The Olympics and the City

Like all host cities that host the Olympics, Vancouver had to plan for a sprint and a marathon — it had to develop, finance, design, and build a range of sport and residential venues that would not only make the two-week event a big success but also, when the world had gone back home, become a vital and enduring part of the city fabric. Vancouver planning director Brent Toderian spoke recently with journalist Nate Berg, of Planetizen, about how the city, known for progressive planning and green thinking, was meeting the Olympic challenge.

Vancouver Planning Director Brent Toderian. [Image credit: City of Vancouver]

Nate Berg: Your city is just about to host the Olympics. What’s the mood like there?

Brent Toderian: There’s a feeling of the calm before the storm, but saying there’s calm here is probably not particularly accurate. There’s still a huge amount to do. Though the truth is, when you’ve spent years working to get to this moment, if you’re not ready by now, you probably won’t be. So, you know, there are finishing touches to be done, but the mood is ramping up. People are getting really enthusiastic about hosting the world.

Past Olympic cities have talked about the emotional roller coaster that happens before an Olympics, and sometimes you have to go through the troughs to get to the high points. I think our city has had that. Vancouver is a very self-aware city. We can be tough on ourselves and that’s one reason we’ve achieved as much as we have. But it can be a challenge to balance between boosterism and cynicism about our place in the world, and how well we’ve achieved our goals around the Olympics and around sustainability. But as we get closer and closer to the day, it’s just more excitement and less worry. As they say, at this point it’s like the luge: no brakes and limited steering.

NB: Tell me about earlier on in the process when you actually did have that steering. What was it like to prepare for these games years before the event?

BT: Certainly the city planner’s role starts very, very early. Because it’s about putting the planning in place long before you even start construction. I’ve been here about three and a half years — I came in when we were having to essentially reinvent our approval processes to complete the design of the Olympic village and other Olympic venues. As you can imagine, if we were thinking about the design now we’d be in trouble. Those steps got done years ago, and it’s been fascinating to watch the construction happen within such an expedited time frame, particularly in the Athletes village — the Olympic village — because it’s rare to see a community of that scale practically leap from the ground in short order. It usually takes something like an Olympics to have it happen in such a choreographed way, like a conductor making music.

Olympic and Paralympic Village and downtown Vancouver. [Image credit: City of Vancouver]

NB: As you said, you came in mid-stream. You took over the role of planning director from Larry Beasley and Ann McAfee in mid-2006, more than 3 years after the city had been selected to host the 2010 Olympics. What was it like to come into that process after it had already begun?

BT: The week I arrived, there was controversy in the newspapers about the competing visions for the architecture of the Olympic Village. Robert Stern had visited the city as a possible architect for the site and had made some comments about the Vancouver model of city building. The vision of a quaint fishing village had been floated in the media, and suddenly the debate was on. From the city’s perspective, 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. So the city’s vision was for a contemporary, West Coast, highly sustainable community with architecture that is of its time and not seeking to replicate a marketing theme. Ultimately, Robert Stern left the project.

Many local architects became highly engaged, including Canada’s most famous architect, the recently departed Arthur Erickson, who with his partner Nick Milkovich did a number of the signature buildings with Walter Francl, who’s also one of our best architects. And all of a sudden we had an architecture and an urbanism that is very much Vancouver. And a great opportunity to showcase the Vancouver model of city building, with a strong partnership between city planners and private sector local designers and architects and developers to create something that would blow the world away. And I think that’s what we’ve managed to achieve in the Athletes Village. But as you can imagine, going through that process and having those debates is never easy.

Vancouver Olympic Village, green roofs. [Image credit: City of Vancouver]

NB: From an urban planning perspective, what impact do you think the games will have on the city?

