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February 17, 2012

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London not aiming to 'outdo' Beijing

THE six-month countdown to the 2012 London Olympics has begun and American urban planner Bill Hanway feels just a bit of pressure since he has been one of the major leaders responsible for the London Olympic Park and the Legacy Masterplan.

That's not all. Hanway is also leading the design team for the Olympic Park for the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janiero, Brazil, as well as its legacy.

Fortunately, he has a team at AECOM, and everything for London is on target. Next stop: Rio.

One of the questions Hanway is frequently asked is how can London organizers possibly hope to compete, to say nothing of surpass, the awe-inspiring spectacle of the 2008 Summer Olympic Games in Beijing. The cost, including infrastructure upgrades, was US$47.4 billion, according to the Beijing Organizing Committee.

But no country feels the need to "outdo" China in an international debut spectacle.

"Every Olympics has to believe they're going to be the best Olympics ever," Hanway said to Shanghai Daily in an interview. "It's hard to compete directly in terms of the investment. In London, we are confident because of what we will have done, in meeting our own goals. It's really about what goals you set for your specific city."

This will be the third time London hosts the Olympics (1908 and 1948), the first in more than half a century since it rebuilt after World War II and developed itself into a world financial center. It will be staged in the bleakest economic and fiscal climate since the 1976 Montreal Olympics that was heavily in debt.

With a total public sector budget of 9.3 billion pounds (US$14.6 billion), the London organizers are looking at a bigger picture of post-Game benefits and a long-time legacy for the city - regeneration of a run-down area of East London.

"We had to make sure the masterplan brought significant improvements in the quality of life for the local communities. Importantly, we focused on delivering and addressing needs on education, transportation, open space, new schools and health facilities, and critically, a new urban park," Hanway said.

Born in Tokyo, the 50-year-old British citizen comes from an international family. His American father was an editor at a newspaper in Tokyo, Japan, where he met his mother, a professional Japanese artist at the paper.

He traveled extensively with his parents and sister, including three years in Paris through his father's work at The New York Times before settling in New York. He has been now living in London for over 15 years with his second-generation Chinese wife; his Asian-looking children speak with distinctive English accents.

"Thanks to my broad background, I feel that I am culturally aware and sensitive to local customs and traditions. When I work in the Middle East, Asia and China, I become sensitive to culture difference. I have learnt to be aware of the unique issues in each country and know you need to be flexible in finding solutions in the context of culturally complex areas," Hanway said.

Ever since he was a child, his artist mother taught him and his sister to draw; sketchbooks were always at handy for drawing landscapes, figures, street scenes. He was drawn to architecture.

He trained and qualified as an architect at Harvard University's Graduate School of Design and worked in the field for 10 years before changing his focus to integrated urban planning.

"I was fascinated by the idea of affecting the quality of life of a city," Hanway said with a smile.

Today he is the Executive Director of Operations for the Planning, Design +Development group at US-headquartered AECOM, a global provider of technical and management support services in markets such as transportation, architecture, planning, environmental protection, energy and water.

When he turned to urban planning, he never expected that one day he would work on an Olympics masterplan. For almost eight years he has been working on the London masterplan and he will spend the next four years developing the Olympic Park for the 2016 Summer Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.

"I personally don't know if I would have the energy to do a third Olympics," Hanway laughs, "but we'll see."

Q: Please describe key aspects of the London and Rio Games.

A: In London, it was essential to focus not just on the Olympics celebration itself, but also on how such an amount of money would be used to deliver a long-time legacy. The Olympics is specifically placed near one of the poorest neighborhoods (Lower Lea Valley), transforming a 3-million-square-meter former industrial wasteland into the focus of a brand-new public park.

We always say that 70 percent of all money delivered for the Games has some direct legacy attribute. So every time we put money into infrastructure, that infrastructure is for the long-time benefit of the legacy. That concept of the importance of legacy is also being applied to the Rio Olympics.

Q: How to combine the host cities' characteristics with the entire plan?

A: There was an industrialized river hidden inside the London site. So it was key to open it up and position the park with a river running through it. There are these beautiful canals running through that are part of the industrial heritage of London. It's an important part of the plan because the British are very much focused on the beauty of nature and parks.

Rio is a fantastically exciting city. It's about passion and sports. Rio boasts the ecology of the Atlantic Forest, the habitat of some 25,000 species, about 50 percent of those are unique only to that rainforest. So the design for Rio is derived from the different aspects of what the rainforest has given. We designed a series of little villages, each one based around a type of plant we find there.

