There used to be Olympic medals for town planning, except they kept giving them to sports facilities

Amsterdam, 1928. An Olympic medal winner inside an Olympic medal winner. Image: Hulton Archive/Getty.

At the 1928 Olympics in Amsterdam, the Olympic Stadium won a gold medal. How the medal was presented to the stadium is not exactly clear. Presumably they buried it in the ground or something.

Okay, I’m exaggerating, but not by as much as you might think. The stadium was performance, not performer: the medal actually went to its Dutch architect Jan Wils, for his achievements in the now rarely played sport of “mixed architecture, architectural designs”.

The silver went to Denmark’s  Ejnar Mindedal Rasmussen, for a swimming pool in the village of Ollerup; the bronze to Frenchman Jacques Lambert for a stadium at Versailles.

The Olympic judges, you will notice, really like sports facilities.

All this sounds a bit weird today. We’re used to strange sports popping up at the Olympics – keirin, skeleton, “Nordic combined”, horse dancing – but at least those are, well, sports. They’re a physical activity based on co-ordination, skill and actually moving about. Architecture, as important as it is, is not a sport.

But for a long time, the Olympics weren’t just about sport: for nearly four decades, arts competitions were an integral part of the Games.

When the founder of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), Baron Pierre de Coubertin, came to revive the games in 1896, he wanted to emulate the ancient Greek originals as closely as possible. Those games had included sculpture, poetry and other forms of artistic expression (they were a great place to pick up a rich patron); and so, de Coubertin wanted to include them in his modern version, too.

The arts competitions were excluded from the early games, however, apparently on the grounds that organising a sports day big enough to bring together the entire world was quite difficult enough, without geting a bunch of musical divas involved too. Attempts to include them in the 1908 event were dropped, after an inconvenient eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 1906 forced the IOC to abandon plans to run the games in Rome and re-locate them to London.

At the 1912 games in Stockholm, though, medals were for the first time offered in the five arts known, sick-makingly, as “the pentathalon of the muses”: architecture, literature, music, painting and sculpture. These were repeated in 1920 and 1924 (no games in 1916; the world had other things on its mind, like the Somme).

Those early medals tables, though, are full of gaps: there simply weren’t enough entries.

And so, in a trick familiar to anyone who’s ever run an awards ceremony, the 1928 games started sub-dividing the categories. “Mixed painting” was replaced by “paintings”, “drawings and water colours” and “graphic works”. “Mixed sculpturing” was replaced by “statues” and “reliefs and medallions”. In the 1936 games – this is just wonderful – that was an Olympic medal in medals. (Nobody won the gold.)

Architecture, meanwhile, was replaced by “mixed architecture, architectural designs” (that was the one the stadium won), and – finally, the justification for writing about this on CityMetric – “town planning”.

What the difference was between these two categories is not as clear cut as one might hope. There were four games at which medals were offered in these categories (1928, 1932, 1936 and 1948; again, the world was a bit busy in 1940 and 1944). In those four games, all 12 medals for architectural designs went to stadiums or other sports facilities.

In town planning, by contrast, only nine went to stadiums or other sports facilities. The other three went to parks. None seemed to go to any actual town plans. Whether this is because people got confused, because the type of people who want Olympic medals really like their sports, or because Olympic judges simply didn’t see the point of any other sort of facility, history does not record.

The 1948 London games were the last at which the arts medals were offered. In 1952 – party because of fears that professional artists were ruining what was then still an amateur event; partly because it was too much work for one IOC to cope with – they were dropped. Since then, the games have sometimes been accompanied by a Cultural Olympiad, but its importance has varied with the enthusiasm of the host city.

The sad truth is, if you’re a town planner, the days when you could dream of becoming an Olympian are long gone.

On the upside, we’ve stopped giving out medals for bloody sports stadiums.

Why not check our latest podcast, which is about the Olympics? Go on, it’s well good.

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Urgently needed: Timely, more detailed standardized data on US evictions

Graffiti asking for rent forgiveness is seen on a wall on La Brea Ave amid the Covid-19 pandemic in Los Angeles, California. (Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images)

Last week the Eviction Lab, a team of eviction and housing policy researchers at Princeton University, released a new dashboard that provides timely, city-level US eviction data for use in monitoring eviction spikes and other trends as Covid restrictions ease. 

In 2018, Eviction Lab released the first national database of evictions in the US. The nationwide data are granular, going down to the level of a few city blocks in some places, but lagged by several years, so their use is more geared toward understanding the scope of the problem across the US, rather than making timely decisions to help city residents now. 

Eviction Lab’s new Eviction Tracking System, however, provides weekly updates on evictions by city and compares them to baseline data from past years. The researchers hope that the timeliness of this new data will allow for quicker action in the event that the US begins to see a wave of evictions once Covid eviction moratoriums are phased out.

But, due to a lack of standardization in eviction filings across the US, the Eviction Tracking System is currently available for only 11 cities, leaving many more places facing a high risk of eviction spikes out of the loop.

Each city included in the Eviction Tracking System shows rolling weekly and monthly eviction filing counts. A percent change is calculated by comparing current eviction filings to baseline eviction filings for a quick look at whether a city might be experiencing an uptick.

