The rationale for organising urban sporting mega-events has been defended by international urban planning consultants as a way for cities to promote urban regeneration, achieving economic and spatial development in the ‘highly competitive environment’ of contemporary capitalism (Borja & Castells, 1997; Portas, 2003). They say that when hosting these events, a considerable amount of public and private investment in infrastructure, housing, services and employment-generating activities will be implemented in the city that would take longer to happen without them.
The conference “The State of the Legacy: Interrogating a decade of ‘Olympic Regeneration’ in East London” was designed to interrogate these assumptions (12–13th Sept, UCL at Here East, hosted by UCL Urban Lab and IGP, with Cardiff University, Oxford Brookes University and University of East London). As the name implies, its main objective was to interrogate the social, economic and physical results of the 2012 Olympic Games in East London, following on from the processes and impacts that the area has been experiencing since the closure of the docks in the 1980s and more recently with the organisation of the 2012 Olympic Games.
I participated in the conference as an academic from University of Sao Paolo’s School of Architecture and Urbanism who has visited East London since 1986 once every decade, and has a strong academic interest in both urban regeneration and sports mega-event planning for some time. As an ‘outsider’ I was struck by the process of accelerated change that has occurred in east London over the last decade. As a researcher specialising in the impacts of urban mega-events in Brazil, notably the FIFA World Cup of 2014 in Brazil and Rio Olympics of 2016, I have also analysed these processes in some detail.
Indeed, it is evident that the billionaire interests involved in these mega-events result in strong physical and socio-economic impacts on the city and its residents. Many authors have explored the impacts of mega-events regeneration, concluding that the predicted ‘trickle-down’ effect (once again evoked by Britain’s new Prime Minister Liz Truss) did not occur, and that there are both ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ in these process (Kassens-Noor, 2012; Watt, 2013; Nobre, 2017; Vainer et al, 2017; Oliveira et al, 2020). The main beneficiaries are landowners, developers, contractors, business, middle-class commuters and gentrifiers, whereas the losers are the low income, semi-skilled and unskilled local residents whose legitimate demands for employment, transport, better housing, health and education are not met.
The State of the Legacy conference was organised by a group of well-established critics of London 2012’s regeneration legacy for east London, and of the regeneration processes which predated it, including Penny Bernstock, Sue Brownill, Juliet Davis, Anna Minton and Saffron Woodcraft. The presentations, combining a mix of invited speakers and contributions received via an open call, revealed that the results of East London Olympic Regeneration have unfortunately followed the same logic. From the beginning, it became very clear that the promises of improvement to deprived areas benefited some specific groups, repeating previous experiences of East London Regeneration, notably the 1980s property led-regeneration implemented by the London Docklands Development Corporation as reported at that time (Brownill, 1990; UK DoE 1994; Tallon, 2010).
The conference targeted four main issues: the promise and the governance of legacy, employment and opportunities and the housing legacy. The first section revealed that the definition of legacy has changed according to political factors related to shifts in the local and national governments, starting with the first detailed bid document which detailed specific social and economic targets that would benefit east Londoners, and evolving into an absence of any concrete conceptual framework for the legacy.
The presentations demonstrated that the governance structures for delivering legacy have also shifted throughout time, including transnational, regeneration planning and sporting governance components, resulting in lack of accountability and transparency (Bernstock et al, 2022). In this sense, it followed the examples of other sporting mega-events trans-scale governance, whereby transnational agencies, mainly the International Olympic Committee or the FIFA Organizing Committee, establish the games rules, over-riding national legislation and defining the priority of works to be carried out, that sometimes become ‘white elephants’ afterwards (Kassens-Noor, 2012; Nobre, 2017; Vainer et al, 2017).
In relation to employment and opportunities, the main issue here is that neither has benefited the local people, despite the fact that regeneration promoted an impressive amount of urban development around the Olympic site and that there a considerable number of jobs was created. This rationale, the creation of local employment opportunities, was also used for the 2014 FIFA World Cup works in East São Paulo dormitory town of Itaquera, although in this case the resulting number of jobs was quite insignificant, while the works also caused the heating of the housing market and subsequent gentrification (Nobre, Bassani, & D’Ottaviano, 2017).
Similarly, as far as housing legacy is concerned for east London, the conference made clear that the mooted ‘model of social inclusion’ was not achieved and that the amount of affordable housing produced was quite insignificant. Without any real effort to promote affordable housing, sports mega-events regeneration can even worsen the situation of local residents through gentrification or, sometimes, even forced evictions. That is certainly the case of the Brazilian sports mega-events regeneration experience that has caused the eviction of hundreds of thousands of people from a long-standing population to move out of these areas, particularly in Rio de Janeiro that hosted both the 2014 FIFA World Cup and the 2016 Olympic Games (ANCOP, 2014).
The potential of community and university engagement for a more equitable urban regeneration
Something that also became quite clear in the conference is how important community engagement is from the beginning in order to fight the negative outcomes of sports mega-events regeneration, and that gave rise to the question of how universities could be involved in this process. In this sense, my contribution to the conference in the final Inclusive Housing Workshop Session was to present some Brazilian universities’ experiences in community empowerment, education and capacity building through community outreach projects, that might provide relevant insights to ongoing efforts to develop an inclusive housing model on the Olympic Park in London.
Since the federal legislation of the 1930s that governed university education in Brazil, one of the main established objectives for universities has been the development of society, seeking to extend the knowledge produced by universities to the community, forming the tripod Education, Research and Extension (from Portuguese Extensão) (Arantes 2022). During the 1980s some architecture and urbanism professors gathered in the so-called ‘housing laboratories’ and together with professional associations and social movements, began to teach extension courses (Pompéia, 2006). The idea was to help communities to find a way of meeting their housing demands based on community training in self-construction, using the technique of precast brick and concrete panels, afterwards adopted by some left-wing municipal governments.
Recently these experiences have developed into a variety of community outreach programs in many universities involving the community, professors, undergraduate and graduate students in issues such as land tenure regularisation, urban and architectural projects, rehabilitation of existing buildings, organisation of collective work, experiments into alternative technologies in building construction, infrastructure and agro-ecology (D’Ottaviano & Rovati, 2017).
The OCUPAS project is an example of this practice. It started in 2019, from a partnership between the School of Architecture and Urbanism of the University of São Paulo and two housing occupation (squatter) groups in central São Paulo (D’Ottaviano & Bassani, 2021). As a result of the collapse of an occupied building in the central area, the city of São Paulo carried out surveys of other similar buildings, identifying technical and safety problems that should be solved by the residents. The extension project arose precisely from the demand of the leaders of the housing movements for assistance in identifying problems, and proposing and implementing solutions. In two years, the project involved ten undergraduate and three graduate students, resulting in three graduate works and three master thesis.
From what we have seen so far, it seems that the involvement of engaged professors and researchers with the community can bring more equitable results to urban regeneration processes. This important theme opens up possibilities for common research and academic exchange for different universities and researchers throughout the world, working in the unequal contexts of mega-event legacy ‘regeneration’.
Eduardo Nobre is the editor of Sports Mega-Events and Urban Legacies: the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil, London: Palgrave Macmillan (2017), and co-author of the chapter ‘São Paulo: Sport Mega-Events and the East Zone Local Development’ in this volume by Nobre, E. A., Bassani, J., & D’Ottaviano, C. (pp. 137–152). His 1994 Masters thesis from Oxford Brookes University’s MA Urban Design programme (Joint Centre for Urban Design) was titled Towards a better approach to Urban Regeneration: defining strategies for intervention in the central area of São Paulo.
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