Rio Olympics Masterplan Highlights an Emerging Focus on Leaving a Sustainable Legacy (And Farmers Markets)

AECOM's rendering of the Rio 2016 Olympic Park

With five days left in the 2012 Olympic Games, the pressure is on for athletes in London eager to make their marks in sporting history. But for a year now, the pressure has been on, more or less, for the architects, city planners, and engineers behind the 2016 Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro. Last August, global firm AECOM took home the bid to convert the site of an abandoned F1 racing circuit into a stadia-studded urban spectacle. Today, the disused racetrack remains surprisingly intact. “Time was always going to be an issue in this project,” wrote Blueprint Magazine critic Johnny Tucker, “as they do things with a different sense of urgency in Brazil.”

Urgency is one thing. But as for ambition, Brazil is right on track. AECOM’s master plan (presented in a vibrantly colored video) is defined by a snaking, black-and-white striped boulevard that bisects the triangular plot of the former Barra de Tijuca race circuit. Known as “The Olympic Way,” the concourse separates residential villages and sporting venues during the Games, carving out pockets of space with its zigzagging form and terminating with a circular viewing park, an enclosed, forested oasis equipped with screens that will broadcast live events. The Olympic venues too will be designed by AECOM and its master planning team, which includes Rio-based firm DG Architecture as well as London’s pop-up Basketball Arena architects, UK-based Wilkinson Eyre.

The infrastructure in AECOM’s master plan is smartly designed, with built-in means to collect and recycle rainwater and a transportation network that provides separate channels for spectators and athletes. But the focus of the project is not to construct a shimmering image of Brazil during its highly publicized two weeks of glory next summer, but to stimulate long-term change in Rio through the multi-billion-dollar Olympic build-out. This comes as no surprise, as AECOM is the same firm behind the master plan for London’s Olympic Park, which has been lauded for its radical emphasis on creating a sustainable, post-Games legacy.

The legacy of Rio’s Olympic Park will come in two distinct stages, a transitional phase that will bring farmers markets, festival grounds, public art, and even a skate park to the Barra de Tijuca area, and a more permanent phase five to seven years down the line, with new housing and commercial space as well as a new school bordering a nearby favela. At least 70 percent of the infrastructure built for the Games is expected to be used afterwards.

With the same firm designing the master plan for two successive Olympiads, it may seem naïve to draw any conclusions about Olympic architecture and urbanism judging from AECOM’s visions. But there is no denying a marked trend in the way cities are positioning the Games. The celebrated sporting event is swinging away from the display of nationalism and economic prowess seen in Beijing just four years ago and toward a calculated effort to develop a city, not just through the fabled profitability of Olympic hype, but through the concrete measures of architecture and urban design.

Although the myth that the Olympics can stimulate a national or even a local economy has been largely debunked, the debt continues to surprise. “Research has consistently shown that unless you've a beautiful-but-neglected city you want to put on the tourist map (Barcelona), or plenty of world-class sporting venues already (Los Angeles), the impact of holding the Games is ambiguous at best,” wrote Guardian reporter Heather Stewart. The influx of jobs and tourists, even on the long term, cannot fund the cost of a newly built city district, especially one loaded with spectacular sports stadia.

What the Olympics can do, however, is spur investment in the built environment as a whole.  Host cities — and even cities that lose Olympic bids — can benefit from new or updated public transit systems and redeveloped neighborhoods, much more so than from the short-lived buzz of any one "white elephant" stadium. And as seen in London and in plans for Rio, architects and planners have begun to concentrate on these crucial, long-term effects in addition to designing the perfect venue to welcome the glory of the Games. From an urban perspective, when the Olympic flame goes out in 2016, the magic really begins.

To see AECOM's renderings of how the Olympic Park will change Rio over time, click on the slide show.