Forward thinking - Aecom’s Rio masterplan

As the world’s attention turns to Rio’s present, the organisers of the 2016 Olympic Games will have one eye on the city’s future. Engineering firm Aecom was appointed to deliver a three-stage masterplan for the Olympics, culminating in a 20-year legacy outlook. Bill Hanway, the company’s global sports leader, reveals the importance of flexibility and sustainability to ensuring a positive legacy from the biggest event in global sports.

Forward thinking - Aecom’s Rio masterplan

As the world’s attention turns to Rio’s present, the organisers of the 2016 Olympic Games will have one eye on the city’s future. Engineering firm Aecom was appointed to deliver a three-stage masterplan for the Olympics, culminating in a 20-year legacy outlook. Bill Hanway, the company’s global sports leader, reveals the importance of flexibility and sustainability to ensuring a positive legacy from the biggest event in global sports. 

By Adam Nelson 

‘Legacy.’ It has become one of the buzzwords of the Olympic movement in recent years and, with Rio de Janeiro’s stated goal of hosting the most sustainable Olympics ever, it is set to dominate much of the conversation in the aftermath of this year’s Games. Spurred on by increasing concerns about the environmental and societal effects of major sporting events, and encouraged further by International Olympic Committee (IOC) president Thomas Bach’s Agenda 2020 programme – which asks local organising committees, national Olympic committees and international federations alike to focus as much on the social impact of the Olympics as the sporting side – ensuring a positive legacy has become as important as hosting a positive competition.

One of the beneficiaries of this focus has been Aecom, the US-based multinational engineering firm appointed to oversee the development, design and construction of Rio’s Barra Olympic Park, which also worked on London’s Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park and was appointed by Rio’s organising committee to deliver the legacy plan for the 2016 Games.

For Bill Hanway, global sports leader at Aecom, and his team, ‘legacy’ is not simply something that kicks in when the party is over, after the athletes have packed up and the fans gone home.

Instead, the planning for the legacy of Rio’s Olympics has taken place in parallel with the conceptual development of the entire project, with Aecom establishing a 20-year masterplan which will see it manage the enterprise through three distinct phases: preparation, transition, and long-term legacy.

If planning an Olympic Games on its own doesn’t seem daunting enough a proposal, thinking about what will happen next, taking into account various unforeseeable future possibilities, is a near impossible task. But no one said it was going to be easy. “Rio,” as Hanway succinctly puts it, “is complex.”

“It’s complex in many ways,” he says. “First and foremost, if you think back to when Rio won the games seven years ago, their economy was in the absolute ascendency. They were poised to overtake the UK in the global GDP tables and everything was very, very positive. The legacy planning that was based in that initial work certainly reflected that sense of communal optimism.”

The situation over the past few years, of course, has changed dramatically. Brazil’s economy collapsed, and the country has been wracked with political and societal instability in recent years, with mass street protests regularly disrupting daily life in the country’s biggest city. The president, Dilma Rousseff, is facing an impeachment trial which, despite the best efforts of her prosecutors, is set drag on throughout the Olympic and Paralympic Games. And, over the last few months, the outbreak of the Zika virus in the region has led to the suggestion from some quarters – though dismissed by the World Health Organisation (WHO) – that the Olympics should be postponed or moved.

The Olympics was supposed to be the grand finale in an extended celebration of Brazil and its culture – running through the Fifa World Cup in 2014 – but instead it has proved a controversial flashpoint around which many of the other crises in the country have coalesced. In light of this, ensuring a positive legacy for the Games has become an ever more pressing issue.

First and foremost, if you think back to when Rio won the games seven years ago, their economy was in the absolute ascendency.

Although Aecom came to the Rio Games relatively late in the process – it wasn’t officially contracted by the local organising committee until early 2012, when it began work on the overall masterplan for the Games – the company has been in place during much of that turbulence. This has enabled Hanway and his team to really demonstrate the benefits of building the project’s legacy into the masterplan, and having a flexible team in place who are able to adjust to unforeseen circumstances.

“It was in some ways exciting to have that opportunity to have less time to work in, to have to do things a bit more on the go,” says Hanway. “At the same time as we were developing the master planning, our architecture and sports architecture teams were also developing the venues to serve up the schematic level. So we had to make sure that the plans worked in terms of operational overlay for the Games, but also that the seating bowls and the venues were designed in principle in three dimensions to the specifications of each sporting federation.

“So rather than it being sequential, where you tender the masterplan, then you tender the venues and then you tender the construction, the fact that the Rio’s Municipal Olympic Company already had the major contractors in place and that we had finished the schematic design level before the city then sent out competitions for Brazilian and international architects, meant that the whole process was much more secure in terms of the basic premise of operation and delivery. That was how we caught up those extra years.”

From the start, even prior to the economic and political malaise in the country, Brazil’s goal was to present the ‘best value’ Olympics possible, with sustainability at the heart of that. The Fifa World Cup the country hosted just two years ago was testament to the risks of rushing into such a large-scale project without sufficient legacy planning; the ‘white elephant’ stadiums currently sitting vacant in Brasilia, Manaus and other cities a stark warning to organisers of similar events.

“It’s a painful and valuable lesson for every city that’s contemplating hosting major sporting events to acknowledge,” says Hanway. “There’s always an enthusiasm and possibly an overestimation of the ability to have venues develop significant business plans post-Games. That has to be reviewed very carefully as any of these major sporting events are going to come under greater scrutiny, for all the right reasons, in terms of expenditure. I think it’s very important that it is acknowledged.

“It was always pre-eminent in the thought process of the mayor and the mayor’s team, in that how do you deliver venues in a responsible way, and it was not just about reducing carbon footprints or sustainable use of materials but it was the entire concept of how you create a methodology and approach to delivering a Games which has a long-term use and will be used for generations. So whatever the final number that comes out in terms of overall cost, there’s always something else that it is leaning towards.”