BT: We’re going to have significant physical legacies of the Olympics, not the least of which is Athletes Village. And on top of that we have our new Canada Line subway that connects the airport to downtown, and a number of athletic facilities, either new or upgraded, that will be sport legacies for the city. But there’s also physical infrastructure and what we call “look-of-the-city” legacies that will make Vancouver more livable. In fact, we’ve spent over 6 million dollars on public art pieces scattered across the city, integrated into the urban realm, that will make the city more attractive long after the Olympics are over. So from a physical city-builder’s perspective, the legacies will be powerful. From a policymaker’s perspective, we have a legacy of new attitudes and standards and policies that have fundamentally changed business as usual for Vancouver. Almost everything we learned in the development of Athletes Village has been translated into new approaches in our citywide zoning, citywide policies and guidelines, or just new attitudes

When you’re doing a place like Athletes Village, and you very much want it to be a model, our perspective is: What good is a model of it doesn’t change business as usual, if it doesn’t make everything that comes after it better? So in our case, even before the Athletes Village was completed, it was substantially influencing the regional discussion on city building. Many of the exemptions we built into the development approvals have now been built into our citywide zoning bylaw — even before the Olympic buildings were open. Our learnings on passive design have been translated into a passive design toolkit. Our urban agriculture learnings have been translated into urban agriculture guidelines. Our learnings about district energy — we did our first neighborhood energy utility using sewer heat recovery to heat and cool the Athletes Village — has already raised our bar with other major projects. We’ve emphasized that these new projects have to be even better than Athletes Village, and that’s being translated into a new district energy policy for the city. So you see the point of the power of a model. Unfortunately, too many cities do model developments, but years after nothing’s really changed. That’s something we very much wanted to prevent here.

NB: A lot of people think of these big events — Olympics, World Cups — as being a spur for development and physical infrastructure creation, but it seems like you’re taking it further and using it almost as a lab for urban policy.

BT: You have to remember that the second most important moment in Vancouver’s city building history was Expo ‘86. That event changed the way we do things as city builders and really sparked what is now called the Vancouver model. I say the second most important moment because the first most important moment was the refusal to put freeways in Vancouver, particularly through our downtown. But Expo ‘86 was a turning point. It gave the city a huge amount of confidence and started an era of city building that has really defined the Vancouver model. So we’re well aware that this is our second great event, that the Olympics, like Expo ’86, will be transformative not only in our attitudes, but in the way we do business.

We set out from day one to make sure that we were positioned for that transformation. The fun of this challenge is that Vancouver is the most populous urban destination ever to host the Winter Olympics. Our population is about 600,000, in a region of about 2.1 million. And even for most Summer Olympics, the event areas for the Olympics are often on the urban outskirts. Much of the activity of the Vancouver Winter Olympics is in the middle of our most urban environment. So it’s a huge operational challenge to accommodate an Olympics and the huge influx of people.

Vancouver Olympic Village, with view of False Creek. [Image credit: City of Vancouver]

NB: Well, it sounds like a big challenge. And if we look back at other cities and other places that have hosted these events, there’s a lot of mixed opinions about how well things have turned out. You look at Athens, which is really struggling to pay off the price of the venues they built for the 2004 Summer Olympics. Even some of Beijing’s beautiful venues are sitting empty and unused.

BT: There has been some concern that Vancouver hasn’t been ambitious enough in its new facilities and particularly its architecture. When you’re being compared against the most recent Summer Olympics in Beijing, with the Bird’s Nest and the Water Cube — well, fiscally responsible cities could kill themselves trying to compete with that kind of expenditure. Summer Olympics and Winter Olympics are two very different beasts in terms of scale and even funding. But having said that, I think that the way we’ve handled this very much matches our values as a city. What defines Vancouver is a strong ethic of sustainability, inclusivity, consultation, and hopefully social and environmental responsibility. So 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.

All of our facilities are readily convertible into civic and community uses. We know how our facilities are going to be used the day after the Olympics are done, essentially. And they’re all part of making our livable city even more livable. As a city that set out to make the greenest and most inclusive Olympics, not the most architecturally exurberant Olympics, our results go a long way to meet our goals. Are we sustainable and inclusive enough? People will debate that for years. I tend to think that we could never be sustainable enough, even though that’s a bit of an oxymoron. I’ve been less concerned about the exurberance of the architecture and more concerned about the responsibility inherent in our decisions. And it just so happens that we ended up doing all of this when the world is going through a staggering economic downturn. So the importance of that fiscal responsibility is even more obvious.

Olympic Line: Vancouver’s 2010 streetcar at Olympic Village Station. [Image credit: City of Vancouver]

NB: When you think about the city as a broad place, you’re investing a fairly large amount of money to host what is essentially a two-week event. Do you think it’s going to be worth it for the city as a whole?

