Archive | August, 2012

The Olympic Legacy…First Hand.

12 Aug

With all the talk and excitement flying around about the London 2012 Olympics, I couldn’t help but weigh in with my experience at the games last week. My husband and I were fortuitous enough to attend the games in person this summer, and experience all that came along with it, including transportation, access, etc. I tried to soak in as much of the probably once-in-a-lifetime event as I could, shuffling myself between venues.

I love the culture and excitement of these 2 weeks as much as the next spectator, but of course, as an urban designer and planner, the question most on my mind is what will the legacy be for the Olympic Park? Its design was promised to transform the east side of London, desperately in need of redevelopment. It was entirely on this argument that London won the bid, showing the derelict and blighted conditions of East London, while Paris focused on what made it glorious, the Arc de Triomphe and the Louvre.

Future London 2012 Olympic Park

Rendering of the future of London 2012 Olympic Park (Image: London Legacy Development Corporation)

So with a big promise, London 2012, now has a big job ahead of them. As the Games came to a close this past weekend we need to ask, how does London ensure that its Olympic site will be a catalyst for regeneration and sustainably revive an entire part of the city?

I should say my Olympic experience is limited. London was my first visit to the Olympics, however, I did visit the Estadi Olímpic Lluís Companys in Barcelona in 2005, 13 years after it hosted in 1992. My trip to Barcelona set the status quo for the challenge that cities have in sustaining the life in their Olympic sites. We arrived to an abandoned site, locked from any passing visitors. Perched on a hilltop separated from the city, the tram that we took to the top ran infrequently and was empty. We took some pictures next to Calatrava’s Communication Tower (the most eloquent structure by far), and left disappointed by the experience. In truth, after the whole world attached a physical place with so much glory, how is it ever to live up to the same excitement again? … it can’t.

Other cities have programmed the life out of their Olympic sites to try to keep them alive. Atlanta transformed its venues for every day use well, and Sydney has added accommodation and entertainment venues to make it more of an attraction. It’s website portrays a healthy and active place. Perhaps these two cities have had more time to transform their parks, because the documented current conditions of Athens and Beijing have been not so successful.

Both Athens and Beijing Olympic Parks currently suffer from lack of investment and maintenance. Venues have fallen into disrepair and calls for development have been made. It appears that there was little consideration for a legacy.

Run Down Olympic Venues Athens Beijing

The top pictures show the dilapidated conditions of the Athens Olympic Park, the bottom showing the poorly maintained conditions of Beijing’s venues. (Images: SF Gate and Yahoo Sports)

From all appearances, London has made the wise choice to not preserve the Olympic site as it is, but instead transform it to what it needs to be. The venues that did not serve a purpose for the community were built to be temporary; the ones that were needed received the highest quality of design and construction. This strategic urban and site planning, allowed them to concentrate funding where it would matter the most, and plan the temporary venues in locations that could be transformed with the most ease.

That was very apparent when I visited the Olympic site. A large park lining a canal served as the spine that gave structure to the rest of the site. It clearly was very well-funded, and intelligently planted with indigenous plant and wild flowers, which require little maintenance. The venues that would serve the community after the Games, were beautifully designed. The Velodrome that I affectionately call the “Pringle,” is one of the most beautiful buildings I have ever seen.

Also, beautifully designed was the Aquatic Center. While the community needed a swimming facility, they did not need one that was large enough to accommodate an Olympic audience. Therefore, the center was designed to be transformed and reduced in size after the Games. Attached to each end, were large temporary stands. The distinction between the two structures was apparent.

The same is true of the fate of the Olympic Stadium. Commonly preserved in its Olympic state, stadiums can often suffer from not having a common use after the Games. Like the stadium in Atlanta, which was turned over to the Atlanta Braves, the stadium in London will be turned over to a professional soccer team, most likely Westham United. It will be restructured, reduced in size, to accommodate the appropriate sized audience.

London 2012 Venues

The “Pringle,” permanent segment of the Aquatic Center, and the Olympic Stadium.

Other venues were apparently very temporary. The Riverbank Hockey Centre and the BMX track were nothing but glorified scaffolding. Some studios and support buildings were made out of stacked shipping containers. When I turned to corner, or looked a little too closely, I could see the inter-workings of the games barely hidden behind some slipped canvas on a fence.  The basketball arena, even though beautifully designed, will be taken down and rebuilt in Rio for the 2016 Olympics.