Timely US eviction data for a handful of cities is now available from the Eviction Lab. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

The tracking system also provides a more detailed report on each city’s Covid eviction moratorium efforts and more granular geographic and demographic information on the city’s evictions.

Click to the above image to see a city-level eviction map, in this case for Pittsburgh. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

As part of their Covid Resource, the Eviction Lab together with Columbia Law School professor Emily Benfer also compiled a scorecard for each US state that ranks Covid-related tenant protection measures. A total of 15 of the 50 US states plus Washington DC received a score of zero because those states provided little if any protections.

CityMetric talked with Peter Hepburn, an assistant professor at Rutgers who just finished a two-year postdoc at the Eviction Lab, and Jeff Reichman, principal at the data science research firm January Advisors, about the struggles involved in collecting and analysing eviction data across the US.

Perhaps the most notable hurdle both researchers addressed is that there’s no standardized reporting of evictions across jurisdictions. Most evictions are reported to county-level governments, however what “reporting” means differs among and even within each county. 

In Texas, evictions go through the Justice of the Peace Courts. In Virginia they’re processed by General District Courts. Judges in Milwaukee are sealing more eviction case documents that come through their courtroom. In Austin, Pittsburgh and Richmond, eviction addresses aren’t available online but ZIP codes are. In Denver you have to pay about $7 to access a single eviction filing. In Alabama*, it’s $10 per eviction filing. 

Once the filings are acquired, the next barrier is normalizing them. While some jurisdictions share reporting systems, many have different fields and formats. Some are digital, but many are images of text or handwritten documents that require optical character recognition programs and natural language processors in order to translate them into data. That, or the filings would have to be processed by hand. 

“There's not enough interns in the world to do that work,” says Hepburn.

Aggregating data from all of these sources and normalizing them requires knowledge of the nuances in each jurisdiction. “It would be nice if, for every region, we were looking for the exact same things,” says Reichman. “Instead, depending on the vendor that they use, and depending on how the data is made available, it's a puzzle for each one.”

In December of 2019, US Senators Michael Bennet of Colorado and Rob Portman of Ohio introduced a bill that would set up state and local grants aimed at reducing low-income evictions. Included in the bill is a measure to enhance data collection. Hepburn is hopeful that the bill could one day mean an easier job for those trying to analyse eviction data.

That said, Hepburn and Reichman caution against the public release of granular eviction data. 

“In a lot of cases, what this gets used for is for tenant screening services,” says Hepburn. “There are companies that go and collect these data and make them available to landlords to try to check and see if their potential tenants have been previously evicted, or even just filed against for eviction, without any sort of judgement.”

According to research by Eviction Lab principal Matthew Desmond and Tracey Shollenberger, who is now vice president of science at Harvard’s Center for Policing Equity, residents who have been evicted or even just filed against for eviction often have a much harder time finding equal-quality housing in the future. That coupled with evidence that evictions affect minority populations at disproportionate rates can lead to widening racial and economic gaps in neighborhoods.

While opening up raw data on evictions to the public would not be the best option, making timely, granular data available to researchers and government officials can improve the system’s ability to respond to potential eviction crises.

Data on current and historical evictions can help city officials spot trends in who is getting evicted and who is doing the evicting. It can help inform new housing policy and reform old housing policies that may put more vulnerable citizens at undue risk.

Hepburn says that the Eviction Lab is currently working, in part with the ACLU, on research that shows the extent to which Black renters are disproportionately affected by the eviction crisis.

More broadly, says Hepburn, better data can help provide some oversight for a system which is largely unregulated.

“It's the Wild West, right? There's no right to representation. Defendants have no right to counsel. They're on their own here,” says Hepburn. “I mean, this is people losing their homes, and they're being processed in bulk very quickly by the system that has very little oversight, and that we know very little about.”

A 2018 report by the Philadelphia Mayor’s Taskforce on Eviction Prevention and Response found that of Philadelphia’s 22,500 eviction cases in 2016, tenants had legal representation in only 9% of them.

Included in Hepburn’s eviction data wishlist is an additional ask, something that is rarely included in any of the filings that the Eviction Lab and January Advisors have been poring over for years. He wants to know the relationship between money owed and monthly rent.

“At the individual level, if you were found to owe $1,500, was that on an apartment that's $1,500 a month? Or was it an apartment that's $500 a month? Because that makes a big difference in the story you're telling about the nature of the crisis, right? If you're letting somebody get three months behind that's different than evicting them immediately once they fall behind,” Hepburn says.

Now that the Eviction Tracking System has been out for a week, Hepburn says one of the next steps is to start reaching out to state and local governments to see if they can garner interest in the project. While he’s not ready to name any names just yet, he says that they’re already involved in talks with some interested parties.

*Correction: This story initially misidentified a jurisdiction that charges $10 to access an eviction filing. It is the state of Alabama, not the city of Atlanta. Also, at the time of publication, Peter Hepburn was an assistant professor at Rutgers, not an associate professor.

Alexandra Kanik is a data reporter at CityMetric.