The Olympics are more than a competition. They are a glimpse onto a pre-packaged zeitgeist for the future: a compilation of messages about the world, where it is headed, and what their host city believes it has to contribute. This year, London is presenting a remolded sliver of its east as a vision for the future. The site, conceived as a new neighborhood, is an example of how London has attempted to bind its twin goals of a restructuring of East London with a successful Olympic Games, and a rebuilding at home with a message of sustainability for the world.
To the viewers worldwide, who peer at the athletes through TV screens and panning camera lenses, the London sports halls are merely sets. Their presence, however, infuses the entire city with enormous sums of capital for investment in its future, making life better for its inhabitants. East London, a district long known for its unruly streets, has been refitted with gleaming buildings and a steady stream of newcomers. Though this abrupt change has been cause for great controversy, a portion of the metropolis many times reformed has been geared for a future. Walking trails and bicycle paths have been refurbished, and 6.5 billion pounds have been poured into public transportation. Two parks have been made step-free, giving greater accessibility to handicapped visitors. Additionally, once the games are finished the Olympic park will be paved with new roads. It will be carved into a network of streets, furnishing residential housing and public buildings that will come to be a green neighborhood. The space taken by the international competition will be given back to the pedestrian.
London has, however, also used the Olympics to globally channel its vision of sustainability. Unity and competition are the overarching themes of the Games. In London and around the world, people throw their hopes onto their country’s representatives. Everyone is cheering for a national win, but in the structure of the competition there is an inherent international unity. The world’s citizens and attention collect in one place. The anthems, disappointments, gasps, and claps melt into an empathic togetherness. The globe, with all its messiness and complications, momentarily converges around a few courts, pools and rinks. The drive to outdo and the desire to cooperate give the games their livelihood; London has used them both to plant seeds of sustainability worldwide.
The English capital has shown its capability to coordinate an immense gathering with far-reaching consideration for its impact on the environment. Future Olympic host cities and – more importantly – individuals, corporations and countries around the world will now be challenged to replicate and surpass its accomplishments. Points of pride are peppered throughout the grounds: 88 tubes supply natural lighting to the handball facility – the Copper Box –, rainwater is collected for washing vehicles and irrigation, and all of the food waste is impressively being composted while only sustainable fish is being sold. In a setting where countries strive to convey their greatness, London has shown its idea of future aptitude: the ability to do great things without impacting the natural world. Others will follow.
The Olympics set records to be broken and goals to be met. Through a combination of thoughtful building methods, advanced green technologies and a policy of waste reduction, the games have managed to set an impressively high benchmark. Many stadiums were specifically designed to shrink in capacity once the games finished, ensuring that less energy is expended during later use. Others were designed to be completely collapsible; the Water Polo Arena (picture below) is one of these. Its creative use of PVC allows it to be easily recycled. The Aquatics Centre, designed by Zaha Hadid, in its elegance and grace, will shrink to 1/7 of its capacity after the games and used GGBS, a CO2 friendlier substitute for concrete, in its construction. The Olympic Stadium will also shrink in size, and the soil displaced in its erection was repurposed rather than disposed.
After the crowds leave, the cameras stop rolling and the capital returns to its normal hum, London 2012 will have a remaining legacy of success, both global and local. Its impact on the environment will be relatively negligible, but its impact on global consciousness and local growth will be vast.