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2017-12-25 03:57:49 Commentary

Ever since London’s Great Exhibition in 1851, countries that participate in what is now known as the World Expo have used the so-called mega events to showcase their unique cultural characteristics and innovations. Large-scale events are not only great promotion for a city, but can also be used to address issues like rundown urban infrastructure or dilapidated housing.

Mega events are unique opportunities for urban planners and municipal governments, but carry significant long-term impacts. Post-event usage of specially built venues and surrounding areas — often referred to as the event’s “legacy” — requires a smart strategy. Unfortunately, the history of mega events shows that in most cases the legacy is a failure, leaving the host city with heavy financial burdens and empty venues. 

The New York Exposition of 1964, the 1976 Montreal Olympics, and Hanover’s Expo 2000 all ended in financial fiascos. After the 2004 Athens Olympics, investment dried up, leaving behind a slew of oversized, disused buildings and stadiums. Indeed, the impact of mega events can depend on the distribution of the venues: World Expos are usually located at an expansive area on the outskirts of a city, which struggles to attract investment following the exhibition. Olympic venues, meanwhile, are usually spread out over a number of large sites, making them relatively easier to transform and reuse for other events and purposes.

Barcelona ’92 is frequently invoked as a model for transforming the Olympics through the long-term regeneration of part of the city. In the run-up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Chinese officials visited Barcelona and found the Spanish model wanting. For Beijing’s planning authority, their booming metropolis didn’t need the Games to prove itself; to compete with other mega cities, the city was largely rebuilt to make room for a new, wealthier middle class.

Yet Beijing’s post-Olympic legacy has also been subject to some criticism. The city’s Olympic strategists initially engaged private investors in the development of the venues to ensure that no venue would lie empty after the closing ceremony. The National Stadium, commonly known as the “Bird’s Nest” and designed by Swiss architecture firm Herzog & de Meuron, was developed in a public-private partnership and commercially operated after the Olympics. The Beijing National Aquatics Centre, meanwhile, was funded by donations from Chinese living abroad. After the Games, it was transformed into a commercial water park for family use. However, both venues remain unused for most of the year, save for a few high-profile concerts, soccer matches, and water sports competitions.

The vitality of China’s host cities is undermined by a lack of long-term strategy and draconian demands that citizens change their behaviors.

In Shanghai, planning authorities located Expo 2010 in a relatively central urban area, deliberately aiming to further densify the city instead of contributing to the suburban sprawl. Previously, Shanghai Expo Park was a harbor area with shipyards and heavy industry. The Expo gave officials a chance to cleanup the waterfronts and to reconnect the city with the water.

In terms of transport infrastructure, the Shanghai Expo’s legacy has been well-maintained. The city invested heavily in new subway lines and bridges, while Hongqiao Airport was expanded and refurbished. More than 10 kilometers of public waterfront was created.

The plans to reuse the Expo site are ambitious, but the site has yet been fully redeveloped. During my frequent visits to the site, I observed that the central park on the river’s south bank was walled off and poorly maintained, attracting only a handful of daily visitors. The Expo Village, built to house some 10,000 officials and journalists during the event, has lain largely uninhabited since the closing ceremony and was recently transformed into a gated community, virtually inaccessible to the public.

Shanghai houses positive exceptions. The Power Station of Art is now home to one of China’s most avant-garde galleries, while the China Art Museum and the Mercedes Benz Arena still play host to popular events. However, most of the other buildings have been demolished; and on the south bank of the river, a dozen office towers have been under construction for more than a year without showing signs of real progress.

And so, more than seven years after the event, the Expo is yet to realize its oft-quoted slogan: “Better City, Better Life.” Meanwhile, in the countryside outside Shanghai, huge residential and commercial buildings sprawl across fertile agricultural land. Why not transform the former Expo areas into vibrant, high-density housing, instead of unneeded office towers and malls?

Urbanization is often accompanied by the formalization of our city spaces. During the preparations for the Olympics and the Expo, Beijing and Shanghai respectively clamped down on “informal” behavior. In the name of presenting a “civilized” and “modern” face to the world, for example, media campaigns encouraged urbanites to hang their washing indoors instead of on roadside racks. The Shanghainese, many of whom casually wear pajamas on the street in hot summer months, were told to spruce up a bit. Such campaigns only harm the liveliness and local identity of China’s cities.

For municipal officials, mega events are great opportunities for revitalizing the city. But too often, the vitality of the host city is undermined by a lack of long-term strategy and, in China at least, draconian demands that citizens change their behaviors to make their urban areas interesting to outsiders. In the race towards vaguely defined goals of modernization, Chinese cities, which develop rapidly and on huge scales, urgently need more resilient planning principles to sustain themselves. Otherwise, the short-term euphoria of a mega event will only give rise to future urban headaches.

Editors: Yang Xiaozhou and Matthew Walsh.

(Header image: Aerial view of Bird's Nest Olympic stadium in Beijing, Oct. 11, 2017. Chen Xiaogen/VCG)