Opinion

Torino, After Its Olympics

The Games transformed their city for the better, elected officials told me. Will we say the same?

By Geoff Meggs, 31 Aug 2009, TheTyee.ca

Torino Piazza

Torino's main square, Piazza Castello. Photo by Walter Aprile.

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There are few signs today that Torino, once the centre of Italy's massive automobile industry, was just four years ago consumed by hosting the 2006 Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games.

The logos and street decorations are long gone.

There are no tourist postcards of the Games, and city officials are vague about whether the last of the life-size mascots has finally been packed away.

But as Vancouver prepares for its opening ceremonies, the architects of the Torino Games recall their Olympic experience as transformative, a milestone in the history of their city.

I learned this on a recent trip to Torino, having already visited four years ago with a Vancouver delegation of community and labour activists headed by then-councilor Jim Green. At that time, Torino's recent economic dislocation and the pressure of a new wave of immigrants was plain to see. Since that trip, I often wondered whether the monumental effort of hosting the Games would pay dividends -- and if that experience would have any lessons for Vancouver.

So, when I went back to Italy for a personal visit earlier this summer, I seized the opportunity to meet some of Torino's elected officials -- the people who conceived the bid and organized the Games -- to see how closely their experience lived up to their hopes. I make no claim to have heard all sides or to have compared every bid promise to the final product, but I was struck by both how clear-headed their plan had been and how matter-of-fact they were about the result.

With just months to go to the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Games, the question for Vancouver is what we want for our city, and whether we can make it a reality.

Torino's bumpy road

Torino's story shows the possibilities. The city itself has about 900,000 residents in metropolitan region of 2.2 million, not far from the alpine towns that hosted the 2006 Games’ downhill events.

Once at the centre of 19th Italian politics and the drive for national unity, Torino became an industrial powerhouse -- only to face ruin a century later. Fiat's collapse in the 1990s destroyed 80,000 jobs and left an empty wasteland down the city's spine. By 1997, then-mayor Valentino Castellani believed Torino needed a new focus if it was to survive. The city was hemorrhaging jobs, the once-thriving industrial core was dead, and global guidebooks implied Torino was a good place to avoid if they mentioned it at all.

His centre-left council decided to bid for the 2006 Winter Olympic Games, calculating that the bid itself would demonstrate new confidence. If they won, so much the better. They did, securing the International Olympic Committee's approval in 1999.

'We opened up new spheres'

"We took the decision to try the bid as part of our process of transforming the city," Castellani recalls. "We had a new urban master plan, a strategic plan.

"We decided to make the bid because the city needed an international image. Our aim was to reposition the city on the international stage."

It worked.

Why?

"Because the Olympics were a success," says Piera Levi Montalcini, the city councilor who helped direct the municipality's Olympic efforts. "There were no problems, no accidents. It was well-managed and very successful."

Italy's Detroit -- the ugly sister to Rome, Florence and Venice, the city that tourist guides passed over, the butt of countless jokes in the chaotic run-up to the Games -- had invited the world, impressed its visitors, strutted its stuff and turned a page.

"Our mentality has changed to higher technology," adds Domenica Genisio, the councilor now responsible for managing former Olympic venues. "We've opened up to new spheres, new commercial activities."

The hardware of the city -- subways, public squares, a high-speed rail line -- was all improved, Castellani notes, and many projects were accelerated.

But more important were the changes in what he calls Torino's "software," the sense of pride, possibility and "affiliation in the city."

As evidence he points to the massive new social capital inherent in a legion of 20,000 Olympic volunteers, who continue to work together, socialize and provide a competitive edge for Torino when it bids for major sporting events and exhibitions.

As Levi Montalcini puts it, "the citizens feel the city is theirs."

Slow food and white nights

The city that was home to Fiat's legendary Lingotto autoworks -- since converted to a hotel, gallery, shopping centre and exhibition space -- is now headquarters for the Slow Food movement and host of Terra Madre, the massive global food fair that draws hundreds of thousands of organic and artisanal producers.

Changes in the city's life that were unthinkable in 2005 are now the norm.

One example is Torino's "white nights," which saw museums, stores and downtown facilities open for 24 hours during certain Olympic periods.

This idea was far outside the box in a working class town that tended to turn in early to be ready for the morning shift. But up to a million visitors crowded the streets during the Games for what is now a regular affair.

Traffic changes required for the Games also had an enduring effect, a real achievement in "Italy's Detroit."

The downtown area closed to cars is several times larger than it was in 2005, with trams, buses and bicycles running on designated routes parallel to major pedestrian thoroughfares.

New maps for travelers' imaginations

Ask Levi Montalcini and Genisio to name Torino's most notable physical legacy and they pull out a series of maps, each outlining a tourist walking tour that will feature art, museums, architecture or shopping, depending on your mood.

The maps are the result of a concerted public relations effort with tourism guide publishers to update the city's image. Torino commissioned new city travel guides from firms like the Lonely Planet and made sure up-to-date information was available.

As a result, Torino found itself on many tourists' itineraries for the first time.

"The commitment of the Olympics forced us to advertise our city as a whole," says Levi Montalcini, "and we had a worldwide stage to present this."

As the city's website puts it, "in more than a month of competitions, prize giving, concerts and celebrations, Turin learned to look at itself through the eyes of the world, to feel and live as a great European city."

Of course, none of this was without controversies and costs. Levi Montalcini can think of many expenditures that could have been avoided in retrospect, but not enough to make her regret the effort.

Genisio, responsible for managing remaining Olympic venues, wishes better plans had been made for conversion. The Olympic village, always intended for student and low cost housing, has been converted, and two rinks, as well as the speed skating oval remain in use.

In a city where ice sports were little known before the Games, one rink is used for hockey and figure skating, the other allocated entirely to public use. Winter sports programs in the schools promise a long-term supply of skaters.

Poured concrete and civic 'software'

Castellani says the total Games cost was about 3.5 billion euros, although the national government never disclosed the full security cost. About 2 billion euros, of which one-third reflected infrastructure investments, many already planned, that were accelerated.

He estimates the cost of the event at 1.5 billion euros. The organizing committee balanced its 1.2 billion budget. The city itself spent 300 million, far more than Vancouver, much of it on upgrading city squares, plazas and public areas, which are an enduring benefit.

The most important legacy, however, is the sense of civic self-confidence, reflected in the fact that the city's population, after a decade of steep declines in the 1990s, is again growing. A page has been turned.

Will Vancouver be able to make the same claim?

As Castellani noted, the infrastructure or "hardware" changes, while they were important and came more quickly, were not enough in themselves.

It was the change in the "software," the mood, engagement and sense of pride in Torino's citizens, that costs less but matters more.  [Tyee]

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