London 2012: Potential For a Legacy Beyond Sports

There is an important distinction between what the Olympic Games symbolize for a host country and city—national pride, hospitality, and showmanship—and what they really are.

In their most literal sense, the Olympics represent the result of billions of dollars of investment as the host city plans, constructs, and retrofits facilities and infrastructure to set the world’s most famous athletic stage. As each host attempts to put its best foot forward and outperform its predecessor by building grander venues and attracting larger crowds, it makes sense that sustainable values have often been neglected.

This is an enormous missed opportunity. Cities—places where innovation, businesses, citizens, and local government collide—are excellent testing grounds for integrated, whole-systems solutions across buildings, transportation, and electricity that can help move us closer to a new energy era.

In an attempt to alter this trend, the organizers of the 2012 London Games have branded the event as the “greenest” Olympics ever. London’s Olympic Stadium, a centerpiece of the Games, was constructed with minimal steel, making it the most lightweight Olympic stadium to date. The velodrome is almost 100 percent naturally ventilated and rainwater collected from the roof is used for irrigation. Even the concrete in the foundation of the Aquatics Centre is made from a significant portion of recycled materials, and the water used to clean the swimming pool filters is recycled for toilet flushing.

Importantly, the planners of the London Olympics applied significant energy and material-saving measures beyond just venue construction. An estimated 10 million spectators are expected to attend the Games. In response to this mass of visitors, London 2012 is aspiring to be the first “public transport Games” by giving spectators a Games Travelcard to use in London’s Underground system on the day of their ticketed event. Furthermore, the Active Travel program encourages more walking and cycling during (and after) the Games by providing the mileage of various walking/cycling routes and secure cycle parking at every venue.

To provide sustainable electricity to many of the events, London is using a combined cooling heat and power plant to capture the heat generated as a by-product of electricity production, making the process up to 30 percent more energy-efficient than traditional generation. Additionally, London 2012 has partnered with the Greater London Authority to invest in energy efficiency in the Host Boroughs connected to the Olympic Park. This program is expected to impact 2,800 local homes and 12 schools.

While these and many other green initiatives are important, an enduring post-Games sustainability strategy for the Olympic venues, and the city of London, is equally necessary. This is how London 2012 strives to differentiate itself: by creating a lasting precedent for future Olympics and an energy-saving legacy for the city.

As of January 2012, the future use of six of the eight new permanent venues on the Olympic Park had already been confirmed. For example, Eton Manor will become the Lee Valley Hockey and Tennis Centres, and the velodrome will become part of the VeloPark, an area devoted for cycling that London residents can use. This long-term strategy is in sharp contrast to the green promises made four years ago. While Beijing had short-term solutions for carbon emissions reduction—largely due to athlete health concerns from air quality—many of the permanent Olympic venues in Beijing now stand as unused skeletons on neglected land.

Programs such as Changing Places, which aims to create opportunities for local people to get involved in created leaner, greener, and healthier neighborhoods, have given the sites of London’s venues the potential for a more useful fate. Transform, coordinated by Groundwork London has secured funding to redevelop up to 50 under-used sites into thriving local resources such as community growing spaces and new areas for play.

The centerpiece of London’s desired Olympic legacy is the Olympic Park, which will later become the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. All homes on the future park will be carbon-neutral, water efficient, attached to the park’s existing community heating system, and no more than 350 meters away from the closest bus stop. Furthermore, educational initiatives and research programs will be put in place to facilitate sustainable behavior.

This educational component is a crucial differentiator as to whether London 2012 lives up to its promised legacy of sustainability, or is simply making empty pledges. If the London Olympics truly become the roots of a sustainable culture, energy-efficient neighborhoods, and green buildings that add to the vibrancy of the community, these Games will have set a precedent that subsequent host cities will have to meet—and hopefully surpass.