Shipping Containders London

TV studios and office made from shipping containers.

The result, at least for me, was that it did not feel magical. It did not feel like the Olympic site was designed to create a perfect experience for the Olympic visitor. There were holes and gaps in the perfection.

That was refreshing.

Below are two site plans, the right as it is now, and the left, how it will transformed. The heart of the Olympic village that surrounds the park will be preserved, and the parts of the site that border existing neighborhoods will be redeveloped as mixed-use developments. This will serve as a buffer between parts of the city that are in the most desperate need of redevelopment and the uniqueness of the remaining Olympic venues. While it is still to be determined how sustainably designed these neighborhoods will be, the site plan is promising.

At the very least, the largest mall in Europe and a world-class international high-speed train station that will soon overtake the famous Victoria station in trips, ensure the Park will be well-visited and benefit from good access. The site planning strategy and greater regional planning by London will ensure the Park’s legacy and future success.

London 2012 Olympics Legacy Master Plans

Right: London 2012 Olympic Park designed for the Olympic Games; Left: the Park transformed after the Games (Image: London Legacy Development Corporation)

In addition to the physical design of the site, it is also programmed for the following uses:

  • Part of the East London Tech City Technology hub.
  • The largest urban park in Europe, designed specifically to enrich local ecology through wetlands and native species.
  • A new university will be founded that will specialize in sport science, digital media, and green technology.
  • The facilities will be open to the public.
  • The Olympic Village will be converted to apartments.
  • Allotments will be reinstated and created.

London creatively used other existing venues throughout the city, and south of the country, to minimize the size and impact of the Olympic park. The most exciting Olympic experience might have been watching beach volleyball in temporary stands in the heart of Horse Guards Parade. London had enough foresight to take advantage of the beautiful architecture filled in the city…why build a stadium, when a historic building would be more beautiful.

Not only did this allow funds to be used appropriately to ensure the Olympic site’s legacy, it also made the games run more sustainably and efficiently. With events spread out throughout the city, public transportation never became to crowded or bogged down. We could walk, train, and drive everywhere we needed to go with ease.

Horse Guards Parade London 2012

The beautiful back drop of the beach volleyball venue at Horse Guards Parade in London.

Only time will tell if London’s Olympic Park will suffer the same fate as Beijing and Athens, or the redevelopment success of Atlanta and Sydney. However, from a first hand experience of the Games, it is clear that the foundation for greatness has been set. Investment, maintenance, and a commitment to the legacy the city has promised will determine the future of East London.

Erin’s Google+

Urban Designer Series: Robert Moses

3 Aug

In an attempt to dive a little deeper into what urban design is, and how it became the important profession that it is today, I have decided to start an “Urban Designer” series. Periodically, I will look at the most well-known urban design writers, scholars, and professionals throughout history and contemporary society. Some will have created the most influential of design movements, some will have created controversy, some will have answered the challenges created by those, some will answer the most pertinent issues of today. Most importantly with this series, I hope to paint a picture of the vast array of opinions and views of built environment professionals, but highlight the fact that the greatest focus on very similar principles.

There are many urban designers that this series could begin with like Kevin Lynch, Gordon Cullen, or Jane Jacobs : many are considered great in our history. However, I am beginning with the man whose urban planning philosophy was the precipice for the modern-day urban design profession. Without him, and the fore mentioned people who responded so passionately to his beliefs, I am not sure that I would have the career I do today.

Robert Moses

Robert Moses (Image: wikimedia)

His Philosophy and Work

Robert Moses began his career as an urban planner/highway engineer at the exact same time as the automobile was gaining favor and abundancy in America. Many would argue that it is no coincidence that his urban planning philosophy, in turn, was so car oriented. Moses came from a time when driving a car, was just not seen as utilitarian, it was seen as entertainment. As it became common place, planners shifted their focus from the experience of the pedestrian or the community, the experience of the driver. Robert Moses was not alone in his view, he just happened to be perpetuating it in the most high profile city in the world: New York City.

Moses was instrumental in the construction of the Triborough, Throgs Neck, Bronx-Whitestone, Henry Hudson, and the Verrazano Narrows bridges, as well as the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel, Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, Staten Island Expressway, the Cross-Bronx Crossway, the Belt Parkway, and Laurelton Parkway, just to name a few. Later in his career, the design of these roads shifted from a well-landscaped and beautified design, to the utilitarian highways we know today.

