Mega-events cause extremes of excitement and anxiety for urban planners. Among mega-events, the Olympics is the rarest opportunity – most planners will never get to take it on. Those that do enter a rarefied space, where energy, money and ambition demand planning at a grand scale. Much like athletes winning gold, planners who deliver a successful Olympics secure a permanent professional legacy.

Planning for success

Planning for the Olympics requires extra action across all the main areas of urban planning: infrastructure provision, transport, environment, housing, urban design, open space management and development control. The challenges of planning a mega-event across these domains are complex, time sensitive and supplementary to the core business of planning.

The most obvious and recognisable role for urban planning is designing and designating Olympic venues. Delivering flagship venues is not only a design objective. Planners must also ensure venues are accessible and have larger, integrated visions supporting them to ensure future use.

The best facilities – the ones that truly leave a legacy – combine high quality designs with adaptable functionality. Good urban planning, backed by strategic vision, is key to success. The venues must be fit for purpose, while having a legacy plan to ensure they will remain active and in demand after the Olympics.

Planners in Sydney did an excellent job with the Sydney Olympic Stadium. An ambitious project, the stadium performed very well for the Olympics and has thrived since, hosting many high-profile sporting and cultural events every year. It is the centrepiece of a multi-use commercial and residential district. A simple legacy plan that did not try to change core use of the venue was a wise strategy.

Contrast Sydney with Beijing, where the famed ‘Bird’s Nest’ stadium wowed during the Games but failed to thrive afterwards. The plan to convert it to a shopping and entertainment complex never eventuated. The stadium is maintained at great cost but rarely used for anything. Worse again are examples of Olympic venues in Athens, which had no legacy plans at all, practically guaranteeing they would fall into ruin.

Best practice requires an overarching strategic plan that addresses the full breadth of priorities and requirements for hosting the Olympics. It should detail how land will be found, how the infrastructure will be provided, transport connectivity, post-occupancy visions and budgeted implementation strategies. Individual precinct plans for new and existing venues and their surrounding areas can branch off from the main plan.

Having a strategic and visionary approach also helps increase the potential for a city-wide uplift, including through urban regeneration projects. London leveraged the 2012 games for massive redevelopment of the post-industrial Lower Lea Valley. Sydney created 430ha of parkland, 40km of cycle paths and water recycling infrastructure. Barcelona delivered extensive inner-city brownfield redevelopment and other urban improvement projects. Remarkably, only 17% of expenditure for the 1992 Barcelona Games went towards sports, while 83% was allocated to urban improvement. 

Urban Regeneration Stratford
Having a strategic and visionary approach helped increase the potential for a city-wide uplift, including through urban regeneration projects. London leveraged the 2012 Olympics for massive redevelopment of the post-industrial Lower Lea Valley, U.K.
Avoiding bad outcomes

Urban planning can only deliver a successful Olympics and generate long-term benefits if wider forces align. Planning for a mega-event is rife with politics, community expectations and competition for resources. Despite their good intentions, planners may struggle to deliver their best work if they are not given sufficient scope, resourcing and political support.

In order to build arenas and infrastructure, governments invest hundreds of millions of dollars. Planners working with appropriate budgets find it easier to deliver successful events. A particular hazard is funding being cut during the development cycle, as it concentrates budgets into sporting infrastructure and away from other areas. This poses serious challenges for the wider city, especially when existing plans were created on the basis of higher budgets than those ultimately provided.

Maintaining good relations with communities is vital when planning for a mega-event. Planning for the Olympics can take 10 or more years, so planners need to build long-term rapport with local communities through stakeholder workshops and other participation media. The influence of politics is considerable in this space; sometimes communities can be engaged or alienated by political decisions taken without regard to planning. In such cases planners may struggle to rebuild community trust, or they may have to gently reduce community expectations if politicians have over-promised.

“… funding being cut during the development cycle … concentrates budgets into sporting infrastructure and away from other areas …”
Lea Valley houseboats and arges
Maintaining good relations with communities is vital when planning for a mega-event. Planners need to build and maintain rapport with local communities through stakeholder workshops to ensure a sustainable legacy beyond 2032.
Lessons for South East Queensland

Southeast Queensland (SEQ) has a long and proud history of staging sporting mega-events. It also has a well-established, statutory regional planning system. Regional development in SEQ has been coordinated across levels of government since the early-1990s. Planners in the region will be able to leverage this unique system and its institutional capacity to deliver an outstanding Olympics, with quality infrastructure, integration and connectivity.

The biggest hazard to planning a successful 2032 Olympics will not come from a lack of professional capacity. If things go awry, it will likely be due to politics getting in the way of planners being able to properly plan. If governments at all levels are supportive of good planning and make sufficient resources available, there should be no good reason why planners will not deliver an outstanding event. Assuming that happens, Queensland will secure its Olympics legacy while its urban planners will secure their own professional legacy.


Dr Tony MatthewsDr Tony Matthews MRTPI is an award-winning Urban and Environmental Planner, with portfolios in academia, practice and the media. He is a faculty member at Griffith University, where he is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Environment & Science and the Cities Research Institute.

In addition to a Masters and PhD in Planning, Tony holds the professional designation of Chartered Town Planner, earned through the Royal Town Planning Institute. While primarily based in planning academia and research, Tony maintains an active practice portfolio. He has led and participated in a wide variety of planning and sustainability projects in collaboration with government, the private sector and community organisations. Tony is also an in-demand public speaker and regularly delivers invited keynotes and speeches at academic and industry events.

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