days. They also drive the transformation of urban space. Good city planning can turn the Games into a long-term success.


If you walk along one of the beaches or promenades of Barcelona today, it is hard to imagine that this place looked very different in the past. In the 1980s this lively and booming city on the Mediterranean was cut off from the sea by a 10-lane highway and railway tracks. Back then, all the sewage water went - unfiltered - straight into the ocean.

"Barcelona had all the stigmas of a negative place that you could think of," remembered city planner and architect Joan Busquets, who directed the city planning authority ahead of the 1992 Olympics. Opening up the city to the sea was one of the main elements of the building project for the Games. After the events, the Olympic village was turned into a mid-level residential area that became a model for a number of other housing projects along the shore.

Via the small wooden bridges that cross the narrow highway, it now only takes five minutes to get to the beach and the area is well connected, thanks to improved bus and train routes.

Barcelona's 10-lane highway of the 1980s; nowadays, a friendly place to walk
Barcelona's 10-lane highway of the 1980s; nowadays, a friendly place to walkImage: Architekturbüro BAU

Nestled between hills and sea

The best views of this new Barcelona can be seen from the cable car that goes from the ocean up a hill called Montjuic. From there, visitors can look down on the former port, which has since been turned into a huge entertainment park, the two iconic high-rises that date back to the Olympics, the famous golden fish sculpture by Frank Gehry, and Barceloneta, the old fishermen's district with its narrow alleys that remained untouched by the Olympic craze.

While the coast attracts both local visitors and tourists, the neighborhoods up on the hill are quiet and calm. Here is the Lluis-Companys Olympic stadium, which was opened in the 1920s. It was first intended to host the 1936 Olympics, which then went to Berlin instead.

When Barcelona was chosen to host the 1992 Games, it was clear that the symbolic stadium with its neo-classical façade would be one of the central venues of the event. For 12 years, the first-division football club Espanyol used the stadium, but since 2009, the sports venue has been looking for another calling. Regardless of whether or not the tourists taking pictures of the place can still feel something of the Olympic spirit, the Games turned a provincial town into a European metropolis.

Barcelona's coastline
Barcelona shines as a metropolis at the seaImage: DW

The rough part of town

Unlike in Barcelona, where the Games where hosted by venues in four different parts of town, London this year has focused events in one section of the city: Stratford in the East End. It is the most radical example of trying to develop things in accordance with the needs of the citizens.

"You could describe this project here as simply speeding up the city's development. The area had already been planned but it probably would have taken some 40 years. The Olympics are the engine driving all that forward," said Klaus Grewe of the planning committee.

Since the Middle Ages, the East End has been associated with gallows, sewage, sins, and slums - so the Olympic Games mark a major image shift for the area. London won the Games because of its focus on sustainability. A former industrial area was cleaned up, two million tons of earth were decontaminated, and thousands of trees where planted.

From the very beginning, the project focused more on what would happen in London after rather than during the Games. The stadiums will disappear come autumn or be scaled down like the swimming center designed by star architect Zaha Hadid. Other venues will be reworked, like a basketball stadium in the future will be used to host wedding parties for the Indians and Pakistanis living in the area.

The Olympic Stadium and surrounding area in London in a March, 2012 photo
Some London residents are already irked by the Olympic GamesImage: Reuters

Local discontentment

Despite the forward-thinking planning, the Games have become less and less popular with residents as the opening date approaches. The media has talked about the "Olympics lie," and there has been extensive coverage of the frustration, anger and fears of the residents and businesspeople, concerning expropriation of property, skyrocketing rents and the imminent traffic chaos. Complaints have also been made over allegedly unfair ticket sales and expensive rights to broadcast the events publically on big screens.

"Everybody here hates the Olympics," according to graffiti in the East End. The Olympics will have to prove whether they can still win over the locals in London.

Author: Ricarda Otte / ai
Editor: Kate Bowen

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