Moses was also a very political man, and had placed himself of a position of great influence. He was the Construction Manager in New York City after WWII and found himself in great favor with mayors and those who funded large construction projects. These bridges and highway systems he had masterminded made lots of money for the city, and in turn, he had power among other planning projects in the city. He also prohibited the creation of a city-wide Comprehensive Zoning Plan already underway, that would prohibited a majority of the visionary projects he had planned for New York City. With policy, funding, and politics in his corner there was little stopping him…New York was his.

No doubt influenced by other planners’ philosophy of the time, like Corbusier, Moses favored the eradication of “blight” and the construction of high-rise public housing projects. Historic neighborhoods and communities were bulldozed to make way for idealized and controlled housing plan across New York City. At the time these places were considered ghettos by many, and eradication was viewed as an improvement.  It’s been reported that unlike other public housing authorities, at least those planned by Moses were high-quality construction. And many of them still stand today. Robert Moses built 28,000 apartments based on Le Corbusier’s “Radiant City” design scheme. With the separation of people, especially pedestrians, from cars and ground floor activity, an idealized design of the concentration of residents surrounded by green space was favored. If you look at the east side waterfront of Manhattan, the housing projects from 14th street to the Brooklyn Bridge are the result of Moses’ work.

Jacob Riis

Robert Moses’ Manhattan public housing (Image: The Age of Nepotism)

His Legacy

Later, after duplicates of Moses’ work popped up all over the country, and led to worse blight than existed in the first place, his philosophy and work was questioned. Many cities today regret and constantly suffer from the social and economic impacts that have resulted from the highway segregation through urban fabric. Unpredicted by Moses, this is just one large negative impact that modernist urban planning had on communities. Moses would later witness that tower public housing led to the worse crime and ghetto conditions that cities had ever seen.

Some people have great respect for Robert Moses (many call him the Master Builder,) but if you ask most urban designers about him, they will quickly mention  Jane Jacobs. I will write about Jane Jacobs in the next post in this series, but it was her realization of the negativity of Moses’ practices (revolutionary at the time) and her direct and explicit opposition to his projects and political gusto that set the foundation for the urban design profession today. Quite simply, if there were no Robert Moses, there might not be a Jane Jacobs as we know her, and there might not be urban design.

Robert Moses was one of the most politically active members of the modernist planning movement, and perhaps implemented more of the ideas than anyone on the ground. And for this reason, he is a famous character in the fruition of urban design. The sacrifice of the pedestrian in favor of the car, and the eradication and segregation of existing communities (no matter how blighted or poor) was a unique urban planning view. Since the car was a new invention, until then planning was based on the most traditional principles: people. This major shift in planning philosophy changed the way people lived everyday of their life because of large changes in their built environment. This new way of thinking was adopted long enough for there to be a large transformation in many of America’s largest cities, including New York City.

This questioning of Robert Moses’ beliefs and some of his personal actions led to the end of his era of planning. Many would argue it began with his encouragement to demolish the historic Penn Station (a New York landmark) in favor of a much less impressive development. Subsequently, he proposed that Greenwich Village and Soho be eradicated for the construction of a highway. This met so much opposition, it never occurred. Finally, he committed political suicide when he went up against governor, Nelson Rockefeller, who wanted to use toll money from one of Moses’ bridges to fund public transportation. No longer having the mayor’s trust and allegiance, Moses’ project ideas fell on deaf ears.

Old Penn Station NYC

The original Penn Station before demoltion (Image:Architecture Here and There)

In the late 1970s and early 1980s is when urban design really became a vocation and later evolved into a profession. Before, that term truly wasn’t recognized. There was no need to return to traditional urban planning because it hadn’t been abandoned. Today, most urban designers (or at least everyone I’ve worked with) continue to work against the philosophy of Robert Moses. While most planners realize the destruction his work had on the city, its heritage, and communities, there is still a huge dependence on automobiles that still must be considered in policy making and development every day.

Robert Moses does have a positive legacy with his development of Long Island and the New York State Park system. Unfortunately that is often ignored due to the result of the 13 highways in New York City that have resulted in the eradication in the city’s character. There is no doubt, despite his ideas, that he was a huge influence in the creation of the urban design profession, which has been instrumental in sustainable design and development. And for that, we can be grateful for his career.

Erin’s Google+

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