Guest Post by Maulik Bansal
Today more people live in urban areas than ever before. Our cities are changing rapidly and will continue to do so, and a resilient city may be one that is flexible and adaptable to these changing conditions in social, economical and physical development. Over the last decade, China and the Gulf region have been driven by economic stimulus and authoritarian governments that are able to rapidly and comprehensively change the shape of their urban structure and heritage, though sometimes in disputable and non-democratic ways. It may be argued that such interventions are often associated with authoritative governmental role. But this article contends that it is often the paradigm of intervention itself that enables the government to adopt such a role.
One such paradigm is the mega event, and its perception as a symbol of the resilience and strength of an economy, supposedly representative of the aspirations of its people. As John Short mentions in his 2008 article ‘Globalization, cities and the Summer Olympics’ published in City,
“Across the world city elites are promoting a global city imaginary; a vision of a self-consciously ‘global’ city replete with images of busy international airports, foreign tourists, inward investment, a cosmopolitan atmosphere, creative industries, cultural economies and an overwhelmingly positive image shared around the world.”
However, the scope of the event transcends mere advertising, and becomes a catalyst for significant urban renewal and socio-economic change. Here, it is not the projection of an identity, but the actual manufacturing of it that takes center stage. Here, lies the critical point of juncture – a ‘make-or-break’ situation – that the city is faced with. Facing ever-increasing pressures
of time, cost and prestige, there is a danger that the city may be forced to make quick, uncompromising decisions. As John Short says in his 2008 article ‘Globalization, cities and the Summer Olympics’ published in City,
“The Games start on a specific date with a global audience. The brute reality of such a severe deadline overcomes political resistances, bureaucratic logjams and administrative inertia.”
There is little room left for patient negotiation. Furthermore, the values embedded in the new identity are informed by the culture of consumption and leisure. The global arena is the new client, and the media is the new manager that dictates and communicates all interventions.
Yet, nothing could be more distant from the reality of cities from developing economies. Not only is any sense of socio-economic reality – poverty, segregation, and gentrification – lost, but a sense of history, culture and ethos also gets diluted. The ‘global imaginary city’ has no roots. It is no longer a reflection of reality, but rather pretence of it. The pursuit of pretence disconnects the development of the mega-event from the place.
The cities of emerging economies, loosely termed as emerging global cities, thus represent a state of constant flux, a sort of schizophrenia. The undeniable reality of the present constantly counterpoints the benchmarks set by the utopian model, separated by time and place, but, connected by aspiration. The frenetic pace of urbanization, spurred on by the arrival of the mega-event, only exacerbates this situation.
Many such questions face organizing committees in charge of the legacy of such events. The concept of legacy stems from a concern about what is essential for the city’s development and long-term sustenance. If legacy planning tries to ensure that the development carried out for the purpose of specific short-term events is relevant to the locality and the city in the long run, it must stand for all aspects of the event including physical development, social and political processes, and citizenship.
There are far too many precedents of urban renewal projects becoming showcases for gentrification and forcible evictions of low-income communities. Rio de Janeiro is set to stage the world’s two largest sport events, FIFA World Cup in 2014 and the Summer Olympic Games in 2016. The city is already notorious for its blatantly visible economic segregation, crime and violence. How does the urban renewal proposed through these games address these issues? Is it different from the authoritarian stand taken by China for the Beijing Olympics? Can Rio de Janeiro showcase its citizens with respect and dignity?
In the next couple of posts I will explore the Olympic Games proposal for Rio de Janeiro 2016, with particular focus on the urban legacy of the Olympic Villages and Olympic Park. These developments are typically oriented to the tourist, meant for a three-week period and then, hopefully turned around to cater to the citizen. Citizenship is not a character trait of the tourist. There is a fundamental disconnect between the two approaches, and these articles explore Rio’s attempt at bridging this divide. The current trends tend to result in strong cynicism, detachment, and at its worst, despair and hopelessness in the people. A positive outcome is critical for these societies, as it can generate pride and a sense of belonging — essential ingredients for civic life and a healthy future.
Maulik Bansal is an urban designer and architect. He completed his undergraduate studies from the TVB School of Habitat Studies, New Delhi and worked in India as an architect for over nine years before choosing to pursue his Masters in Urban Design from the University of California, Berkeley. He has also been a visiting faculty in colleges around Delhi, and has conducted research trips and studios with undergraduates over four years. Maulik’s urban design thesis focused on the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, demonstrating strategies that can be adopted in order to ensure that the growth and development related with a mega-event is continually integrated with the national, regional and local long-term objectives.