Vancouver Strives for Longevity at Olympics

“We didn’t set out to wow the world with starchitects and world-class architecture that we may or may not be able to use in the future,” stated Brent Toderian, Vancouver planning director, about this year’s Olympics in an interview in the Design Observer (See “Olympics in the City,” by Nate Berg, Design Observer, 02.10.10). Perhaps a jab at Shanghai, but, as the interview describes, this year’s Olympics’ scaled back approach to urban design may positively impact the city in the long run. Vancouver’s strategy was to develop a framework for sustainable development, in every sense of the word. “We had envisioned a world-class sustainable community for the False Creek area long before the Olympics were ever a gleam in our eyes. It was intended to be the greenest community in North America.”

Instead of going for the impressive array of world-renowned architects, Vancouver called on local talent — individuals intimately familiar with the site and surroundings. Toderian discussed using the Athletes Village as a baseline case study for future growth. The city developed a passive design toolkit, urban agriculture guidelines, and implemented sewer heat recovery. In addition to the Athletes Village, various urban improvements included upgraded transportation; the installation of a subway to the airport from downtown; the implementation of a public art initiative throughout the city; even new zoning regulations were put into practice. With most of the development occurring in the downtown area, there was limited urban sprawl, a strategy for which Vancouver is often celebrated.

However, Vancouver is not without its protestors. The Olympics Resistance Network and No Olympics on Stolen Land claim that the games are causing unnecessary environmental damage to the mountains and forests and expelling local residents from their homes.

Nevertheless, it seems as if Vancouver is trying to establish a new way of developing its city, with the expectation that mindsets will change toward sustainable thinking. All Olympic cities struggle with the challenge of trying to prevent obsolescence once the games are over. As Toderian questioned, “What good is a model of it doesn’t change business as usual, if it doesn’t make everything that comes after it better?” Hopefully, Vancouver will not only change its own urban practices, but it will also prove to be influential for other cities, whether or not they are hosting an Olympics.