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Olympian steps for sustainability

Sustainable development and regeneration – has London done enough?

When the torch is lit to launch the 2012 Summer Olympics in London this July, planners maintain it will be the greenest Games in history. And with a couple of generations of lessons learned — good and bad — from previous Olympic efforts, they may well prove to be correct. The trend line of Olympic Games in recent decades shows a steadily increasing focus on sustainability as it relates to land use and real estate development. With the 2012 London Olympics right around the corner and Rio de Janeiro already planning for the 2016 Games, the time is right to look at the evolution of sustainability as envisioned by Olympic planners — past, present and future.

First, it’s important to understand that “sustainability” in this context means much more than simply setting up recycling bins around the Olympic Village and seeking ways to reduce the carbon footprint of the Games. In its most generic form, “sustainability” refers to activities that can be sustained indefinitely. The term is appropriately applied to environmental concerns as an antidote to non-renewable resources, non-recyclable products, and pollution of our air and water supply — all activities that lead to an ecological dead end. But cities are also concerned with social and economic sustainability, practices that help ensure the long-term viability of the region in terms of attracting residents and businesses and enabling them to thrive. Hosting the Olympics costs a city millions of dollars that can’t easily be recaptured during the Games themselves; what happens at the site and across the city after the Games is what ultimately decides whether hosting the Olympics was financially worthwhile.

For cities, economic and environmental sustainability in particular are highly interconnected concepts. Environmental programs to improve air quality, address climate change threats or plant trees hold direct and indirect economic benefits, such as promoting public health and helping to attract environmentally conscious residents and businesses. Land use and real estate development strategies are also central to both economic and environmental sustainability, particularly because any large-scale development will be in place for decades and must be viable from a financial and ecological standpoint over the long term.

This long-term focus requires Olympic host cities to consider how land sites will be used long after the Games are over. The Olympics places a spotlight on a city, hopefully to advance its position on the world stage and help establish sustainable economic growth. But a poorly planned development - one that fails to consider what will become of Olympic sites and buildings after the Games are over — can drive a city into debt, squander economic development opportunities, and potentially damage its international reputation. Recent Olympic host cities have shown they understand the stakes by considering the long-term economic and environmental sustainability of sites in their development plans.

Reining in “bigness”

For the first half-century, the Olympic Games were a relatively modest, if important, sports extravaganza. That began to change with the first television broadcast of the games outside of the host country in 1956. Viewership increased exponentially with the first worldwide satellite broadcast in 1964, and had reached an estimated 600 million during the Mexico City Summer Olympics of 1968. Increasingly, the whole world was watching the Olympic Games, and host cities ramped up the level—and expense—of their spectacle to make a global impression.

Like a spent marathon runner, Olympic “bigness” hit the wall at the Montreal Summer Games of 1976. The city, flush with success from its 1967 Montreal Expo - considered one of the most successful World’s Fairs ever - was eager to expand on its new cosmopolitan stature with a no-holds-barred financial approach to its Olympic Games. Mayor Jean Drapeau, who had presided over the well-attended Expo 67, famously declared that, “The Olympics can no more lose money than a man can have a baby.” He estimated that Montreal could stage the games for only $310 million.

To everyone’s shock the eventual cost spiraled to a then-staggering $1.5 billion, more than $1 billion of which was spent on a new Olympic Stadium alone. Its complex design was to include the world’s tallest inclined tower, and the first retractable roof on an outdoor facility. The overreaching project became an embarrassment: The tower and retractable roof were not completed until the 1980s; and even then, the roof performed so poorly that it was removed a decade later. After the Montreal Expos baseball team left the city in 2004, the 66,000-seat stadium has been used only sporadically while accruing maintenance costs, and its debt was not fully repaid until 2006—30 years after it had hosted the Olympic Games.

After a multi-nation Olympic boycott in 1980, Los Angeles hosted the 1984 Summer Games with the clear intent not to fall into Montreal’s trap. Though “sustainability” was not yet a household word, the city embraced the re-use concept by using existing facilities, including the main stadium which had been originally constructed for the 1932 Summer Games. Only two of the 31 venues were newly constructed, and those were covered by corporate sponsorships. The Los Angeles 1984 Games are considered among the most financially successful ever, and a victory for adaptive re-use of facilities such as the Rose Bowl, which hosted the football (soccer) final.

