How to Spark Urban Renewal Through Sport

There are plenty of examples of how putting money into sports infrastructure can spark urban renewal. What the Olympics and other mega-events have shown is that the significant investment required to host an international games successfully has the power to transform a region, and even a nation. What they have also demonstrated, of course, is just how thorough the preparations need to be.

The stakes involved in the planning of any great sporting event are inevitably going to be high. This would be especially true if an African nation were to host the Olympics, since infrastructure in many parts of continent is underdeveloped and massive investment would be needed. Still, past sports events have shown the truly lasting benefits of these investments, not just in creating a sporting infrastructure but in the building of transportation networks and other urban facilities. However high the costs may seem, the potential inherent in infrastructural investment should to be taken into account. The cost of infrastructure development to host a mega-event can be offset against economic growth over future decades.

London's 2012 Olympics offers one great model of good planning. The Games were held in Stratford, a neglected part of East London where unemployment is relatively high. Bombed during World War II, it had suffered industrial decline during the 1960s, and from the start the organizers of London 2012 were determined to leave a positive mark on the region.

That achievement did not come cheap. According to the Wall Street Journal, the British government spent £6.5 billion on Olympic venues and infrastructure, and billions more on a rail line linking East London with the wealthier city center. Public-private partnerships were formed with various organizations to cover the costs.

The results have been impressive so far. The structures themselves were built to be highly flexible in terms of use: the main stadium, which catered to 80,000 people in the summer of 2012, can be dismantled to turn into a 25,000-seat venue for concerts and sporting events. Spectators were encouraged to cycle to events, thus nurturing a "green" legacy that would be both infrastructural and individual. The long-term results remain to be seen but right now, it looks as though the legacy of London 2012 will be a fitting tribute to a well-organized Games. The British government has set up the London Legacy Development Corporation, which is stewarding future progress.

The Olympics is not the only possible instance of urban renewal wrought by the development of large-scale stadia. In a different way, The Barclays Center in Brooklyn has played a part in enhancing the area in which it is located. Despite initial controversy, it has won plaudits from architectural critics, and perhaps more importantly, praise from the Brooklynites who now have jobs there: according to the New York Daily News, 1,900 people are employed at the center, and 80 per cent of them live in Brooklyn.

Even an unsuccessful Olympic bid can be the source of change within a city if organizers adhere to their vision. Chicago missed out on hosting the 2016 Games but the city has continued to support some of the projects that were part of the bid, such as those that reached out to urban youth to inspire them to get involved with sport.

So what does this all teach us? In the organization of any major sporting event or the planning of a building, long-term thinking is key. Public-private partnerships can assist organizers in meeting difficult financial goals. In addition, we should not underestimate how vital it is to include local communities in all stages of discussion. For they are the people these events are ultimately intended to help.