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The New Urban Order: Big Events Like the Olympics Matter — Just Not the Way You Think

How cities prep for major happenings — like the country’s 250th anniversary, here in Philly in 2026 — matters just as much (if not more) than how the events themselves go

The New Urban Order: Big Events Like the Olympics Matter — Just Not the Way You Think

How cities prep for major happenings — like the country’s 250th anniversary, here in Philly in 2026 — matters just as much (if not more) than how the events themselves go

One of my favorite books about city-making is Dan Doctoroff’s account of his years as deputy mayor of New York City, Greater Than Ever. The book chronicles New York’s post-9/11 transformation, which was catalyzed in no small part by Doctoroff’s quest to host the 2012 Olympics there. The creation of Hudson Yards in Midtown Manhattan, Atlantic Yards in Brooklyn, new stadiums for the Yankees and Mets, and more all came out of efforts for the ultimately doomed bid.

While I wish for New York that its Olympics planning had looked more like what Paris’s approach to the games does, with an array of sustainability and equity-focused moves — such as dramatically reducing car traffic in the city, making its river swimmable, banning disposable plastic bottles, creating permanently affordable housing out of the Olympic Village — it’s impressive how Doctoroff leveraged the Olympic bid to get leaders and locals alike to envision, plan for, and eventually develop new buildings and even neighborhoods in New York.

New York never got the Olympics, but now the U.S. is on the cusp of a cycle of major events: 11 American cities will be hosting the World Cup in 2026, the country (and Philadelphia in particular) will be celebrating its 250th anniversary the same year, and Los Angeles will host the Olympics in 2028. Collectively, a lot of international attention and tourism will be focused on the country in the coming half-decade. These are once-in-a-generation opportunities — so are we seeing proportionately innovative investments in these cities? Not exactly.

Learning from Los Angeles

Former Curbed writer Alissa Walker now pens a newsletter entitled Torched, which documents the past, present, and future of Los Angeles’s 2028 games.

In a piece about Los Angeles’s failure to realize its plans for the Olympics, she examines the city’s audacious goal to build 28 new transit projects by 2028.

What happened to 28 by 28 is what’s happening to a lot of L.A.’s Olympic-related goals at the moment: a flashy announcement got a lot of attention yet had no strategy to actually make it happen.

She goes on to tally the results of 28 by 28:

At this moment, if we were still on the original 28 by 28 timeline, the D (Purple) Line would be taking people all the way to Wilshire and La Cienega, Valley travelers could ride a bus rapid transit line from North Hollywood to Pasadena, LAX passengers could take a train into the airport, and a gap-free greenway running the entire length of the L.A. River would be just about to open. That’s not exactly how it’s panned out, as you may have noticed. For those filling out their 28 by 28 scorecards at home, we’re currently at 3 completed projects, 7 under construction, 6 in the engineering phase, 12 in the planning phase, and 10 that definitely won’t happen by 2028.

Still, it may be the goal-setting of 28 by 28 that has improved the transit culture in Los Angeles over the past decade. Walker writes:

Other big cities lost so many transit riders during the pandemic that they haven’t been able to bring them back. But L.A.’s ridership rebounded quickly and kept growing. We’re now second in ridership numbers nationwide after New York.

But in many of Walker’s accounts the city seems underprepared for how to make the most of this historic opportunity. In another piece, Walker reports from a public panel discussion about the Olympics:

“The cavalry is not coming,” said Erin Bromaghim, L.A.’s deputy mayor of international affairs, who was seated next to Reynolds on the panel. “We, the collective we, in this room are the cavalry. If you have a great idea for something that you’d like to see happen, and you want to use 2028 as either the debut or the time to deliver that, or whatever, let’s do it.”

Wait. The Olympic legacy improvements are up to … us?

Making the most of the Olympics

The city that is making the most of the Olympics seems to be L.A.’s neighbor, Long Beach, which recently voted to raise its minimum wage to $29.50 per hour by 2028 — and at $23 per hour (as of July 1, 2024) is now the highest minimum wage in the country. Walker adds that Long Beach will be hosting some Olympic events such as BMX, rowing and open water swimming, but the city has also approved a $758 million capital improvement plan encompassing 180 public works projects. “It includes everything from sidewalk widening to stormwater medians, 25 ‘gold medal’ park renovation projects, and improvements to public buildings like fire stations and libraries.” In other words, it’s using the Olympics to improve every day life for residents.

It is the process of bidding — building consensus around a vision for the city, aligning local players to get stuff done, showing there’s a need for the development that’s not currently happening — that is important.

How the Olympics transform a city has long been a subject of debate. Does it actually benefit cities, or just burden them with sites and infrastructure that have little purpose after the games? A comprehensive 2016 paper, “Going for the Gold: The Economics of the Olympics,” found that “the overwhelming conclusion is that in most cases the Olympics are a money-losing proposition for host cities; they result in positive net benefits only under very specific and unusual circumstances. Furthermore, the cost-benefit proposition is worse for cities in developing countries than for those in the industrialized world.” The paper came out around the 2016 games in Rio de Janeiro, a poster child for cost overruns, inequality and a widespread sense that the Olympics were not the best use of public dollars.

Los Angeles has been trying to be frugal about its games by reusing old sites rather than building too many new ones, perhaps in an effort to not overspend and deal with accusations of misspending public funds. But if a city doesn’t use the Olympics to transform itself, what good is it?

