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The Olympic lessons London can teach Rio

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The experience gained at Stratford can be a catalyst for the long-term transformation of Rio, writes Dan Epstein

In keeping with the Olympic tradition of cities sharing the experience of hosting the Games with the successor city, the Foreign Office has facilitated high level workshops, bringing 40 leaders from Brazilian central, regional and city government bodies to meet the people behind the London Games.

Knowledge exchange about sustainability is at the heart of this process. Following London’s example, Rio has adopted the slogan ‘Green Games for a Blue Planet’. The success of the London Games resulted from years of meticulous planning of every element. One eye was constantly on the long-term prize: the transformation of an economically depressed and ecologically degraded area the size of Venice into a new piece of city designed to exemplary sustainability standards.

Rio also has an eye on legacy. Its sustainability vision is similarly driven by an understanding that the Olympics can either happen to a city, often with negative consequences, or a city can use the Games as a catalyst for positive change. The football World Cup in 2014 and the Games are viewed by the mayor and people of Rio as unique opportunities to bring new investment to the city, to renew its infrastructure and to rebrand the city.

But Rio is divided by steep mountains, which make it difficult to navigate, and transport infrastructure is poor. Almost every hillside is occupied by squatter developments, known as favelas, where disenfranchised communities have claimed land, typically on steep slopes, and built homes on precarious foundations using cheap blocks and tin roofs in a subtropical climate prone to tropical downpours. The geographical conditions make enhancing the transport network incredibly difficult.

Major investment in the new Bus Rapid Transport network and the extension of the underground metro will be a major legacy of the Games. It will be interesting to see whether the new system encourages commuters to leave their cars at home over the long term.

With Rio’s low-energy grid, sustainable energy systems are less important than in London, but the big challenges are grid resilience (because the source of power is often very remote from demand) and availability of affordable energy. The role that renewable technologies can play is still unclear. A decentralised grid, using combined cooling, heat and power engines, has potential but would probably rely on natural gas and therefore increase carbon emissions.

Water is abundant but supply infrastructure is fragile. A fifth of Rio’s population is not yet served with basic sanitation and as a consequence surface water bodies are often polluted. Installing water and sewage infrastructure would be a great legacy, ensuring sewage is treated and disposed of safely away from Guanabara Bay, which has suffered from long-term pollution. This would recoup one of Rio’s great lost assets.

Brazil already leads the way in low-carbon energy: almost 90 per cent of its electricity grid relies on hydro power and bio-ethanol provides about half of its transport fuel. In the run-up to 2016, Brazil is striving to improve the condition of its population through major infrastructure and housing projects at a scale not seen in Britain since just after World War II. It has enormous mineral wealth but not yet the cash to develop the infrastructure it needs. e bureaucracy, too, is astonishing.

Rio’s approach to sustainability will be very different from London’s - and so it should be. The best outcome would be that delivering a ‘green games for a blue planet’ lays a fi rm foundation for long-term transformation.

Dan Epstein is the former head of sustainable development at the Olympic Delivery Authority and a director of the Useful Simple Trust, which is leading the sustainability input into the AECOM masterplan for Rio’s Olympic Park.

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