Mark Wilson
Professor and Program Director of Urban and Regional Planning at the School of Planning, Design and Construction, Michigan State University

10 days after Member States of the Bureau International des Expositions (BIE) voted for Japan to organise World Expo 2025 in Osaka, In Focus looks at the lasting impact of mega-events. In this article, Prof. Mark Wilson highlights examples of several past Expos, focusing on how they can serve as springboards for positive changes and urban transformation in their host cities and region.


In a competitive global marketplace for urban presence, cities must compete for visibility, and mega-events have long been a favoured route to prestige and identity. Events such as Expos, the Olympics and the FIFA World Cup have the potential to raise awareness of a city worldwide, promote economic growth, and provide a rationale for improved cities and urban development. Through the 19th and most of the 20th centuries, mega-events tended to be concentrated in Europe, North America, and Australia, with Asia gaining prominence since the 1970s, and Africa and Latin America just emerging as hosts. With more than 300 cities globally of more than one million people, the number of potential hosts for a mega-event is significant. As cities seek to raise awareness, they need to confront the form and scale of their investments in city defining events.

A means to an end

Mega-events offer a mix of emotion and investment for their hosts, but cities need to be mindful of the combined and sometimes conflicting goals of being a host. On one hand the host city wants to be remembered for the excellence of the event, but they must also be aware of the long-term benefits that the event brings to the city. In hosting, a city needs to see an event as a means to an end. To do this, a vision of the future city must be created between residents, officials and stakeholders. Only when a city’s future has been determined can they consider hosting a mega-event, and then the event must advance the city towards its goal and not be a detour or distraction that wastes resources.

"Expos have a number of advantages that make them uniquely helpful for cities seeking to combine visibility with urban development"

One decision a city needs to make is the type of event to use for its development. If a high profile event is sought, the choices tend to be among the Olympics, FIFA World Cup and Expos. Each of these forms of event comes with costs and benefits, and require a remaking of the city and heavy investments in infrastructure.

 The focus for the host should be on the legacy of the event, what remains after it ends, and the quality of the event investments as they serve residents into the future. Recently, poor legacies have tainted some events in the eyes of the public, who fear disrupted lives and wasted resources. Unused legacy facilities from the Athens and Rio Olympics, and unused or underused stadiums in South Korea, Japan, South Africa and Brazil have all raised awareness of the costs of poor legacy planning.

"Expos are uniquely positioned to create lasting legacies due to the landmarks they create"

Of these events, however, Expos have a number of advantages that make them uniquely helpful for cities seeking to combine visibility with urban development. While the Expo form can be poorly applied, it has a number of positive and unique characteristics that distinguishes it from other mega-events. Among the advantages of the Expo model are:

  • Host control: Expos do not come with the burdensome facility and venue demands of sporting mega-events that often require facilities to be built that have no use after an event. It is these wasting venues that prompt public outcry as the public sees deteriorating stadiums and overgrown sports complexes. Expo hosts have more power over decision making and development of all the big three mega-events, and can use this control to design an event with lasting value. Olympic and World Cup hosts can point to the event owners to blame for requiring unnecessary venues, but Expo host cities should be able to avoid this problem.

  • Internal focus: Sporting events shape the host city as a set for television and social media use, so that spectators do not experience much of the host city. Viewership is likely to be billions globally, but the focus is on the event rather than the host. As a result, the host city is increasingly secondary to the process as media needs and revenue drive venue location and design. In contrast, Expos have to appeal to visitors who directly experience the event, because Expos tend not to have much media coverage compared to sporting events, and the design of the Expo must serve present visitors rather than distant viewers.

  • Local participation: Mega sporting events have limited space for direct experience by residents. Host cities with millions of residents may only have a few thousand tickets available for those who live daily with the event and pay the taxes used for it. In contrast, Expos offer affordable access to an event experience, and in many cities, the Expo offers season passes and evening passes so that residents can gain months of access and enjoyment from their investment.

  • Landmarks: Expos are uniquely positioned to create lasting legacies due to the landmarks they create. Sporting mega-events have facility legacies, so that tourists and residents recognise a stadium or swimming center as a symbol of an event. The challenge for these types of legacies is that they are often not distinctive or easily used as a symbol of a city. Expos, however, can create dramatic structures that are unique and can come to represent the host, as the Eiffel Tower, the Atomium, the Unisphere and the Tower of the Sun have shown.

