You will see a lot of Brazil during the next few weeks while the FIFA World Cup happens in 12 cities. And beyond soccer matches you will see both good and bad images, parties and protests. People there are asking hard questions about the legacy of mega-events such as World Cup, and we should too.
Overall, the Brazilian people are shouting out that mega-events can be quite profitable for organizers, sponsors and contractors, but extremely disruptive where they happen.
For the soccer World Cup, four new stadiums were built and eight were drastically renovated at a cost of $4 billion. In addition, several infrastructure projects to expand and improve airports, rapid transit bus routes and light rail were built, along with incentives for hotels, which increased the hosting capacity of some cities by as much as 50 percent, costing another $10 billion. For the Summer Olympics of 2016, another $15 billion will be invested.
However, there is an overall feeling in Brazil that such mega-events are a missed opportunity at best, and that the billions would be better spent on hospitals and schools. Add to that the fact that many of the transportation projects are behind schedule or have been canceled.
In the hurry to build the hosting and transportation infrastructure for the World Cup, thousands of people were displaced from their homes or saw their communities deeply transformed by the construction. In Rio de Janeiro, where the World Cup final will be played July 13, the problems are exacerbated by the preparations for the 2016 Summer Olympics that are going full force. No wonder Brazilians took to the streets to protest last year and will surely do so again, using the World Cup as a publicity tool to pressure the local government.
This conversation should resonate in Texas, especially in cities such as Austin and San Antonio, which are increasingly becoming mega-event kinds of cities. Austin already hosts two large music festivals and the Circuit of the Americas race track with its many events every year. In San Antonio, the city is building more event space to attract Las Vegasstyle shows and conventions. But what is the legacy of those mega-events for the entire city, beyond organizers, sponsors and contractors? In short, not much beyond the traditional talk of tourism and tax revenue.
Fifty years ago, French theorist Guy Debord warned us that our society was moving toward a dictatorship of spectacles, with little concern for individual expression and rights. Cities are now franticly competing for those events with little thought as to why exactly they should do this. We should not spend precious resources to showcase our cities to the world 20 days per year when what should matter is the well-being of our sidewalks and parks during the other 345 days.
It is easy to look at Brazil and blame governmental inefficiency for the delayed mass-transit projects, but what do we have to show in Texas? Austin doesn’t get a better Zilker Park after the Austin City Limits Music Festival. We are not planning a transit system out to the airport and the Circuit of the Americas, which we should. Think about Atlanta after the 1996 Summer Olympics or Salt Lake City after the Winter Games of 2002. Are they better off? Many people would say that the outcome is uncertain. I would argue that it has been profitable for a few and added nothing for the large majority of residents.
I applaud my fellow Brazilians for asking tough questions about the legacy of such mega-events, and I urge my fellow Texans to do the same in their cities. For decades we got used to the discourse that cities need such events as branding and investment opportunities, but we never ask who is really benefiting.
I hope that we do not wait for yet another mega-event in order to start building the long-overdue projects that would improve life for the majority. Or perhaps we should indeed wait for another mega-event to trigger strong street protests or an Occupy-type movement as we see in Brazil, waking us up to the fact that our 20th-century car-oriented city is way past its expiration date.
Fernando Luiz Lara is an associate professor of architecture at The University of Texas at Austin, where he serves also as chair of the Brazil Center at the Lozano Long Institute of Latin American Studies.
A version of this op-ed appeared in the Houston Chronicle and the Austin American Statesman.