BT: Part of the legacy is actions that may not have otherwise occurred. There’s a very strong and I think healthy debate about whether we should have spent all this money on reducing homelessness — but to some extent this is a false choice, because that’s never how budget choices ever really line up. As an example, would our federal government and provincial government have spent that money to solve homelessness or would they have spent it in other parts of the country? The Olympics spurred spending that hadn’t been happening in the areas of homelessness and social housing — until it became obvious that the Olympics were coming. That kind of spark is something that’s hard to quantify in terms of value. One can argue that the money should have come long before the Olympics were announced, and I would agree with that. But it’s still fair to say that the Olympics sparked the expenditure. And that’s true for things like social housing and transit. The Canada Line is an example. Some might say the money would have come anyway, others would say that when the economy gets tough you can never count on the money. The thing about the Olympics is it usually means the money arrives.

NB: You talk a lot about the day after the Olympics, but what about one year after? What’s the city going to be like then?

BT: I think there will be a feeling of greater confidence and maturity. To know you can host this kind of event successfully gives you the confidence to feel you can do just about anything. Economically, it’s truly a world-class opportunity for both tourism and job growth potential. Physically, we will have new models for our urban pattern. I think the Olympic Village essentially shatters the myth that there’s one type of building in Vancouver, the podium-and-point tower. It’s never been true. The attention that we’ll get with the Athletes Village illustrates how well Vancouver has done mid-rise for years, but frankly Athletes Village takes it to a whole new level.

I can’t decide whether it’s Vancouverism 2.0 or if we’re on 4.0 by now. I think the goal is to make sure that financially we come out ahead of the game, even in the context of the economic downturn. And I’m very confident that we’re going to be able to achieve that. But from a physical city building perspective, it’s a game-changer in so many ways. Architecture and urban form, neighborhood form, district energy, passive design, green roofs, urban agriculture and a new level of public realm design. It not only changes everything for us, but urbanists and architects are going to be coming to study it for quite some time.

Nate Berg, “The Olympics and the City,” Places Journal, February 2010. Accessed 04 Oct 2023.

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Past Discussions View
  • nancy

    02.13.2010 at 09:48

    the classical olympics became dormant probably because of the same budgetary, political, administrative, "design" issues and decisions. The modern ones could go the same way. Look at the division it causes in comments alone about logos in London.

    Honor the spirit still. It lives on. The best way to do this is go out and play in the snow today. …well, at least east of the Mississippi.

    The best athletes, and we all should all consider ourselves athletes, compete and conquer themselves, so to say.

  • Rider

    02.14.2010 at 12:37

    We are an experiment, part of the excitement of living in such a young city. We are exactly where we are supposed to be right now, but no where close to where we are going.

    Prior to the Olympics, I walked my dogs or rode my bike weekly on the seawall past the Olympic Village and also had the opportunity to tour part of it this past fall. And honestly, I think it works extremely well. The scale, the architecture, the sustainability (granted, pushing the limits, technologically, and correspondingly, financially...) and the public spaces all come together. The Village, and the lessons learned from it, will be a boon to our city for a long time to come.

  • Tom

    02.14.2010 at 15:00

    It will be curious to see how this plays out 5 years from now...speculation aside.

  • Mark Kaufman

    02.16.2010 at 12:17

    Going up to Vancouver for the games in a couple of days. Living in Seattle, I have had ample opportunity to visit BC for work and pleasure over the years. It is a city that works on so many levels already, I am looking forward to seeing what Olympic based development has been created. As I understand it a great deal of existing sporting structures are being used for the games, so hopefully the dollars and development efforts have gone into supporting long-term infrastructure such as transit, housing and urban design thinking.

    I heart Canadian content.

  • burke

    02.18.2010 at 10:49

    Seriously. NBC has raped this olympics. Their coverage has been TERRIBLE. No competition, just a huge highlight reel, speckled with Dragon Movie coverage and heartfelt stories.

    Where are the competitions?????

  • Paul

    03.01.2010 at 12:28

    I visited Vancouver in September and fell in love with it's urban form. Don't sell the podium-and-point tower short. The podium keeps the street-life engaged. The setbacks for the tower make sure light to the streetlevel isn't blocked out and preserves viewsheds.

    Also, from a livability perspective the setbacks ensure that those who live in towers aren't on top of their neighbors. I can speak from experience that it sucks having your neighbor across the street be only 50-60 feet away from you. Who wants to live in a small 600sf apartment if you can't leave the blinds open? That makes your living arrangements feel even smaller.