  • Post event conditions: Organisers of World Expos (International Registered Exhibitions) usually require that participant-built structures are removed at the end of the event (unless otherwise agreed), potentially allowing a cleared site to be available for further development. For Specialised Expos (International Recognised Exhibitions), the host provides the venue and can design flexible, multi-use spaces that also can have a variety of post-event uses.

One disadvantage of Expos is that they do not generate the media coverage that is achieved by major sporting events. The promise of billions of viewers of television and social media watching a city is attractive, but the appeal also needs to be tempered by reality. While billions of people are watching an event what they see is the inside of a venue – football field, basketball court, swimming pool – that could be in any city. The only signs of identity come from interior advertising and the use of the host’s name. Some media sources may feature the character and appeal of the host city, and in some cases its problems, but what most viewers of the event will remember is the game and not the city. For many reasons, therefore, Expos offer a better vehicle for legacy led urban development than many competing mega-events.

Planning for legacy

Mega-events should be planned for their legacy, as well as their ability to offer a world standard event on the way to a better city. By focusing on the long-term goals, the Expo can be designed to serve both the immediate and long-term interests of event and host. Legacy-oriented planning points decision making and development to a future horizon that should avoid some of the past problems with underutilised or unused facilities. The main legacies that cities can achieve include infrastructure, landmarks, attractions, parks, commercial or residential space, and social/organisational capacity. Many of these legacies serve tourism or add to resident quality of life, while others facilitate individual or commercial movement, or provide new commercial space for business use.


Infrastructure, such as public transport, airports, and road development and improvements should serve the long-term needs of the city. Transportation, especially related to commuting, is often a major issue for cities that residents are eager to see improved. Outdated and inefficient public transport or inadequate road networks can be a daily annoyance to residents that an Expo can help improve. Advance planning is illustrated by Shanghai’s construction of subway stations for use after Expo 2010, and in Lisbon by the integration of Expo 1998’s energy and waste systems to serve post-event needs.

As public opinion is increasingly used as a metric of host city suitability, resident support can be driven by the promise of improved transportation. Investments in transportation, however, must be strategic and appropriate. Rather than develop fixed links to a peripheral Expo site, cities can reserve heavy investment for long-term use and use flexible transport like buses and ferries to access the site. Transportation improvements are one way host cities can gain the public support needed for an event, and provide a valued legacy.


Landmarks can serve a branding and identity function, not only to herald the Expo, but also to link the host city to a global event in the minds of visitors and consumers. Sporting events tend not to leave landmarks, so associations between a city and an event is simply the event itself and a stadium or venue. Expos have the opportunity to develop landmarks that can have a brand connection. Among Expo landmarks that are clearly linked to a city are the Eiffel Tower (Paris), the Atomium (Brussels), the Space Needle (Seattle), the Unisphere (New York)†, and the Tower of the Sun (Osaka).

Expos frequently feature attractions that live on past the event, or structures that can be converted. Both legacy applications provide long-term tourist destinations and can also build the city brand. Continuing attractions include aquariums (Lisbon, Yeosu, Zaragoza), theme parks (Montreal, Daejeon), and performance venues (San Francisco, Barcelona). In addition, the conversion of pavilions also provides space for new attractions, such as the China Art Museum and the Power Station of Art in Shanghai, or performance venues such as the Palace of Fine Arts (San Francisco) and the Grand Palais (Paris).


Parks are a common legacy of an event, providing upgraded green space to the host city. Sometimes, the park existed before Expo and was reused (San Diego 1915†, New York 1964†) or new space was created. The creation of new public space is particularly valuable when it converts industrial and brownfield land into green space, turning a negative aspect of the city into a positive contribution to residents. Among the many parks that Expos have provided are Jackson Park (Chicago 1893), Brupark (Brussels 1958), Flushing Meadows (New York 1939 and 1964)†, Southbank (Brisbane 1988) and the Parque das Nações (Lisbon 1998).

