The year 2010 is on the horizon and people from all over the world are coming together. The congregation points: Shanghai, Johannesburg and Vancouver. These are the main sites for next year’s World Expo, World Cup and Winter Olympics, respectively. But all is far from well in these anti-proletarian Potemkin villages that governments are spending billions to build. What we’ve got is a deep trend, and it’s a bad trend. Mega-events are not just in vogue. They’re a growing component of the winner-take-all global economy. They seek to provide sanitized exemplars of what’s good about the modern world but what they really do is expose its worst divisions and deficits. This raises a question we all ought to be asking: Why mega-events and why now?
There’s a traditional explanation: They stoke civic pride, international comity and offer imaginative odes to human progress. All well and good, but the mega-event movement is bigger than that. In this mercurial age of capital mobility, cities seek built environments that are conducive to global connectivity. That is, cities in the new era perpetually seek to become places where the global rich might invest. Planners design their physical spaces accordingly. From that perspective, imagine the bonus of receiving billions in state funds over a period of years for things like high-end mixed use plazas, world class entertainment venues, expanded public transit and tourist accommodation. The high-ending of cities is an inherent feature of the global economy. Preparations for, say, an Olympic games simply provide the funds and justification to accelerate the process of hyper-gentrification.
This mega-event movement is rabidly anti-Jacobsian at its core. What it really puts forth is socially debilitating class homogeneity. It brazenly excludes the poor and makes life harder on the middle class. It threatens to further reduce the world’s great urban districts into millionaire McPlaylands. How polarizing are mega-events? Consider the Olympics. New home prices spiked 240 percent in the run up to the 1992 games in Barcelona. Here in the US, homeless people were arrested or simply booted from Atlanta’s central corridors before the 1996 games. “Police in Atlanta,” the Center on Housing Rights and Evictions reports, “were revealed to be mass producing arrest citations with the following information pre-printed: African-American, Male, Homeless.” This is all micro scale compared with the frenzied neighborhood clearances that happened in Beijing and Seoul, which ruthlessly displaced millions.
There are good reasons to believe that next year’s extravaganzas will not be exceptions. In Vancouver, housing for the poor and elderly was converted to tourist lodging. That conversion reportedly displaced hundreds of people. The city had originally pledged an Olympic housing policy that would deal humanely with the impeding price shocks. When the cost of the needed expansion in low-cost housing became apparent, city hall reneged on its promise in a narrow vote. In Johannesburg there are reports of evictions—the government says “relocations”—to clear a path for World Cup construction. Workers had been earning as little as $100 per month there before a major strike last month. FIFA claims its activities have a positive impact on cities. Why doesn’t its bidding process enforce living wages?
Shanghai’s farcically progressive World Expo theme is “better city, better life.” The event’s many pavilions include one devoted to high tech innovations that are supposed to making cities greener, more efficient, and so on. Now for some good news: UN Habitat’s contingent there will probably be dealing with touchy poverty issues that are germane to Shanghai and its six million-plus slum dwellers. My worry is that they’ll address these issues in the abstract and not speak directly to what happened on the ground beneath their feet. That discussion might start with the 18,000 people forcibly relocated to make way for the Expo. Will the world’s most important advocate for human-centered urban living rise to the occasion? Or will it reject the heart and soul of its being out of politeness to its Orwellian hosts?
The UN, at least outwardly, seems to be taken by Expo fever. So some advice is in order: Don’t mistake these mega-events for the world-uniting forces of internationalism they claim to be. They’re really just polarizing the urban landscapes they claim to enrich.