Erenlai - Items filtered by date: Thursday, 09 April 2009
Thursday, 09 April 2009 20:19

International Events and Urban Development

Large-scale international events, such as World Expos, Olympic and Para Olympic Games, International Fairs, world political or economic summits, have become a leading factor in the shaping of the image of a city as well as on its urban and cultural development. The way a city represents itself and the way other communities look at it are partly linked to these international events and articulate into a “narrative” that, step by step, shape an identity, both local and global. No wonder such events generate a fierce competition among cities and that such events are often awarded at extravagant prize.

Thus, from the start, a cautionary word is in order. If there are indeed a good number of “success stories” linked to the organization of a local event, there are also many stories in which the hassle of the organization process, the exorbitant rise of local axes, debatable urban construction, low attendance and post-event recessions might have on the whole a more negative impact than a positive one.

Furthermore, we are now in the midst of a severe international crisis, and nobody knows how long this crisis is going to last. It might indeed generate extra public spending, but also more parsimony in expenses, both private and public, less international travel, and, on the whole, a cautious attitude of all partners involved. If international events were a fixture of urban development during the last three decades or so, I doubt that it will truly keep this function in the foreseeable future.

Said it otherwise, the problem nowadays is not to replicate success stories, as conditions and contexts are rapidly changing, but rather to reflect on the way international events are presently desirable and, if so, how they can be integrated into an integral and sustainable city development.

An “integral’ development refers to a process in which (a) all parts of a urban territory are treated as a systemic whole and regarded as equals, (b) the interactions of cultural, social, environmental and economic developments are taken into account, paying special attention to the negative aspects that transportation planning for instance could have on habitat, tradition and ecology; (c) the actors share a long-term vision of their common future that does not rely on events and deciders from the outside. In other words, integral development fosters the inner vitality of a territory. As to “sustainable” development, it refers to a time concept: whatever the attractiveness of such or such event, or of a strategy of rapid development, the basic question that animates the decision-makers should be: what city are we preparing for our grandchildren? It is surprising to see how this simple question might sometimes change the perspective, and weigh on the course of action that was originally planned.

Large-scale international events and the shaping of urban culture

For some time now, it has been recognized that an international event taking place in a given city is truly successful if and only if the city population feels truly involved into it and plays the role of actors in the preparatory process as well as during the event proper. The Olympic Games of Sidney certainly were remarkable on that respect. International events should help in the fostering of a participatory local culture.

The question remains: what is a participatory local culture, and how requiring should decision-makers and actors be if they truly want to make sure that their city becomes a model of local democracy in all preparatory and implementation processes?

The point, here, is not only that there is a moral and political imperative to require citizens’ approval on the choices that ground their future, it is rather that active citizens’ participation is favorable to higher-quality local development. Ensuring a continuous flux of information and feedbacks, enlisting the cultural riches of actives, informed citizens, diversifying the resources that contribute to a more balanced model of development, all of this has remarkably long term effects on a city’s overall health and level of consent. Citizens’ participation is per se a factor of sustainability: it reduces risks of corruption, hasty decision or dominance of industrial lobbies. It ensures that concerns about air and water control, schooling and quality of life are sufficiently taken into account. It helps to envision a larger array of alternatives on developmental issues and to balance the economic, social and cultural dimension, all of these dimensions being necessary for achieving humane, integral growth. Finally, citizens’ participation raises their overall level of satisfaction, as participants feel that the city that takes shape under their eyes is really theirs, and that they are the actor of the public space in which they work and live.

Said in another way, the first asset that a city should make use of, when planning for its future, is the cultural diversity that exists in its midst. Enhancing diversity is the best strategy for fostering sustainability. Now, international events can be a positive factor for enriching this participatory local culture - or they can impede its healthy development. I suspect that often such events have been an impediment, whatever the discourse on citizens’ participation. First, most of the time, citizens are not consulted when it comes to cities applying for hosting such or such an event. Second, they have no say in the budgetary choices that are subsequently made. Third, their participation is often reduced to playing tour guides to the international guests who will come to the event.

On the other hand, the hosting of international events indeed enriches the worldview of local citizens confronts them to a variety of experiences, and makes for a richer, prouder local consciousness. At the end, the quality of the event (the way manifestations are managed and enriched, the meaning of the event taking place, its inclusion into the public space and respect for the history of the place and the memory of its inhabitants) is what will help a city to nurture a richer and livelier local culture through international events. Let me stress that international events per se are not sufficient for enriching local culture. Quality management is truly the key. And quality management is largely independent from budgetary investment. Conceptual imagination is the rarest and most precious resource. In that sense, the sooner you make citizens participate in the event, the richer the event might become. Therefore, it is better to plan citizens’ participation from the start rather than limiting it to the implementation of the event proper.

Large-scale international events and public constructions

The set of principles I just sketched out when it comes to local cultures largely applies to public constructions. The principle of “sustainability” has special relevance when it comes to building for international events. Looking back at previous large-scale international events, it is obvious that the improvements most beneficial on the long term to ordinary citizens were the ones linked to investments in the transportation system.
When we look at developed Asian cities today, we see that the network of public transportation is fairly well planned and advanced, even if much work is still to be done. But, obviously, a change of framework and priorities is neither desirable nor feasible. Furthermore, it does not seem that these cities are lacking much in large-scale public buildings. Where is the need most pressing? It is in the field of private buildings that would be ecologically friendly and aesthetically harmonious. It is in the reworking of our public space around residential and industrial areas at the periphery of the centers of power. In other words, the bettering of our urban environment goes through a series of small-scale improvements, oriented towards green buildings and modern industrial zoning. If this diagnosis proves to be true, then it becomes quite difficult to discern in what way international events are truly helpful in the process of the integral and sustainable development.

Large-scale international events and regional cooperation

One of the most interesting developments in the history of international events is the association it sometimes creates among what I would call a “network of territories.” After all, the virtualization of the world also positively affects international events. Conferences, summits, or even international trade fairs can happen simultaneously in various parts of a country, or even various parts of the world - sharing events, using large screens, exchanging data and news, sharing costs and benefits also. One of the best recent examples has been the European Football Cup jointly organized by Switzerland and Austria. Let us also remember the World Cup jointly organized by Korea and Japan.
Cities should look for opportunities to organize exactly this kind of cooperative, regional events while conjointly asking themselves “what kind of international events will prove to be more meaningful on the long run?” Let me just mention a few field around which the future of humankind might be at stake, and which may be subsequently privileged when sponsoring international events:
- green buildings, and environmental innovations and regulations in general;
- the future of islands and coastal areas in face of global warming;
- the social responsibility of entrepreneurs;
- conflict resolution and peace building;
- the follow up of the Millennium Objectives, especially in the field of access to clean water and quality medication to all;
In other words, it is not enough to organize international events, the point is to show a real international spirit, one oriented towards global challenges and creative ways of tackling them.
International events are meaningful and helpful as long as they promote three basic objectives:
- cultural diversity and creativity;
- sustainable development
- citizens’ empowerment.

International events should not be looked after for the sole objective of enhancing a city’s visibility in the international arena. The first step in the process should be to look whether the planned event fosters indeed the objectives just mentioned and to decide accordingly. This way, much waste could be avoided, the events’ implementation would be creative and participatory, and the efforts finally deployed would prove to be truly fruitful

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