Maurice Roche
Emeritus Professor of Sociology, the University of Sheffield

Much journalistic and even social scientific writing on mega-events like Expos and Olympics is concerned with definitively characterising particular cases in relation to sectoral (e.g. economic) aspects and in terms of relatively short-term impacts. Mega-events have long been recognised as often leaving in their host cities significant and sometimes spectacular material legacies, including new functional public facilities (for instance museums or sport stadia), transport infrastructures and iconic architecture. It is less commonly recognised that they have also often promoted a very different and comparatively unspectacular kind of element in the central cityscapes of their host cities, namely major parks and the public spheres and services they typically provide.

This article aims to give a higher profile to this aspect of Expos and other mega-events. Following conventional approaches in the analysis of mega-events, then, this article is extremely sectoral, by choosing to focus down mainly on events’ park-related legacies. However, it is also interested in being more ambitious, and thus more interpretative and open-ended than is conventional, drawing on my previous socio-historical studies of mega-events. So it approaches the urban dimension of mega-events, particularly their park legacies, and their relevance for challenges facing the development of cities, not by focusing on particular events in particular cities. Rather, on the one hand, it interprets the urban challenges and park legacy themes from the perspective of an interest in long-term processes of urbanisation and their broader and deeper socio-historical contexts. And on the other hand, it illustrates them in relation to various series of mega-events, and the common and recurrent features they can be argued to display.

From their origins in the mid and late 19th century, the key mega-event genres, namely Expos and Olympics, were and remain the children and representatives of complex processes of modernity. The ‘modern’ era, since the 19th century, has witnessed the Western and then worldwide spread of large-scale and long-term social transformations, including industrialisation, nation-state formation, mass literacy, mass media, and, providing spatial focus for them all, urbanisation. Modernisation is commonly understood as being connected with the idea of historical ‘progress’.

However, for all practical purposes, whatever else it involves, modernisation seems to imply and to become embodied in urbanisation and urbanism. Thus the modern era has been characterised, among other things, by long-term and apparently inexorable increases in the absolute numbers of people living in cities, by the urbanisation of increasing proportions of the world’s societies and by the spread of inter-urban transport and communication networks linking the world’s cities. Given these considerations, to choose to give some priority not only to mega-events’ urban contexts, but also one particular aspect of those contexts, as we do here, is not to choose to address the trees rather than the forest. It is not to prioritise micro-social phenomena over macro-social factors and dynamics, the local over the global; rather it is to choose to use the former as a window to look into the latter, and to use the latter as a basis from which to understand the former.

Evidently, urbanisation has been, and remains, a double-edged development for all societies throughout the modern era. On the one hand, it can be reasonably claimed that (at least eventually and in the long-term) urbanisation has been associated with qualitative improvements in the material standards of living of the mass of the peoples involved in it, and with general improvements in the quality of life for elites and for some elements of the middle classes and upper working classes. Indeed, the opportunities for ordinary people to participate in such social progress no doubt motivates the mass migrations to cities which have been recurrently experienced throughout the modern era. On the other hand, however, urbanisation, (particularly the creation of industrial cities in both the first and second periods, ultimately to be followed by de-industrialisation processes and regenerative imperatives), has also been often associated with a range of other profound social, ecological and related problems.

"Mega-events have a track record of contributing to the development of cities... and this kind of contribution will be in even greater demand as our century unfolds."

The perspective taken in this article is not intended to deny urbanisation’s progressive and positive potential. Nevertheless, it focuses more on the negative aspects and reviews some of the main human and policy challenges they pose. Given how urban parks, urban mega-events, and their interconnections, might have helped to address these challenges in the past, it recognises the possibility that they might do so again in the present and future. Contemporary urbanisation faces major social and ecological problems both in the Western and non-western worlds. The perspective of this article is that, among the many other urban policies which are currently required there to face these challenges in cities around the world, there is also an urgent need to create and protect urban parks and green spaces. Mega-events, particularly Expos, have a track record of contributing in this way to the development of cities and urban policy, and this kind of contribution will be in even greater demand as our century unfolds.