Re-usable and temporary venues are one thing, Hanway says, but Aecom felt that even more could be done in Rio in terms of maximising the value and sustainability of those spaces which weren’t likely to see much sporting use after hosting Olympic competition – with many of the spaces being put to social good, turned into schools, public training facilities and community centres.

“In Rio, the handball and aquatics venues are reusable and will be reused, but also it’s about all the venues having a solid business plan,” explains Hanway. “The three main Olympic training centre halls that constitute the biggest building on the site, they have already a business plan that allows them obviously to be used for elite athlete training but also for community use, but most importantly the mayor is producing a series of sporting excellence secondary schools and this will become one, so it will be transforming one of the halls, to still be able to be used for competition but much more with classrooms and academic facilities.”

While Hanway acknowledges that there was “no way we could predict the complete turnaround of the economy in Brazil” in the years in the build-up to the Olympics, “part of being sustainable is not having the arrogance to think that a masterplan that’s drawn in 2012 will continue to have perfect relevance all the way through 20 years down the line”. Flexibility is crucial no matter how long the timeframe, but particularly when considering something as big as the Olympics.

“For me and the team that worked with me, it was very much around understanding that whatever ideas we had at that moment five years ago would have to be flexible and adaptable to meet my changing needs that the city had,” says Hanway. “So as much as it’s about value and materials and sustainability and responsibility, it’s also about creating a plan that’s flexible and adaptable while having key structures in place to be consistent about the big idea.”

When devising an event and its legacy in parallel, however, that ‘big idea’ is by necessity a balancing act between sometimes conflicting interests, with multiple parties keen to ensure that no one part of the planning stage takes precedence over any other. Rather than being a compromise, the process is “more about one informing the other,” says Hanway.

“So we establish long-term holistic goals with the mayor’s team in terms of what they want to see on that site,” he adds. “We then balance that with the requirements of the IOC and the federations in terms of delivering sporting excellence for the athletes and the spectators, and then look at how best to deliver and compose that on the site.

“The way that you start that process is listening to the needs of the leadership and the key stakeholders. It’s exactly what we did in London which is, we have the skills to prepare and deliver a great Games, but that’s our specific point of view and when we go into a new country with a new culture, it’s very much about listening to the cultural differences and adjustments, the environmental and physical changes and differences from city to city, but also understanding specifically what the community needs are and what the long-term goals of politicians and stakeholders are, so that is how we started the process.”

Aecom was appointed to oversee the construction and development of London's Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park.

Of the many differences between the two cities, the physical geography of Rio presents much more of a challenge – and an opportunity – than the British capital. With its varied landscapes, with the rainforest on one side and the ocean on the other, the city is one of the most beautiful in the world, but is also limited in terms of its expansion.

“We have to acknowledge that it’s not just cultural difference, we’re not just working in a different country, but the basic physical context is very difficult,” Hanway explains. “The city is one of the most beautiful cities in the world and that has a lot to do with the fact that the rain forests and the mountains come right down to the beach and you get this great juxtaposition of beautiful beaches, blue water and the rain forests right there all on one composition. That obviously creates significant problems for the expansion of the city. To expand the city to the north or the west, you have to go through these mountains, which mean public transport, roadways and other critical infrastructure is a challenge.”

Certainly in Brazil, we have had a team on the ground in both Rio and São Paulo for almost 15 years.

This goes some way to explaining some of the complications encountered throughout the city’s preparations, and why much of this infrastructure has taken longer than planned to come to fruition – though the physical geography of the city should perhaps not have come as a surprise to the local organising committee. A two-lane elevated highway connecting the Barra Olympic Park with the rest of the city was only inaugurated at the end of May this year, after several delays, while a new metro line running from the city’s famous Ipanema Beach to the Olympic Park will open on 1st August, just four days before the opening ceremony, having been intended to be in use by the beginning of July.

It should be noted, though, that Aecom’s work on the Olympic Park has run to schedule, and Hanway gives a big part of the credit for that to the company’s pre-existing team in the city.

“A lot of people had made the assumption that we’re a large international company that swoops into cities, provides our thought process and then immediately departs,” he says. “And that’s never the case. Certainly in Brazil, we have had a team on the ground in both Rio and São Paulo for almost 15 years. And for us to have that ability to be able to work with our local teams so that we didn’t make any major cultural gaffes or understanding the attitude in the culture was incredibly important, especially since we had a much tighter time frame to deliver this masterplan than we did in London or any of the other large-scale sporting events that we’ve been involved in.”

All of the delays and issues in the run-up, of course, will be forgotten should the Games go ahead successfully and that all-important legacy is secured. The instability surrounding the country, both economically and socially, means that judging the success of that legacy in the short term will be difficult, but Hanway is clear on the processes he hopes to see in place.

“Reflecting back, by the time we get to [the 2020 Olympics in] Tokyo, I will be hoping to see that some of the key measures put in place around the social infrastructure of the site is underway,” he says. “Where we’ve been working to develop a concept with the mayor who called it ‘nomadic architecture,’ the ability to transform the handball arena into modular component part that can then be rebuilt as four primary schools, I would want to see the implementation of that at least being underway.

“And I’d love to see the transformation of Via Olímpica, the big common domain that runs all the way through the site, starting to develop in its legacy form which is pulling out some of the hard paving and planting some of the indigenous species of trees to start to soften that up.

“I am an optimist, and I love Rio,” he concludes. “So I have a lot of faith in the Brazilian people, that they will start to move towards stability and we will see both a fantastic Games and a fantastic legacy for this city.”