Toward a greener Games

In 1994 the International Olympic Committee added “Environment” to “Sport” and “Culture” as a guiding principle. As such, the 1996 Summer Games in Atlanta advanced the concept of new Olympic development from the start with an eye toward a legacy of community service after the athletes had gone home. For the first time, more than token consideration was given to sustainable re-use of new Olympic construction after the Games. The Olympic Village and Centennial Olympic Park, a major gathering area for spectators and athletes, was repurposed from a run-down area of the city. Mid-rise dormitories in the Olympic Village were successfully converted to college student housing after the Games, and the park is now one of Atlanta’s most-visited destinations. The 1996 Summer Olympics utilized nearby landmarks such as the Georgia World Congress Center and Georgia Dome, and subsequent developments immediately north of Centennial Park, including Georgia Aquarium and the New World of Coca-Cola, were made possible by the revitalization of the area due to the Olympics. Even the newly-built Olympic Stadium was designed upfront to be reconfigured after the Games into a new home for baseball’s Atlanta Braves, now known as Turner Field, with seating reduced by 40 percent to save maintenance costs.

The 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney were considered not only a global coming-out party for the city “down under,” but also a showcase for world-leading sustainability efforts in Australia. The Games were sited on a spent riverfront industrial brownfield that had previously housed a brickworks, slaughterhouse and eight rubbish dumps. The end result was an Olympic Village that became the world’s largest solar powered settlement at that time, comprising 2,000 residences with capacity for 5,000 people, all powered by 19,000 solar collectors capable of producing 160,000 killowatt hours. Many of the competition venues generated their own clean power as well, and virtually all the main Olympic sites were served by public transportation, including a ferry service that was commissioned just before the Games. After the festivities the site became the Sydney suburb of Newington, with a comprehensive sustainable plan for its next 30 years of growth.

Beijing raises the bar

In contrast to Sydney’s longtime environmental recognition, Beijing won the competition to host the 2008 Games as one of the most polluted major cities in the world. Chinese officials promised a green city by the competition date, and while their measurements have been questioned by some, many people were surprised by their genuine progress toward reducing the city’s carbon footprint. Though the nation definitely used the Beijing Olympics as a platform to “gain face” as a responsible world power, China realistically had no choice but to address an environmental condition that had dramatically worsened during almost 30 years of near or above double-digit growth in gross domestic product (GDP).

Between 2001 and 2008, an estimated USD $17 billion was directed toward a series of 20 key environmental commitments environmental improvements such as:

  • Extension of public transit from 113 kilometers to 197 kilometers of track, and building 53 new stations to help reduce the estimated 1,200 cars that were being added to Beijing streets daily.
  • Planting a 126-kilometer ring of trees around Beijing to help absorb surrounding pollen and dust before it enters the city. To help cleanse air within the city, 720 acres or green space — three times the size of New York’s Central Park — were cleared and planted with more than 30 million trees and rosebushes.
  • Renewable technologies such as a 130 kilowatt solar array to light the National Stadium, and a geothermal system deployed for heating and air conditioning at the Olympic Green Tennis Center. Overall, more than 20 percent of all electricity supplied to the venues came from renewable energy.Vehicle emissions standards were raised to a Euro IV level shortly before the Games.
  • The number of “blue sky” days — with an Air Pollution Index of 100 or below — rose from less than 180 days in 2000 to 274 days in 2008. Though this measurement raised some skepticism since it was not verified outside of China, a post-Games report by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) concludes that the air athletes and spectators in Beijing breathed in August 2008 was much cleaner than in previous years. Though conceding that weather conditions at the time in Beijing such as evening showers and wind directions played a helpful role, city conditions showed reductions of 47 percent in carbon monoxide, 30 percent in volatile organic compounds, 20 percent in particulate matter, and 14 percent in sulfur dioxide. City authorities also achieved a complete phase-out of hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs) 22 years ahead of their 2030 target.
  • Waste classification and recycling goals were exceeded by 2 and 5 percent, respectively. Hazardous and medical waste treatment facilities were expanded and updated, all solid waste was sorted in venues, and the recycling rate in the Olympic venues was 23 percent higher than the committed level.