Contemporary urbanisation, mega-events and urban parks

The second main period of urbanisation in the late 20th century and the early decades of the 21st century, involves both the West and also the developing world. It is characterised, among other things, by imperatives to adapt at the urban level to a range of macro-social vectors of change. These vectors include globalisation (e.g. international tourism, multinational corporations), the digital technology revolution (e.g. the internet, robotics etc.), geo-political and geo-cultural shifts in the world order (e.g. the rise of China as a global ‘superpower’, increased international migration etc.), global ecological crises (e.g. global warming, oceanic pollution etc.), and what can be called ‘hyper-urbanisation’, particularly in the developing world. Hyper-urbanisation in the 21st century refers to the mass migration of rural populations into towns and cities which is currently running at 70 million annually. This will increase the urbanised proportion of the human population from 50% (3 billion) currently to 70% by 2070. It also involves the blooming around the world of ‘mega-cities’ (over 10 million) predicted to grow from 33 now to 43 by 2030.

These elements of the ‘new human condition’ in the 21st century affect all cities in all world regions to a greater or lesser extent. That said, so far most of the elements and vectors, apart from hyper-urbanisation, have been engaged with to a greater degree in the West, where urban policy ideals, models and discourses promoting such notions as ‘smart cities’, ‘destination cities’, ‘multi-cultural and cosmopolitan cities’ and ‘green cities’ have become fashionable. The article suggests that the creation of parks in contemporary cities can be said to have some relevance to contemporary cities as an element in cities’ strategies responding and adapting to these various vectors of change. Parks can have multiple dimensions and uses for urban publics and leaderships, and this is attested to in the experience of contemporary cities, notably, for the purposes of our discussion, those staging mega-events with a park legacy (see Table 1).

In our times, all cities face a range of ecological or ‘green’ challenges, including those of moving towards greater sustainability in energy use and mitigating the various negative effects of global warming. Inevitably there has been a greening of all urban policies and projects to ensure either that they operate sustainably, or that they explicitly promote pro-environmental values, or both. These are two ways in which it has also been argued that there has been a ‘greening’ of mega-events in the contemporary period. These events regularly claim to be operated sustainably and thus to demonstrate sustainable practices and/or they regularly provide a communication platform for the promotion of green ideas and values. 

All of the cases in Table 1 exemplify one or another or both of these ways of being green. The Specialised Expos, in particular, promoted green ideas (i.e. Lisbon regarding the oceans, Aichi regarding human co-existence with nature, Zaragoza regarding water, and Astana regarding future energy; on these aspects of recent Expos see the 2017 edition of the BIE Bulletin). However, there is a third way for mega-events to present themselves as having a ‘green’ character, namely that of creating and leaving a legacy of urban green space. And, as Table 1 also indicates, this has also become a fairly common and significant aspect of mega-events and their legacies in the contemporary period.

To accommodate the variety of forms that urban park-building can take, it is relevant to add the notion of ‘blue park’ to that of the more familiar ‘green park’ forms (see Roche 2017, chapter 6, table 6.1). Urban ‘blue parks’ refer to waterside areas in cities, such as those bordering rivers, lakes or the sea; these which can be created or re-purposed in order to give publics access to the waterside in order to experience new views and recreational promenading. As is indicated in Table 1, in the contemporary period, both types of park have been left as legacies of the Expos staged in Lisbon, Zaragoza and Shanghai, and of the Olympic Games events staged in Sydney and London.

Besides assisting with the challenges of promoting a green agenda in host cities, contemporary mega-events have also been used to contribute to the challenges of urban policy concerned with cities’ adaptations to the other great social changes of our times. And in particular the parks they have left have also provided significant spatial platforms and/or spatial hubs relevant to these endeavours. Cities concerned with developing their post-industrial digital economies and becoming ‘smart cities’ have attracted new high technology businesses and employment to the peripheries and environs of their event-legacy parks. This has been particularly so in the case of the Olympic Park area of London, but such developments also characterise event-legacy areas of Sydney and Zaragoza. Besides providing recreational oases and meeting places for urban residents event-legacy parks are also available for domestic visitors and international tourists. Thus, in the latter context, they have also contributed to the development and promotion of host cities as tourism destinations. This is particularly so in the cases of Lisbon, London and Sydney in the West and also Shanghai and Beijing in the East (see Roche 2017 chapters 5 – 8).

