Olympic dreams translate to life’s work
posted on November 6, 2012 10:54am
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Like many young athletes, Eva Kassens-Noor loved the Olympics. At age 15, the German volleyball player was invited to attend a sports youth camp at the 1996 Atlanta games with 100 other young athletes.
“It was an amazing experience,” she says. But she’ll admit that a lasting memory is one of spending a lot of time traveling via bus, rail and metro all over the city.
For Kassens-Noor, it was only the beginning. She’s been to four other Olympic Games host cities since then, but not as an athlete.
An assistant professor in the School of Planning, Design and Construction, Kassens-Noor has studied the Olympic Games – a mega-event – and their lasting impacts on host cities’ development and transportation systems. A mega-event is a globally significant phenomenon, Kassens-Noor says, such as the Olympic Games, the World Cup and World’s Fairs.
“I look at the urban development impact that these events have—in particular, transportation development created or accelerated through these games,” Kassens-Noor says. “These get a lot of temporary attention but are not well studied.”
Kassens-Noor is studying mega-events now, though.
In her book, “Planning Olympic Legacies: Transport Dreams and Urban Realities,” published last June in the United States, Kassens-Noor looks at a decade of Olympic Games and how the host cities have changed because of the games.
“My theory is that mega-events impact cities forever, whether it’s economic development, transportation or global recognition as a power in earning medals,” she says. “For instance, London was the first city to stage the Olympic event three times. And it had one of the largest medal counts. The city now has world-class facilities because the British aspire to always be one of the top medal contenders in the Olympic Games.”
Kassens-Noor also cites the redevelopment of London’s East End to house the Olympic Park. East London had long been home to the capital’s working, criminal and creative classes. And Stratford, where the Olympic Park now stands, had been regarded by many as little more than a postindustrial wasteland, a relic of the city’s bygone manufacturing era.
“The East End is very much more connected,” Kassens-Noor says. “The London planners did an excellent job in aligning what they needed for the city and what was needed for the Olympics.”
But her book doesn’t focus on just London’s development and redevelopment efforts in the wake of an Olympic Games.
"The research for the book goes back probably about 10 years, when I started looking into how airports change and prepare for the peak demands that the Olympics impose on the airports and cities themselves," she says. To aid in her research, Kassens-Noor was granted interviews with key stakeholders in the planning process and had access to the Olympic archives.
Being a world traveler isn’t new for Kassens-Noor—she holds a joint appointment with the Global Urban Studies Program and is an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Geography, both at MSU. Born in Germany, she has lived in Sydney (Australia), London, Barcelona, Lausanne, Athens and Boston.
She is currently consulting with the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and planners in Rio de Janeiro on the 2016 Olympics.
“For me it’s always interesting to see what part of the event is driven by the IOC, the local government entities and the residents. I work on untangling these parts and look at what leads to planning these legacies,” Kassens-Noor said. She traveled to London and Switzerland to meet with officials planning the 2016 games. She will travel to Rio next year.
“There’s a big difference between London and Rio,” she said. “As events move from the global north to the global south, there are very different impacts and needs. Some cities have been able to move previously planned systems ahead at a quicker rate; other cities have to implement from the ground up.”
In London, for example, much effort was taken to upgrade existing public transportation systems and develop strategic corridors. Conversely, in Rio, a city of 12 million that use mainly cars and buses as transport means, a public transportation system capable of handling 400,000 passengers per hour needs to be implemented.
Kassens-Noor, a graduate of MIT, says that sustainability in future mega-events is becoming more important, and it’s an area in which she would like to continue researching.
“As of now, the IOC is really the only mega-event owner that is looking into how to be more sustainable,” she says. “London was the first city to say it would hold the most sustainable Olympic Games, but there’s a lot more research to be done in that area.”
Additionally, Kassens-Noor will study how other mega-events such as the FIFA World Cub and World’s Fairs affect urban development.