From a development standpoint, from the visually spectacular venues such as the “Bird’s Nest” National Stadium and Aquatics Center to the huge Olympic Green park that housed venues and athletes, Olympic sites are being actively used for sporting events or redeveloped for housing or other useful purposes. The sustainability of Beijing’s other achievements, particularly in air quality, are more subject to debate. Researchers from the World Health Organization found that soot particles smaller than 2.5 microns, which are not subject to Chinese standards, exceeded safe limits for the entire duration of the Games.

A team of scientists from Oregon State University in the U.S. and Peking University in China went further in pronouncing the Beijing Games as the most polluted Olympic event ever, with air contaminant levels 2-4 times higher than Los Angeles on an average day. Soot levels were allegedly 3.5 times higher than at the Sydney Games, the cleanest Summer Olympics of the 21st century. The researchers, who took samples before, during and after the games and published their findings in the journal Environmental Science and Technology, found pollution levels about one-third higher than Chinese government officials claimed. Other critics pointed out that even the air quality increase Beijing achieved was due in part to “artificial” means such as factory shutdowns and vehicle use restrictions prior to the games that were not maintained. Even the relatively benign UNEP report noted that, “there remains significant room to improve Beijing’s air quality.”

On the other hand, questionable as Beijing’s air properties were, its “before and after” improvement rate was arguably equal to or better than most other Games. Ultimately, the 2008 Beijing Olympics probably served as a laboratory for obtaining aggressive sustainable improvements mandated in China’s more recent Five-Year Plan, rolled out in 2011. Included in the plan’s national requirements are reduction of carbon emissions per unit of GDP of 17 percent and an increase in the percentage of clean fuels in China’s energy consumption mix.

London calling: what’s in store for 2012?

Organizers of the 2012 London Olympics have promised the greenest Games ever, a guarantee that even the most optimistic Beijing principals declined to offer. Teaming with worldwide environmental groups such as the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and BioRegional, London has created a “One Planet Olympics” concept to position the world’s premier gathering as a model for global sustainable communities. The plan’s holistic goals covering energy¸ carbon, water and waste reduction; biodiversity; access and inclusion; health and employment, include:

  • The development of a decentralized energy network using Combined Heat and Power (CHP) technology. These systems are built around a network of local infrastructure, taking advantage of efficiencies gained from producing and consuming energy “locally” — typically saving up to 30 percent when compared to standard national grid-supplied electricity and individual housing unit heating.
  • Use of renewable sources for 20 percent of energy needs. This target is in jeopardy; Bloomberg Businessweek has reported that due to unforeseen problems such as an on-site 2 megawatt wind turbine that was scrapped for safety reasons, the Commission for a Sustainable London 2012 reduced its renewable energy forecast to 11 percent for the Games. However, organizers report that through other measures such as renting instead of buying many infrastructure components and cutting 969,000 square feet from venue spaces, overall carbon emission forecasts are about 315,000 metric tons—20 percent less than an estimate of two years ago.
  • Venues that are being designed to use 40 percent less water, and athlete housing 30 percent less, than standard. Much of the improvement will come from a dual system in new buildings with separate supplies of drinking and recycled water, to assure that potable water will be used only when necessary.
  • Instead of the frequent practice of landfilling contaminated soil - which only shifts the problem from one spot to another - Olympic authorities have chosen to clean up all contaminated soil on site, using five soil washing machines and a bioremediation plant that will clean 1.3 million tons of soil by the time they are finished.
  • Reclamation and reuse/recycling of 90 percent of demolition waste by weight. To date, that goal has been exceeded with a remarkable 98 percent demolition waste reclamation. In addition, 63 percent of new construction materials have been transported to Olympic Park by rail or water.
  • As part of a pledge to send zero waste to landfill during the Games, food packaging that cannot be re-used or re-cycled will be made from compostable materials such as starch and cellulose-based bioplastics. After use, many of these materials will be suitable for anaerobic digestion, enabling them to be converted into renewable energy.
  • Making the Olympic Park one of the most nature-friendly Games-related venues ever, with 45 hectares of wildlife wetland habitat and 675 bird nesting boxes ensuring that otters, swans, bats and scores of other wildlife will occupy the same area as athletes and spectators. In addition, remediation of invasive Japanese knotweed has enabled more diverse native species to proliferate.