Q: Have you ever considered how to surpass the Beijing Olympics while planning for the London and Rio Games?

A: I was here for Beijing and it was fantastic. But success will be measured in different ways.

Beijing is very much about celebrating the country's huge success, its coming onto the world's stage. While London is looking at delivering regeneration, making sure investments are all very prioritized around the legacy - but also trying to be the most compact and efficient Games ever.

London has a number of temporary facilities built only for the Games and they will be sold to other sporting events, perhaps even Rio, and for other uses. In this way, we leave a lot of platforms for new residential, school or new community facilities. And Rio will be looking in a different way at what the Games can deliver for the city of Rio, how Rio itself enters upon the world stage, and again how to be as efficient as possible.

Q: What are the biggest challenges in designing the two Olympic Parks?

A: From the purely Olympic standpoint, it is a three-week celebration of sporting excellence, which costs a huge amount of money. So there's a real fiscal and financial responsibility to ensure the money is spent in a way that brings the greatest benefits and long-term health to the city and its people. The Olympics creates a huge center focus. But the important thing is what happens after the Games, what we leave there on the ground is the most important factor.

Q: Does the bleak global economy affect your plan?

A: London won the right to host the games in 2005. And the financial crash was in 2008 and 2009. London was clearly affected, including some processes and funding, by austerity measures being applied.

The financial picture influences the Rio Games too, but equally, Brazil is one of the few countries, along with China, that is experiencing huge growth. Brazilians are very optimistic in terms of national economic growth, but they understand the context and the global scale of the slowdown. So we try to be as efficient and financially responsible as possible.

Q: What are some particular responses to the financial situation?

A: A couple of things. In London, one of the biggest effects was the funding sources, which was assumed to come from both the public and private sector as well as public-private partnerships. In the end almost all the funding came from the public sector. This change made us much more sensitive to being as efficient as possible. One example was the focus on the use of temporary facilities and how they would be used in the future.

Q: What's your view of Shanghai's urban planning?

A: Shanghai is one of my favorite cities. What I love is the celebration of modernity and future success, but I also like the way some of the key historic elements are being preserved. I think people love to come to Shanghai because they can stay in a five-star hotel skyscraper and also be able to understand the history of the city, and it is really important for a city to have that personality and character.

Q: Any problems?

A: Every major city, with the speed at which Shanghai and all China are growing, has some growing pains. These can be public transport, how people get around, the increased cost of living and how it affects people's lives. So when we look at cities and designs, we always take these things into consideration, trying to look at fundamentally improving the quality of life for residents when we design.

Q: There are complaints about urban density, especially in cities like Shanghai. What should be done?

A: I've lived my life in Tokyo, Paris, New York and London, so I'm probably not the best person to comment on density. I'm an urban dweller. I think cities are incredibly important for people's lives and the future of our planet. I don't fear density is a problem, if we have the right public transport and open space, and we can ensure that quality of life, regardless of personal income, is successful and enjoyable.

Q: Much of Shanghai's green space is scattered in suburbs and people who live in the city's core can't enjoy it. What's your view?

A: In any city with history there's room for improvement. The ability to look at new developments and take open space requirements into consideration is probably the right thing to do.

Q: How do you describe your own design style?

A: Generous, warm and nice (laughs). To be a successful urban planner, you have to be able to listen. It's important to listen to local communities, political leadership, but equally listen to the multi-disciplinary teams that are necessary to create a successful solution. To me, it's understanding these important inputs and synthesizing to create a series of priorities and ideas that should define the design concepts.

Q: Who do you listen to for the London Olympic Park?

A: We took a lot of time to sit down and discuss issues with the local communities. We created a database containing all kinds of analysis of "deprivation indices" including infrastructure, transportation, health and education facilities, which creates a very dry but informative foundation for the design. It's not until we talk with local people that the challenges become clear and the local communities' needs are prioritized.

Q: What's the trend for future urban planning?

A: Globally, city planning is an acceptance that urban population will continue to grow. If we want to preserve the beauty of natural habitat, cities do have to become a priority for human growth. In return for that, we have to make sure the cities are livable. The quality of life is improved. Critical to that, city development has to look at the sustainable principles of water preservation, balancing, habitats, looking at reducing power consumption … all of the things that will make life more tenable to the planet.


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