The 2026 World Cup

Could it be the massive scale and duration of the Olympics that is to blame for its weak return on investment? Might then smaller and shorter events, such as hosting some games of the World Cup, be just enough gas to rev up local economies without putting them into overdrive?

Eleven American cities will host World Cup games in 2026. Most are making modest improvements, some new construction, some ideas about temporary transportation measures, improvements to the game stadiums. In Philadelphia, local leaders have been pushing the bid for the games for years now, but I’ve yet to hear much beyond hotel room counts and visits to Philadelphia’s tourism sites. A new South Philadelphia sports and entertainment complex that is in the planning phases would not be ready to take advantage of the World Cup moment.

More than any other city, Atlanta is using its eight World Cup games as a launchpad for development. The city is creating an 8-acre “center of gravity” for the games scheduled to be completed by summer of 2026. And that project is just part of a larger 50-acre Centennial Yards development put together with a record-breaking $2 billion in tax incentives.

While I’m not applauding this particular brand of development, it’s notable how the city has used the relatively tiny seed of the World Cup to grow a sequoia-sized development. Imagine if Atlanta had used Paris’s or Long Beach’s model of leveraging the World Cup for neighborhood investments instead?

The country’s 250th birthday

But what about big events that don’t follow the traditional combinations of stadiums, hotels, and tourism districts? In 2026, the United States will be celebrating its 250th anniversary. Philadelphia, where the Declaration of Independence was signed, has been thinking ahead to this milestone for more than a decade. The country’s first centennial and World’s Fair in 1876 still casts a long shadow.

It’s notable how Atlanta has used the relatively tiny seed of the World Cup to grow a sequoia-sized development

Cumulatively hundreds of temporary and permanent buildings were constructed for the 1876 event, dozens of important inventions such as the telephone and typewriter unveiled, thousands of exhibitors showcased wares and ideas, from small businesses to country pavilions like those depicted above. The event gathered 10 million people — about one quarter of all Americans at the time.

Best event ever?

More than a decade ago, a first nonprofit called USA250 sought to think ambitiously about what could be achieved by 2026, particularly in Philadelphia. But perhaps because there is no formula for the semiquincentennial, the vision of who should lead what and how has been blurry. A toxic political environment at all levels of government and an absentee mayor for most of the intervening years has not helped.

Josh Shapiro at the Visit Philadelphia event. Photo by Chris Mansfield for Philadelphia City Council.

In May, Visit Philadelphia, the city’s tourism marketing non-profit, and Governor Josh Shapiro hosted a preview of 2026 with the governor saying:

From the TED Democracy Series starting this summer to the FIFA World Cup and the MLB All Star Game, the Commonwealth is ready to host millions of visitors and show off our incredible towns and cities, like Philadelphia, to the world.

The year will also boast a youth continental congress, a citywide art festival, and community engagement opportunities.

While these are all bound to be exciting and interesting opportunities that will make 2026 a fun year in Philadelphia, they seemingly fail to add up to a significant turning point for the city.

And ultimately, that is what the Olympics can do for a city. Barcelona was never the same after 1992. Atlanta was never the same after 1996. The hope is that Philadelphia will not be the same after 2026. Perhaps the sustained attention will put the city on the map, nationally and internationally, unlike anything before. But I can’t say that was the case after we hosted the Democratic National Convention, or the Pope, or the NFL Draft, or any of the major concerts held on the Parkway. I don’t see how this time a lot of events and hotel stays are going to make a difference.

It’s not about winning, but bidding

If the Olympics, World Cup and even big events like the 250th are financial duds, why would we bother?

That paper about the cost-benefit analysis of the Olympics offers a clue. The authors examined “exports from 196 countries and territories between 1950 and 2006 and find that countries that host the Olympics experience an increase in exports of over 20 percent.” Pretty impressive!

But they also find that even just bidding for the Olympics generates similar results.

Back to the Doctoroff story, just bidding for the Olympics set New York on a trajectory of getting stuff built. It is the process of bidding — building consensus around a vision for the city, aligning local players to get stuff done, showing there’s a need for the development that’s not currently happening — that is important. It’s not about the hours of TV where your city’s name is on the screen. It’s not the hotel rooms. It’s the collective visioning process and alignment of important players that matters.

It’s also worth noting that only growing countries or cities have the capacity to bid for the Olympics, so it’s a self-selecting group of potential winners who are entering into this process in the first place.

Bidding isn’t only important for the Olympics. There have been many stories of how the Amazon HQ2 bidding process was actually really important for cities in terms of figuring out where their local economies stand, and their strengths and weaknesses.

Unfortunately, the federal government missed a chance a decade ago to act like the International Olympic Committee, creating a competitive process and picking hosts for the 250th. I think Philadelphia would have won as the primary host, but the city would have benefitted from outlining at the outset an ambitious vision for the 2026 celebration and then having years to follow through on it.

The silver lining here is knowing there is always another milestone on the horizon. I’ll be 93 when the country reaches 300 years old, but it’s really never too early to start planning.

Diana Lind is a writer and urban policy specialist. This article was also published as part of her Substack newsletter, The New Urban Order. Sign up for the newsletter here.


NYC’s 2012 Olympic bid included rezoning Hudson Yards; while the city didn’t get the Olympics, it still got a new neighborhood and train station.

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