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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A nation that doesn’t officially exist: on Somaliland’s campaign to build a national library in Hargeisa

The Somaliland National Library, Hargeisa. Image: Ahmed Elmi.

For seven years now, there’s been a fundraising campaign underway to build a new national library in a nation that doesn’t officially exist. 

Since 2010, the Somali diaspora have been sending money, to pay for construction of the new building in the capital, Hargeisa. In a video promoting the project, the British journalist Rageeh Omar, who was born in Mogadishu to a Hargeisa family, said it would be... 

“...one of the most important institutions and reference points for all Somalilanders. I hope it sets a benchmark in terms of when a country decides to do something for itself, for the greater good, for learning and for progress – that anything can be achieved.”

Now the first storey of the Somaliland National Library is largely complete. The next step is to fill it with books. The diaspora has been sending those, too.

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Some background is necessary here to explain the “country that doesn’t exist” part. During the Scramble for Africa of the 1880s, at the height of European imperialism, several different empires established protectorates in the Somali territories on the Horn of Africa. In 1883, the French took the port of Djibouti; the following year, the British grabbed the north coast, which looks out onto the Gulf of Aden. Five years after that, the Italians took the east coast, which faces the Indian Ocean.

And, excepting some uproar during World War II, so things remained for the next 70 years or so.

The Somali territories in 1890. Image: Ingoman/Wikimedia Commons.

When the winds of change arrived in 1960, the British and Italian portions agreed to unite as the Somali Republic: a hair-pin shaped territory, hugging the coast and surrounding Ethiopia on two sides. But British Somaliland gained its independence first: for just five days, at the end of June 1960, it was effectively an independent country. This will become important later.

(In case you are wondering what happened to the French bit, it voted to remain with France in a distinctly dodgy referendum. It later became independent as Djibouti in 1977.)

The new country, informally known as Somalia, had a difficult history: nine years of democracy ended in a coup, and were followed by the 22 year military dictatorship under the presidency of General Siad Barre. In 1991, under pressure from rebel groups including the Hargeisa-based Somali National Movement (SNM), Barre fled, and his government finally collapsed. So, in effect, did the country.

For one thing, it split in two, along the old colonial boundaries: the local authorities in the British portion, backed by the SNM, made a unilateral declaration of independence. In the formerly Italian south, though, things collapsed in a rather more literal sense: the territory centred on Mogadishu was devastated by the Somali civil war, which has killed around 500,000, displaced more than twice that, and is still officially going on.

Somalia (blue) and Somaliland (yellow) in 2016. Image: Nicolay Sidorov/Wikimedia Commons.

The north, meanwhile, got off relatively lightly: today it’s the democratic and moderately prosperous Republic of Somaliland. It claims to be the successor to the independent state of Somaliland, which existed for those five days in June 1960.

This hasn’t persuaded anybody, though, and today it’s the only de facto sovereign state that has never been recognised by a single UN member. Reading about it, one gets the distinct sense that this is because it’s basically doing okay, so its lack of diplomatic recognition has never risen up anyone’s priority list.

Neither has its library.

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Rageeh Omar described the site of the new library in his fundraising video. It occupies 6,000m2 in the middle of Hargeisa, two minutes from the city’s main hospital, 10 from the presidential palace. In one sequence he stands on the half-completed building’s roof and points out the neighbours: the city’s main high street, with the country’s largest shopping mall; the Ministry of Telecoms that lies right next door.

This spiel, in a video produced by the project’s promoters, suggests something about the new library: that part of its job is to be another in this list of landmarks, more evidence that Hargeisa, a city of 1.5m, should be recognised as the proper capital of a real country.

But it isn’t just that: the description of the library’s function, in the government’s Strategic Plan 2013-2023, makes clear it’s also meant to be a real educational facility. NGOS, the report notes, have focused their resources on primary schools first, secondary schools second and other educational facilities not at all. (This makes sense, given that they want most bang for their buck.)

And so, the new building will provide “the normal functions of public library, but also... additional services that are intentionally aimed at solving the unique education problems of a post conflict society”. It’ll provide books for a network of library trucks, providing “book services” to the regions outside Hargeisa, and a “book dispersal and exchange system”, to provide books for schools and other educational facilities. There’ll even be a “Camel Library Caravan that will specifically aim at accessing the nomadic pastoralists in remote areas”.

All this, it’s hoped, will raise literacy levels, in English as well as the local languages of Arabic and Somali, and so boost the economy too.

As described. Image courtesy of Nimko Ali.

Ahmed Elmi, the London-based Somali who’s founder and director of the library campaign, says that the Somaliland government has invested $192,000 in the library. A further $97,000 came from individual and business donors in both Hargeisa and in the disaspora. “We had higher ambitions,” Elmi tells me, “but we had to humble our approach, since the last three years the country has been suffering from a large drought.”

Now the scheme is moving to its second phase: books, computers and printers, plus landscaping the gardens. This will cost another $175,000. “We are also open to donations of books, furniture and technology,” Emli says. “Or even someone with technical expertise who can help up set-up the librarian system instead of a contemporary donation of a cash sum.” The Czech government, in fact, has helped with the latter: it’s not offered financial support, but has offered to spend four weeks training two librarians.  

Inside the library.

On internet forums frequented by the Somali diaspora, a number of people have left comments about the best way to do this. One said he’d “donated all my old science and maths schoolbooks last year”. And then there’s this:

“At least 16 thousand landers get back to home every year, if everyone bring one book our children will have plenty of books to read. But we should make sure to not bring useless books such celebrity biography books or romantic novels. the kids should have plenty of science,maths and vocational books.”

Which is good advice for all of us, really.


Perhaps the pithiest description of the project comes from its Facebook page: “Africa always suffers food shortage, diseases, civil wars, corruption etc. – but the Somaliland people need a modern library to build a better place for the generations to come.”

The building doesn’t look like much: a squat concrete block, one storey-high. But there’s something about the idea of a country coming together like this to build something that’s rather moving. Books are better than sovereignty anyway.

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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