The GSB Interview: Dr. Eva Kassens-Noor, Planning Sustainable Olympic Legacies at Michigan State and MIT

Anyone interested in the sustainability of mega-sports events like the Olympic Games and FIFA World Cup would be well served to take a class taught by Dr. Eva Kassens-Noor. She is an expert in the planning, execution and sustainability efforts of said events. Thing is, to enroll in one of her classes, you’ll likely need to be a student at MIT’s Department of Urban Studies, where Dr. Kassens-Noor is spending her sabbatical as an Associate Professor. After her sabbatical is completed, your best bet would be to head to East Lansing, MI as she is Associate Professor in the Global Urban Studies Program and the School of Planning, Design and Construction at the Michigan State University. Since GreenSportsBlog is not enrolled at MIT, nor likely to matriculate to Michigan State, we did the next best thing–we talked to Dr. Kassens-Noor about her research work at the intersection of the Olympics, World Cups and Sustainability.

 

GreenSportsBlog: The sustainability, or lack thereof, of Olympic, World Cup and other mega-event host cities is something that has interested me for several years. So, when I found out that Olympic and World Cup planning, operations, legacy and sustainability are your academic specialties, I thought “we MUST talk with Eva Kassens-Noor” for GreenSportsBlog. How did you get into this topic?

Eva Kassens-Noor: I’ve loved sports since I was a girl in Mainz, Germany–I played basketball, soccer and volleyball; now I bike and run. Back in 1996, Germany sent a bunch of sports-minded 16 year olds to Atlanta to observe the Summer Olympics there and I had the good fortune to be selected. While there, I somehow got lost on the MARTA (Ed. Note: acronym for Atlanta’s mass transit company) and, from that experience, I became intrigued by the coordination of such a vast event from transportation, engineering and urban planning perspectives.

GSB: Yikes, I would’ve been intrigued by finding my way back to the hotel! But seriously, how did you take this new-found interest to the next level?

EKN: During my Masters studies in Transportation Science at MIT (Ed. Note: Dr. Kassens-Noor got her PhD at MIT as well, in Urban Planning and Studies), we studied the Athens International Airport that was newly built and finished shortly before the 2004 Olympics there. Fascinated by how the airport would serve the athletes and fans, I turned to a classmate and said, “this is what I want to write my Masters thesis about.” And that turned out to be a paper about how Olympic athletes would enter and exit the airport.

GSB: What did that mean?

EKN: We modeled the processing of athletes through the airport by using various queuing theories. Our goal was to figure out how to minimize the athletes’ time in the airport. This ended up leading to my PhD thesis, which focused on how transportation functions in the Olympics host city for all concerned during the Games, including those not involved with the event at all.

GSB: Which seems like a natural lead-in to one of your prime interests, post Olympic legacies–and the title of your book, “Planning Olympic Legacies: Transport dreams and urban realities”, published by Routledge in 2012.

EKN: Yes, Olympic legacies are a major interest of mine. Olympic bid cities almost always cite how winning will lead to a dramatically positive effect upon the urban and transportation infrastructure. Unfortunately some of the host cities have over-promised and under-delivered on these promises.

GSB: Let’s look at some of the recent summer Games–but before doing so, I want to note that Dr. Kassens-Noor’s research has been focused on summer Olympics, not winter. OK, the legacies, sustainability-wise and otherwise for Barcelona 1992

EKN: Barcelona 1992 has become the idealistic urban model, which bidders hope to achieve in terms of its legacy, infrastructure-wise, tourism-wise and sustainability-wise. Barcelona re-structured its city by opening it out to the sea, unclogged its inner-city from car congestion, brought long-abandoned parts of the city to life, became one of Europe’s and the world’s top Tourism destinations, and now still has those artificially-created beaches, preserved historic buildings, and central city flair.

GSB: The next one you studied was Sydney 2000, which, if memory serves, got criticism for a spread out Games, with facilities that became “White Elephants” (i.e. had little or no post-Games use).

EKN: While the some of the venues in Sydney were built in poor locations from a mass transit point of view, they do get points for having cleaned up brownfields to accommodate some of the facilities. And I’d push back on the White Elephants charge–Olympic Park has become lively these days, because they hired a Park Authority to organize events and manage the Park.