Perhaps the most advanced green thinking applied to the London initiatives is the concept of not just adapting Olympic Park and sporting venues to post-Olympic use, but making their sustainable legacy the primary consideration in all design and planning. Flats built for about 17,000 athletes have been built specifically to be used after the Games, as are 12,000 additional new homes surrounding the Olympic Village in Stratford City, an East London development located close to the city center on the site of a former railroad yard. A new legacy shopping center in Stratford City designed for Olympic use and beyond is also exemplary in its design, making use of natural light, effective insulation, high efficiency lighting, heating and cooling, and control of solar gain to ensure that the buildings are at least 10 percent more energy efficient than local regulations require. The center will use a 250,000 square foot rainwater system for toilet flushing,

In June 2012, Jones Lang LaSalle is also publishing a more in-depth white paper on the sustainability achievements of the London Olympics and its impact on the broader industry. When this White Paper is published, it will be made available on the Global Sustainability Perspective website.

Rio and the rainforest

Like London, Rio de Janeiro ran on a strong environmental theme, “Green Games for a Blue Planet,” to help win hosting of the 2016 Summer Olympic Games. And as with Beijing, the host nation — in this case, Brazil — will use the Games to position itself as a first-tier global superpower with the seventh-largest gross domestic product.

Environmentally, Rio already has some sustainable distinctions from other Olympic host cities. For one thing, according to the Major Events International information portal, a whopping 45 percent of Brazil’s energy already comes from renewable sources. The city’s goal is to power 100 percent of its public transportation with clean biodiesel ethanol by the Games, and create a network of bike paths connecting all Olympic facilities.

On the downside, according to the Rio 2016 Sustainability Management Plan, as of 2008, only 32 percent of the waste dumped into Rio’s bays was treated. Officials have set an ambitious goal of 80 percent treated sewage by the beginning of the Games in 2016. Like Los Angeles and Atlanta, Rio will “recycle” many existing facilities for key events including the opening and closing ceremonies, track and field, football, aquatics, basketball, volleyball and gymnastics. And like post-millennial Games, much of the energy for new venues will come from renewable sources.

One of the most dazzling components of the 2016 Rio Games should be its Olympic Village, a green paradise of flora and fauna meant to emulate the Amazon rainforest. It remains to be seen whether this verdant park will call to attention the plight of Brazil’s actual receding rainforest, much as media attention — and television cameras - in 2008 focused on the continual haze in Beijing. Some critics have already pointed out that regardless of what Brazil does at Olympic venues, its greatest sustainable legacy would be to reverse deforestation of the Amazon jungle, an act considered by many to affect global climate change. With the eyes of the world on Brazil, the nation’s leaders may consider strengthening their efforts to preserve one of the planet’s greatest natural resources.

One thing is clear: Regardless of who wins the individual events at London, Rio and beyond, it seems that the Olympic Games will permanently encourage a gold medal performance for sustainability.

Jones Lang LaSalle’s Olympics track record

Jones Lang LaSalle has a strong track record in advising on Olympic infrastructure related projects, particularly in the area of city regeneration.

For Beijing 2008, Jones Lang LaSalle helped deliver a sustainable legacy for China. From working with the Chinese government on their Olympic vision, to contributing to more than 45 million sq ft of Olympics-related properties, including the “Bird’s Nest” national stadium, the Olympic Village and International Convention Centre, we helped produce unforgettable Games.

Whilst much of our work for the London 2012 Olympics remains confidential we have been from early on, and continue today, key project advisers to the implementation and policy bodies involved in delivering the games.
In the bidding stage of the Olympics we advised the London Development Agency and its stakeholder partners on the investment framework for the Lower Lea Valley (LLV) Regeneration Strategy and from early in the process we have been involved in a variety of stages for the Olympic stadium and include a legacy option analysis for the venue. More widely we have also acted and continue to act as development advisor to a joint venture for the creation of a “metropolitan centre” for east London at Stratford.

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For further information please contact:
Katie Kopec, Director - Development Consulting

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