Rio’s Olympics of urban planning disasters: Which one will win the gold?

Well, this is just a nightmare. Rio's Olympic mascots do their thing. Image: Getty.

The long-awaited 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics are finally here -- long-awaited, of course, because it’s been painfully clear for a long time now that these games are going to be an ungodly, nightmarish, train wreck of a mega event.

Forget those campy, ultra-high-def slow-mo montages of athletes strutting their stuff as the music from “Chariots of Fire” plays in the background that seem to appear on the world's TV stations every time the Olympics rolls round: the main reason people are paying attention this timeis out of some sadistic desire to see just how miserable a flop the 2016 games are going to be.

Yes, it’s been one of those Olympics, where everything that can go wrong does go wrong, and everything that can’t go wrong goes wrong anyway. That something had truly gone afoul during the preparation for Rio’s cherished mega-event had already become apparent well over a year ago to many outside observers (cough, cough, told you so).

But as the opening ceremonies drew near, Rio just kept screwing things up, sometimes almost cartoonishly so. The city suffered from pretty much everything, from killer cops to an improper response to the Zika virus, to the oh-so-symbolic shooting of the games’ mascot, a rare Amazonian jaguar. This dumpster fire of an Olympics has had journalists falling over themselves in search of fitting epithets to hurl at the event (“Rio, capital of disaster capitalism”, an “unnatural disaster”) only to be bested by the government of Rio itself, which declared a “state of calamity” a month before the games began.

So, guided by a passion for pithy reviews of urban planning projects that will never be snuffed out – unlike the Olympic torch, which was in fact snuffed out in advance of the opening ceremony, then relit – I present for your enjoyment a different kind of Olympics: a competition between all the planning nightmares loosed upon the good people of Rio to determine which one is the absolute worst. Which one will take the gold?

Runner up: Porto Maravilha Plan

Rio 2016’s flagship waterfront plan, Porto Maravilha, comes in a lackluster 6th place in our little bad planning Olympiad. Which is actually good news for the project, to the extent that being the least bad is actually good.

The project has succeeded in getting rid of the ugly freeway that had gutted the zone. But many residents now worry that construction by big-name developers, including a certain spray-tanned, proto-fascist US presidential candidate, will push out long time residents. Sad!

Runner up: Tim Maia Bike Path

This one involves people getting killed, as well as a cause I actually believe in when done right: bike lanes. So I’ll suspend my barrage of bad jokes until the next finalist.

As part of its Olympic plans, Rio officials planned and built a series of bike paths, including a long elevated section along the coast, named for famed Brazilian soul singer Tim Maia. But in late April, the path’s shoddy construction led to one section collapsing after being hit by a wave, killing two cyclists.

Runner up: Barra da Tijuca Olympic Golf Course

Olympic proponents in Rio have long argued that the games will be a huge benefit to the city’s poorest residents. But it will be an even huger benefit to the city’s richest residents, who will now have their very own golf course upon which to smack small white balls around with sticks, built on environmentally protected marshland as part of a project that also includes luxury condos.

Bronze Medal: Guanabara Bay Clean-up

Pollution in Guanabara Bay last year. Image: Getty.

If you want to get an idea of what Rio’s Guanabara bay looks like, think of one of those carnival games where you grab toys with a metal claw. Then replace the toys with dead fish, trash, and all kinds of other nasty stuff you don’t even want to think about. As a Gizmodo headline put it, “Rowers will literally paddle through shit at Rio Olympics”.

Officials are frantically trying to clean the bay up, though they’ve somehow ruled out the rather obvious strategy of putting an end to the dumping of raw sewage into the bay.

Silver Medal: Australian Athletes’ housing

The housing created for Olympic athletes has been downright lousy, to the point of being uninhabitable. The US basketball team has slyly avoided this issue by camping out on a cruise ship protected by hundreds of armed guards.

The Australian team, lacking its own cruise ship, nonetheless decided to abandon its own Olympic digs due to leaky pipes and exposed wiring, and instead to move into a hotel. Instead of offering to fix the problem, Rio’s mayor Eduardo Paes, showing the same level of planning prowess he did throughout the run-up to the games -- which is to say, none at all -- offered to bring in a kangaroo to make the Aussies feel more at home.