"Rebalancing the staging of mega-events between cities in the West and the developing world is no doubt a timely and inevitable process"

In addition to these two leading Chinese cities, Table 1 notes events in Rio and Astana among whose various substantial urban legacies, parks did not play a leading role. However the four events and host cities noted here point to the broader global shift towards including developing world cities as locations in the global round of mega-event locations. This process has been reducing the West’s influence on mega-events in the contemporary period. Rebalancing the staging of mega-events between cities in the West and the developing world is no doubt a timely and inevitable process. But it is also one which has been and is likely to go on being challenging for host cities for many reasons, including possible weaknesses in finance and organisational capacity. This is not the place to consider all of these reasons, but one important and pervasive one in developing world contexts, which affects the rest, is that of hyper-urbanisation.

To gain some perspective on this, it is first useful to take a step back into the period of the emergence of mega-events and of urban parks as culturally significant and interconnected aspects of Western city-building and urbanisation.

Western urbanisation, parks and Expos - urban challenges and problem management

In the first main period of modern urbanisation in Western societies, some of the major social problems which arose included spatial segregation, which embodied and exacerbated social inequalities and discriminations, together with the associated health and welfare problems. Such social problems, which have also recurred in contemporary urbanisation, have been experienced by various sections of city populations, particularly elements of the working classes, ethnic minorities and incoming migrants. Some of the main ecological problems, which, again, have also recurred in contemporary urbanisation, include those relating to air pollution, water pollution, land contamination, and human waste disposal, all of which, in turn, create public health and associated social risks.

The general experience of urbanisation in Western countries in the 19th and 20th centuries, although variously filtered through a range of particular national political cultures, nonetheless involved them all in developing comparable economic, political and organisational resources and organisational capacities to monitor and manage complex urban problems. Some of the main social problems came to be addressed through the evolution of health, welfare and other such urban public services. Relatedly, some of the main ecological problems came to be addressed through the evolution of systems of air quality monitoring and control, water management, land remediation, safe sewerage and waste disposal systems and other such urban infrastructural services. Two significant elements in this development of these urban problem-management capacities in Western cities were those of the conservation and creation of parks and also, in some leading cities, the staging of mega-events, particularly Expos.

Western urbanisation processes, as part of more general modernisation processes and together with the social conflicts they involved, were, of course, expressed in the extension and intensification of new building in cities (see Roche 2017 chapter 1, Table 1.3). These city-building processes necessarily consumed and filled urban space. However, simultaneously, efforts were also made by some, particularly socially reformist, urban policymakers to both create and to protect space in cities, in particular through the urban park movement. The staging of Expo events in the mid and late 19th century gave an undoubted stimulus to the creation of central city parks, particularly in the USA and Europe, and we consider this further below. However, European urbanisation also involved the conservation of pre-existing parks as well as the creation of new ones, and Expos can be argued to have made a contribution on this front also (see Table 2).

Parks and associated green spaces and infrastructures were seen as potentially contributing to ameliorating cities’ social problems by providing opportunities for people to get ‘fresh air’, to exercise and/or to relax, and to informally socialise. In retrospect these were, in effect, proto-social policies which anticipated the later development of the welfare state. The nature of modern urbanisation’s ecological impacts, risks and problems was not well understood in the first wave period and had a relatively low priority except for such things as the need to manage the grossly visible health risks of human waste production through sewerage and clean water systems.

"Expos grew in parallel with and in connection with the growth of urban planning and architectural design"

 Park-building provided aesthetic and functional demonstrations of the capacity of the emerging professions of landscape architecture to design and manage green spaces and their associated plant life, water resources and land quality in urban settings. It also could raise park-side land values and provide space for new cultural institutions and practices. More generally at the time, park-building could be seen as demonstrating human technological power to create oases of ‘nature’ in the midst of urban ‘concrete jungles’.

Mega-events, particularly Expos, grew in parallel with and in connection with the growth of urban planning and architectural design, and notably so in the sphere of parks. In major cities, and in high profile and influential ways, they helped to showcase and demonstrate Western cities’ growing capacities to address their social problems. Also to a certain extent, they helped cities to begin to recognise and address their ecological problems, both during the production and presentation of mega-events, and also in the management of the urban legacies of buildings and parks such events often left behind.