GSB: Next up, Athens 2004, which, per a 2012 Guardian story, does not earn high marks for legacy…

EKN: …Athens had many legacy-related problems–the most visible issue there are the many unused and under-used stadiums and arenas that were the result of poor planning.

GSB: How did Beijing 2008 fare?

EKN: There are also some unused stadiums few others remain in under-used, including the iconic “Bird’s Nest” that had the swimming competition in ’08. And now, with Beijing having won the 2022 Winter Olympics, some of those 2008 facilities will be turned over to winter use, enhancing Beijing’s 2008 legacy.

GSB: And London 2012…

EKN: Legacy and sustainability were central tenets of the London 2012 bid. The facilities that were built for the Games, for the most part, have found significant post Games use, often for the general public. And the Olympic Stadium will become the home of West Ham United Football Club (currently in the Barclay’s Premier League) starting next season.

Eva Kassens-Noor

Dr. Eva Kassens Noor, Associate Professor in the Global Urban Studies Program and the School of Planning, Design and Construction at the Michigan State University and author of “Planning Olympic Legacies: Transport dreams and urban realities”, published by Routledge, 2012. (Photo credit: Dr. Eva Kassens Noor)

 

GSB: Now let’s look to Rio 2016. We, along with plenty of other media outlets, have tackled the environmental problems related to the polluted waters of the sailing and rowing venues. But what about its legacy?

EKN: I’ve been very critical of Rio in terms of legacy…

GSB: Why? We wrote about the additional Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) lines in Rio that are Olympics-related (links here and here). That should be a carbon footprint reducer, no?

EKN: You would think so but the Olympic Village and the BRT plowed through many Favelas, removing hundreds of families and businesses. The route of the BRT is also problematic–one of the routes goes from the Airport to a wealthy area without going through downtown. Very ineffective.

GSB: Given that Rio was the hub of Brazil’s World Cup only one year ago, one would think they’d parley the two mega-events to get infrastructure, transportation and sustainability right. Then again, the country is mired in a corruption scandal that could lead to the impeachment of the President, so perhaps this isn’t so surprising. What it is sad. Next topic…As mentioned your focus is on the Summer Games, but I have to ask you about the recent selection by the IOC membership of Beijing as host of the 2022 Winter Games over Almaty, Kazakhstan. Your thoughts?

EKN: The Winter Games are becoming more and more challenging in many ways, including legacy and sustainability…

GSB: Like Sochi 2014…A winter Olympics in a tropical zone for merely $51 billion…

EKN: Exactly. As Olympism moves into an Agenda 2020 (the new IOC guidelines to Olympic bids) world, with sustainability and legacy hopefully becoming key criteria, that should eliminate cities like Beijing for a Winter Games because it doesn’t have a winter sports infrastructure and has to make all of its snow.

GSB: …But Agenda 2020 wasn’t fully in place during the run up to the Beijing/Almaty decision so perhaps Beijing was able to slip through? Plus Almaty was a first time bidder from a small country with plenty of its own problems. It will be interesting to see how Agenda 2020’s sustainability focus impacts the bidding for the 2024 Summer and 2026 Winter Olympics. When the IOC looks at sustainability, is its focus narrowly on the environment?

EKN: The IOC does not look at sustainability holistically according to the 3 pillars of Economic Efficiency, Environmental Stewardship, and Social Equity. The IOC’s third pillar is the environment and environmental sustainability is often mentioned as a goal. In fact, when students ask me about environmental sustainability, I say there’s no such thing. A truly sustainable legacy has to encompass all of its facets. In fact, my newest paper is on Homelessness and the 2014 World Cup.

GSB: Speaking of your students, what are their attitudes towards the future of the sustainability and legacy of mega events?

EKN: It depends on the class. In general, my students at Michigan State bleed green…

GSB: …and not just Green & White for the Spartans…

EKN: Right! One thing I notice is that they, and their MIT counterparts believe, for the most part, that we can solve sustainability issues, including climate change, with technological innovation alone. I don’t see it that way–in addition to innovation, society is going to have to shift to far more sustainable behaviors if these massive problems will be solved.

GSB: If the Olympics, World Cups and other mega-events can lead the shift in those behaviors, well, that will be a step in the sustainable direction.

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Email us: lew@greensportsblog.com
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