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The impact of events and mega-events in the city and the university

Fostering civic pride and debate about the place of Toronto "in the wider world"

The Toronto Pan Am Sports Centre, under construction at the University of Toronto Scarborough, will host the aquatics, fencing and modern pentathlon components of the 2015 Pan/Parapan American Games in 2015 (photo by Ken Jones)

From the recent In Memoriam remembrance of 1914-1918, to WorldPride or the Transit of Venus, the University of Toronto plays a key role in creating, organizing and hosting events that draw participants from across the city and around the globe.

But what about mega-events?

Toronto is preparing to host the 2015 Pan Am/Parapan Am Games and, although not on the same scale of such mega-events as the World Cup or the Olympics, the Games are already changing the University of Toronto’s Scarborough and St. George campuses. The University's new Goldring Centre and Toronto Pan Am Sports Centre have been specially built to accommodate the games.

Former social worker and U of T urban studies lecturer David Roberts has researched the effect of mega-events on host cities and spent almost a year in Durban, South Africa, researching how that city used the 2010 World Cup to market itself. Writer Dominic Ali caught up with Roberts to get his thoughts on how the upcoming games may affect Toronto.

U of T plays a key role in organizing and hosting some of Toronto’s most important events. How important are such events to a city? And how does the University’s experience prepare it for a mega event?

Events such as World Pride, Nuit Blanche and Science Rendezvous can be really important mechanisms for fostering civic pride and providing a space for conversation and debate about our city, its present condition, its future and its place in the wider world. U of T – both its students and faculty – can and should facilitate and engage with this conversation. And the experience of hosting a wide variety of events that are open to the public has given U of T significant knowledge on how to host PanAm/Parapan Am events. 

Will the upcoming Pan Am/Parapan Am games in Toronto change the city? 

This is hard to say. The infrastructure footprint of the PanAm and Parapan Am games is spread far and wide throughout the GTA, so that minimizes the physical changes we will see in Toronto. That said, the athletes' village [an 80-acre site next to the Don River in Toronto’s waterfront district] is a good example of the use of hosting an event to accelerate development in particular parts of the city.

We are seeing a similar motivation for some transportation projects, as well. Beyond infrastructure, I am not sure if we will see any other significant changes to the city.

What are some of the risks in betting that mega-events will revitalize cities?

There are several risks that cities face. Often, initial cost estimates are much less than the final figures. Additionally, potential economic impacts are often overstated. There is also significant risk that the new infrastructure will become a white elephant - something that has no real use after the event and is quite costly to maintain or repurpose.

Beyond that, I believe the biggest risk is one of priorities. A focus on mega-events or other tourist-oriented projects can lead to a set of investment priorities that are designed to attract and cater an external group of tourists rather than the needs of the city’s residents. Social justice concerns are often ignored in the process.

Finally, the costs of these events – especially with regards to the cost of security – have increased dramatically over the last decade.

Are there any examples of cities that have successfully transformed themselves because of a mega-event?

An example that is often cited as a success story is the 2002 Commonwealth Games in Manchester. The games are linked to a rebranding of the city into a premier sporting and tourism destination. For the Olympics, Barcelona and Sydney are often looked to as success stories. The German World Cup is often highlighted as well.

What’s the most important thing host cities should consider when planning mega-events?

For me, the biggest challenges that a host city or country faces is how to link the hosting of a mega-event to needs that extend beyond the specific requirements of hosting the event. Hosting a mega-event should complement urban investment priorities that would exist absent the event. In my opinion, this requires an open and democratic planning process that includes plenty of meaningful ways for the public to contribute.

The protests that we saw in Rio, and elsewhere in Brazil, [during the 2014 World Cup] are a symptom of a public feeling shut out of the process, a public belief that the money spent on hosting and event-related security could have been much better spent on other needs, and that the policing measures implemented were much more about making tourists feel safe than addressing the needs of the citizenry. These are legitimate reasons to protest a mega-event.

Dominic Ali writes about cities for U of T News.

August 14, 2014