European cities had often inherited traditional parks from the 18th century and earlier, and a number of notable European Expos were simply able to make use of them as temporary stages and environmental frames for their events. The pre-eminent case of a city which periodically devoted a pre-existing central city park to the cause of staging Expos was Paris. Most of its great Expo events, namely those of 1867, 1878, 1889, and 1937, were staged in the Champ de Mars. Other notable cases included Expo 1851 London, staged in Hyde Park, Expo 1873 Vienna, staged in Prater Park, and various Glasgow Expos and national exhibition events (1888, 1901, and 1911) which were staged in Kelvingrove Park. In the case of Expo 1851 London, the British Parliament required that the Expo should conserve and not remove some of Hyde Park’s tall trees.

"Expos can be said to have defended the conservation of some key urban public spaces against predatory development pressures"

This in turn required the architect of the ‘Crystal Palace’ building housing the event, Joseph Paxton, to make an unanticipated modification to his original design. The need to make room inside the large structure for some of the park’s trees led him add a transept structure with a curved glass roof, which has since been seen as architecturally innovative and iconic. In these and other such cases, Expos’ park-promoting influences can be said to have expressed cities’ high collective valuation of their pre-existing traditional urban parks and demonstrated their public utility. In these ways, these events can be said to have defended the conservation of some key urban public spaces against predatory commercially-driven or politically-driven development pressures in the turbulent construction processes involved in 19th century and early 20th century Western urbanisation.

The case of the United Kingdom is relevant in this respect. The UK’s capital city London, and also its major ports and northern industrial cities, are all marked by centrally located urban public parks. These are a mixture of traditional sites and modern creations. It is worth noting, at this point, that Joseph Paxton, the designer of Expo 1851 London’s ‘Crystal Palace’, was an equally innovative designer in the park movement. He created a major park at Sydenham in south London as the recreational frame for the relocation and re-use of his Crystal Palace building in 1854. Earlier, in 1847 he had designed Britain’s first ever public urban park in Birkenhead near Liverpool, and in 1852 he created a comparable central urban park for the city of Glasgow at Kelvingrove which was subsequently used by a number Expo-type events.

Paxton’s work helped to stimulate the ‘park movement’ not only in Britain but also in the USA, particularly through his influence on the legendary 19th century American park-builder and landscape architect Frederick Olmsted. During a long and pioneering career Olmsted was responsible for the design and construction of major ‘pleasure ground’-type urban parks in many American cities, sometimes referred to as ‘Olmsted parks’. In particular, he was ultimately responsible for the design of one of the most important and influential parks ever to be created in Western society’s primary phase of urbanisation, namely Central Park in New York city. Olmsted had been originally inspired in his vocation by Paxton’s work and example after a visit to Birkenhead Park in 1850. Also, as with Paxton, Olmsted contributed to Expos as well as parks. His most notable contribution in this respect is his responsibility for the design and construction of Jackson Park in Chicago. This was originally created for the Expo 1893 Chicago, but it remains an ‘Expo legacy’ and part of the city’s physical and historical heritage to this day. Both Paxton and his followers in the UK, and also Olmsted and his followers in the United States, embody the early links between the park movement on the one hand and the Expo-staging movement on the other. The links continued through the 20th century and they have, if anything, been revived in the early 21st century.


This article suggests that there is no more tangible way to promote green values and ideas to mass publics than by defending and creating green spaces in large cities. In the modern era, cities have always needed parks, and mega-event projects have often promoted this green urbanist cause. This cause has become ever more urgent in our times as the horizon we moderns find in the future, and the hope we are used to placing in it, becomes overshadowed by the long reach of ecological crisis. In the face of this, there is perhaps some consolation to be had in the reflection that the capacity of great events such as Expos to promote the cause of green urbanism internationally is not only a matter of history; it undoubtedly continues to be a possibility in our more challenging times.

This text is an abridged version of an article that initially appeared in “Expo Cities – Urban Change”, the 2018 edition of the BIE Bulletin. Parts of the article are based on discussions in chapters 5-7 of Professor Roche's book "Mega-Events and Social Change" (Manchester University Press, 2017).

Click here to view Professor Roche's academic page and contact details. 

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