Olympic Scale Regeneration

Cover image credit: Bird’s Nest Olympic Stadium. Taken August 18, 2008. Photo image courtesy of  flickr.com/jonparry/

by Anthony Brower + Ken Hall

Imagine if every four years, the Olympic Games was also a competition between nations to demonstrate evolving into ‘living environments’ that regenerate cultural, economic and ecological resources by design. The Olympics provide an unparalleled opportunity for the design community to spotlight how we can leverage large scale design and construction projects to evolve revitalized communities and localized economies.

The scale of Olympic infrastructure spans from individual spaces to regional systems of energy, food and transportation. As designers, we seek to create synergies across these scales to foster rich and resilient value adding solutions for all stakeholders. The power of design continues to grow exponentially as we repair and reconnect more parts of our living world. The Olympics presents us with a unique opportunity to create keystone solutions on a scale that strengthens connections between local places and the larger bio-region, revitalizing the ways cities connect with each other and their rural life support system.

Willowbrook MLK Wellness Community
Brian Glodney | Gensler: 2012

However, the story of Olympic host cities in the last 30-years reveals they have enabled both negative and positive results ranging from abandoned venues and drug assisted scandals to full-scale city transformation and revitalization. Implementation and success during the games aside, one common thread seems to define how cities have persevered after the Olympians returned home. Cities that look ahead and plan for the future use of built facilities and integrating venue needs with aspects of the city that need to be improved have used the games to build enduring resiliency into their cities. Those that have hosted the “event” with little thought of post Olympic development have been left in debt with a litany of abandoned facilities.

One of the challenges inherent to designing for the Olympics is working with the combinations of different building types the games require. Venues, temporary office spaces and new modes of transportation present vastly different design challenges which will need to evolve into new uses after the event.  Design for disassembly enables the short term change after games, and the long term change for uses that cannot be anticipated now. The key opportunity for designers is to encourage the flows of sun, wind, light and water that encourage human health, comfort and productivity while minimizing energy, toxicity and material use.

For example, district heating and cooling systems with cogeneration using local bio-fuels take advantage of scale beyond individual buildings. Likewise, jumping scale gives urban environments the opportunity to function as the engines that restore the abundance and cleanliness of our water supplies. Sharing rainwater collection and storage enables water independent districts. Likewise, designing for stormwater flow can minimize soil runoff using ‘living systems’ of plants and fish clean pollutant from our water.

Designers can also use economies of scale to incentivize manufacturers to stop using chemicals of concern and take advantage of life cycle assessment to utilize materials with lower embodied energy.  Techniques from industrial ecology show how we can create business ecosystems that form closed loops of material flow, making them more profitable and efficient.

Communities occur across all scales, from a community of rooms (house) to a community of buildings (neighborhood) to communities of towns that enable dense urban cities to function. Our opportunity with large infrastructure projects such as the Olympic Games is to provide for the efficient flow of people, materials and information across all of these scales. It is imperative that we provide extensive mobility options appropriate for each scale. These include walkways and bikeways connecting neighborhoods and communities with each other and regional resources, whiles also considering appropriate public transportation from local busses, to district trolleys, town light rail and high speed rail between regions and dense urban centers.

Diagramming Public Transit Spaces
Gensler: 2012

Critically, large scale projects are an opportunity to look at whole built and natural systems.  The health of society ultimately depends on the health of our economies, which are in turn dependent on the health of the ecosystems that sustain us. The power of design is to create a renewed, meaningful and healthy relationship between humanity and the living world that sustains us.  

As the Olympics evolve ever more able athletes, it should also evolve ever more able civilization and citizens. We favor a vision of a prosperous future that merges our living world with the built environment, weaving together all scales, from individual spaces to dense cities, and integrating them with the rural and natural landscapes that sustain them. This is how we can use the power of design to create a regenerative, prosperous future. 

Co-Author: Ken Hall is a writer, japanese carpenter and a licensed architect whose designs are informed by craftsmanship, anthropology, environmental science and information modeling.. Contact him at kenhall88@gmail.com.

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