Gold Medal: Vila Autodromo

Back in 2010, an impoverished settlement on the western edge of Brazil named Vila Autodromo was slated to be obliterated to make way for an Olympic Park – a clever name for a site that would host a handful of events during the games and then be converted into mostly shopping malls and luxury condos.

In the years that followed, residents were bullied, intimidated, and in some cases physically assaulted in an attempt to make them go away. And in the end, despite fervent resistance, most of them did. Its 2010 population of 600 families was down to 20 by 2016.

Though this might not seem like a natural pick for the top slot, it gets the gold for two reasons. First, because it so perfectly sums up what has all too often been the norm for Rio’s Olympic planning. And second, because it actually has something of a happy ending. The 20 remaining families were allowed to stay in Vila Autodromo after the games ended. City officials, bungling planning efforts in so many cases, also lived up to their promise to provide new housing to these families.

And all it took was six years of relentless pressure and the vast majority of residents being bullied out of their homes. I love a happy ending.

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This fun map allows you to see what a nuclear detonation would do to any city on Earth

A 1971 nuclear test at Mururoa atoll. Image: Getty.

In 1984, the BBC broadcast Threads, a documentary-style drama in which a young Sheffield couple rush to get married because of an unplanned pregnancy, but never quite get round to it because half way through the film the Soviets drop a nuclear bomb on Sheffield. Jimmy, we assume, is killed in the blast (he just disappears, never to be seen again); Ruth survives, but dies of old age 10 years later, while still in her early 30s, leaving her daughter to find for herself in a post-apocalyptic wasteland.

It’s horrifying. It’s so horrifying I’ve never seen the whole thing, even though it’s an incredibly good film which is freely available online, because I once watched the 10 minutes from the middle of the film which show the bomb actually going off and it genuinely gave me nightmares for a month.

In my mind, I suppose, I’d always imagined that being nuked would be a reasonably clean way to go – a bright light, a rushing noise and then whatever happened next wasn’t your problem. Threads taught me that maybe I had a rose-tinted view of nuclear holocaust.

Anyway. In the event you’d like to check what a nuke would do to the real Sheffield, the helpful NukeMap website has the answer.

It shows that dropping a bomb of the same size as the one the US used on Hiroshima in 1945 – a relatively diddly 15kt – would probably kill around 76,500 people:

Those within the central yellow and red circles would be likely to die instantly, due to fireball or air pressure. In the green circle, the radiation would kill at least half the population over a period of hours, days or weeks. In the grey, the thing most likely to kill you would be the collapse of your house, thanks to the air blast, while those in the outer, orange circle would most likely to get away with third degree burns.

Other than that, it’d be quite a nice day.

“Little boy”, the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, was tiny, by the standards of the bombs out there in the world today, of course – but don’t worry, because NukeMap lets you try bigger bombs on for size, too.

The largest bomb in the US arsenal at present is the B-83 which, weighing in at 1.2Mt, is about 80 times the size of Little Boy. Detonate that, and the map has to zoom out, quite a lot.

That’s an estimated 303,000 dead, around a quarter of the population of South Yorkshire. Another 400,000 are injured.

The biggest bomb of all in this fictional arsenal is the USSRS’s 100Mt Tsar Bomba, which was designed but never tested. (The smaller 50MT variety was tested in 1951.) Here’s what that would do:

Around 1.5m dead; 4.7m injured. Bloody hell.

We don’t have to stick to Sheffield, of course. Here’s what the same bomb would do to London:

(Near universal fatalities in zones 1 & 2. Widespread death as far as St Albans and Sevenoaks. Third degree burns in Brighton and Milton Keynes. Over 5.9m dead; another 6m injured.)

Everyone in this orange circle is definitely dead.

Or New York:

(More than 8m dead; another 6.7m injured. Fatalities effectively universal in Lower Manhattan, Downtown Brooklyn, Williamsburg, and Hoboken.)

Or, since it’s the biggest city in the world, Tokyo:

(Nearly 14m dead. Another 14.5m injured. By way of comparison, the estimated death toll of the Hiroshima bombing was somewhere between 90,000 and 146,000.)

I’m going to stop there. But if you’re feeling morbid, you can drop a bomb of any size on any area of earth, just to see what happens.


And whatever you do though: do not watch Threads. Just trust me on this.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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