The 2012 Olympic Games may be over, but a new-found sense of pride and goodwill lingers within London. Stratford, the epicentre of the event, is in Newham, the UK’s most ethnically diverse borough. The improved transport links, affordable housing and new public spaces that the sporting extravaganza have brought might well help to regenerate an area stuck for years in post-industrial torpor. Two of Team GB’s medal winners grew up within a mile of the Olympics stadium site, and with the benefit of state-of-the-art sporting facilities, maybe this number will have increased by the next Games in 2016, to be held in Rio de Janeiro.

If the Olympics prove effective in terms of the regeneration of east London, the impact they have on Brazil’s Cidade Maravilhosa could be staggering. The city’s public transport is dreadful. Commute times that should take 45 minutes sometimes take up to three hours. One in five residents live in the favelas, which are rife with poverty, drugs and violence. Meanwhile, the mountainous landscape that makes Rio one of the world’s most beautiful cities is a significant impediment to its orderly development.

AECOM’s Olympic task

Bill Hanway is under no illusions as to the challenges ahead. As executive director of AECOM, a provider of professional technical and management support services, his team was responsible for drafting the London 2012 master plan and mapping out its legacy. Last year, the company won a tender to do the same for Rio de Janeiro.

"Our proposition was: how do you leverage the investment of an Olympic Games so that it’s a fantastic celebration of sporting success that also provides long-term value for the local population?" says Hanway. "The Rio committee asked us for three things: an Olympic master plan, a transformation master plan and a legacy master plan. That final plan is vital – it allows you to size the infrastructure accordingly, to build roads for future use, and to distribute the sporting venues, both temporary and permanent, in the right locations."

Rio and London: worlds apart?

AECOM’s master plan is based around a 300-acre site in Barra da Tijuca, an affluent suburb south-west of Rio, along with sites in the more down-at-heel neighbourhoods of Maracanã, Deódoro and Copacabana. The city hosted the Pan-American Games in 2007 and will host matches in the 2014 FIFA World Cup, so around half of the necessary venues have already been built. For the remaining projects, such as constructing the Olympic Park, AECOM has quickly realised that Rio and London are very different propositions.

"How do you leverage the investment of an Olympic Games so that it’s a fantastic celebration of sporting success that also provides long-term value for the local population?"

"As much as the methodology might be similar to London, the culture here is very different," Hanway says. "This is very much about relationship-building – relationships with the mayor, with other organising committees, and local architects and designers. A sense of urgency and finality is, of course, important. The Olympics will happen when they do – there is no delay in deadlines. At the same time, you don’t want to be an international company that comes in and just applies what it thinks is the right way of doing things."

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One local architecture firm that has had a hand in this project is BCMF, which designed five venues for the Deódoro Complex at the 2007 Pan American Games. All will be used in 2016, and BCMF is likely to see further involvement due to its experience in using sports facilities as tools of regeneration. Deódoro is similar to London’s Stratford – a young, lower-class neighbourhood with a strong industrial flavour. The site also sits within a lush subtropical context, and the challenge, according to partner Bruno Campos, was to coordinate all of these aspects in a way that could bring solidity to a fragmented area.

"This was a unique suburban context – military quarters, a favela, a rough industrial area and wild landscape," he explains. "There is a big highway cutting through the site, which both connects and divides the neighbourhood, and a train line that has the same effect. So the buildings we constructed are very stark and impressive in scale. We tried to create a delicate insertion into the landscape using concrete, wood and glass to modulate between the five venues. The venues are all very different but have some aspects in common, especially the front and back of house, giving a sense of unity."

Public expenditure, private profit

In the wake of the Pan American Games it has been used regularly for army sporting tournaments, and a government programme is in place to encourage local participation. As Campos admits, the success of a legacy is largely dependent on operation, not construction. This is in the hands of the government, or in many cases, the private partners earmarked to take the reins once the Games are through. Chris Gaffney, visiting professor at the School of Architecture and Urbanism at Rio’s Universidade Federal Fluminense, is sceptical about this arrangement.

"After the Pan American Games we saw that all the sites were either not used or privatised," he says. "The Porto Maravilha project [the regeneration of Rio’s run-down docklands] is a public-private partnership. The great dream with the Maracanã [stadium] is to hand it over to a private company. The companies didn’t have to invest anything, so if they can’t make a profit it just goes back to the public domain. This is an example of public expenditure for private profit."

"Barcelona took the lead on the issues surrounding balancing investment with changing the future direction of the city."

There is another, larger elephant in the room. The Olympic Park at Barra da Tijuca will require the removal of a decades-old favela known as Vila Autódromo, home to around 4,000 people. The residents have resisted, and in January won an injunction to halt the bidding process for the redevelopment project. AECOM’s master plan doesn’t foresee the removal of the favela, but, either way, Hanway is reluctant to get involved with what he sees as a local matter.

"We are really following through on how the mayor’s team chooses to resolve this," he says. "We have kept away from dealing with this issue at the request of the mayor as he carries out his own personal negotiations."

The legacy of slum removal

Gaffney, however, believes that the government is essentially in cahoots with property developers and construction firms, and that the only legacy of slum removal will be to marginalise the poor and push them ever further to the periphery of the city.

"Rio is unique in Brazil because of the presence of poor communities in the city centre," he says. "But pacification and voluntary or involuntary removals have led to a boom, which has resulted in a more defined rich and poor profile. They use it as a way of extracting surplus value from real estate speculation. There are ways to control this, but the Olympics and World Cup are about making money. They have nothing to do with sport anymore."

"The success of a legacy is largely dependent on operation, not construction."

Whatever the real motivation, there is no going back now, and all that’s possible must be done to create a positive outcome. Hanway’s team has been influenced by two Olympics that produced long-term, tangible improvements in their host cities.

"Barcelona took the lead on the issues surrounding balancing investment with changing the future direction of the city," he says. "The work on remediating the ports and creating new living quarters were two points we really went back to in terms of creating a long-lasting legacy. The Olympic Park in Munich is also still incredibly beautiful. It was one of the drivers of putting public parks and architecture into one coherent message."

What price gentrification?

Gaffney begs to differ. While he acknowledges the benefits of improved transport infrastructure, he questions why a mega-event is required for these changes to take place. He also believes that in gentrifying a city, something can be lost that is of much greater value than new roads and metro systems.

"In Atlanta, the extension of public transport to the airport and the refurbishment of the airport have benefitted the city," he acknowledges. "But you have to ask yourself why it took the Olympics to make that happen. Barcelona is the paradigm of a wildly successful mega-event. But when you talk to people about Barcelona pre and post-1992, they are different cities. The cultural texture has been sacrificed and it’s been turned into a Disneyland for Japanese tourists."

Progress reports emerging from Rio have been mixed. Some newspaper accounts speak of behind-schedule construction projects, widespread industrial action and nightmarish congestion. Senior spokespeople from the government and firms involved have been generally positive, acknowledging the problems that events of this scale pose, but expressing confidence that they will be resolved.

With so many variables to consider, it will be many years before the true legacy of London’s 2012 Olympics experience becomes apparent, never mind Rio de Janeiro’s in 2016, but while the risks faced by the latter are undoubtedly greater, so are the rewards.