Commercial development

In contrast to the public serving legacies of attractions and parks, Expos can also produce commercial space available for use after the event. More compact Expos, in particular, can convert pavilion zones into office space. This is most evident for World Expo 2000 in Hannover, which had a useful legacy of extending facilities at the Messe, even if the Expo itself was not popular. The challenge of legacy commercial space is that the amount of space does not disrupt the local real estate markets by offering a lot of space at once. This problem is exemplified in Yeosu, which did not need the amount of space that the Expo released on its conclusion.

Expos can also contribute residential space as many events have an Expo Village development that provides housing for event and pavilion staff that is later available on the housing market. For cities with housing shortages, this can provide impetus to add to housing stock to increase supply and serve affordability goals. Housing developments that were in demand include Expo 1993 Daejeon and Expo Urbe after Lisbon 1998. Additional housing that is not needed, however, depresses the local market and may dissuade residential development for many years until equilibrium is reached.

Social and organisational capacity

Often, mega-event legacies are seen solely in terms of the built environment, the things that are left behind. Also important are the intangibles gained through hosting the event. Training for the hospitality industry can raise standards through initiatives to teach basic phrases in different languages, or to translate tourist information, maps and menus into other languages. Expos also create large corps of volunteers who learn social protocols, use a range of languages, and help visitors find their way. This social capital often ends with the event, yet the city has in place an organised and trained group of committed residents who may turn their energy to other projects. The organisational structure developed and tested at an Expo can also be used for community well-being or to promote and serve tourists and visitors into the future.

Another organisational legacy is the management of the event itself. In planning for event legacy, it is also important for host cities to provide the governance and regulatory structure that takes a long-term perspective. Often, events are planned and managed by quasi-government authorities that have power and political access to make the event a success. Once the event ends, however, the expertise and institutional memory of the site development is lost as the event authority is disbanded and staff seek work elsewhere.

"Landmarks and parks can remain as public attractions and serve the long-term tourism and economic development of the city."

At this crucial stage of legacy implementation, a new organisation is often created with responsibility for taking the site and making it a legacy success. By having different organisations responsible for each stage – development and legacy – the institutional setting creates focus on one aspect of the event. The organising committee is tasked with the event, so its actions serve that end, while the legacy organisation has a different goal of making the site a working part of the city. If the event and its legacy were combined institutionally it would be more effective because the long-term vision would always be a responsibility.

Tourism legacy

One of the often cited goals of hosting a mega-event is to raise the host city’s visibility, prestige, and branding. Claims of visibility and prestige are often listed in the bids for mega-events, but it is difficult to provide concrete evidence of a direct benefit. One way to gauge the tourism potential of an Expo is to review the opinions of current tourists about legacies of past Expos. Table 1 presents a number of Expo legacy landmarks, attractions, and parks along with their evaluation by visitors and rank in terms of tourist destinations in the city. While a simple measure, it suggests that landmarks and parks can remain as public attractions and serve the long-term tourism and economic development of the city.

The table was developed using TripAdvisor data where visitors evaluate a site from terrible (1) to excellent (5). These data are usually reported by visitors or residents so there is an expectation of direct experience, borne out by comments that often refer to specific visits to a location. As self-reported information, the results cannot claim randomness or to be representative, but they suggest public attitudes from large audiences. For example, there are over 120,000 comments on the Eiffel Tower, 25,000 comments on Barcelona’s Magic Fountain, and 15,000 comments on the Space Needle in Seattle. The table also presents the rank of the site in terms of visitor attractions, with many Expo legacies providing highly rated and ranked features for the host city.

The table shows the importance of legacies to current tourism and city identity. Almost every legacy is rated between very good (4) and excellent (5), while in many cities, Expo legacies are in the top ten or twenty sites as ranked by visitor feedback. The most common tourist legacies are landmarks, museums, public spaces, and aquariums. Many of the Expo legacies will be familiar to tourists and residents, although they may not realise that the attraction they travelled to see was the result of a past Expo.

Legacy of Space

Another Expo legacy is an urban void available for other purposes. Due to World Expo Organisers usually requiring participant-built pavilions to be dismantled and removed (unless otherwise agreed), Expos have the advantage over sporting events of having space returned to the city. The host is not left with awkward structures that need public maintenance, but should be able to plan on a development ready site that should serve a predetermined purpose. Expo 2010 Shanghai and Expo 2015 Milan both reclaimed urban space for their Expos and received development space in return, although economic conditions in both cases delayed development.

The legacy of space does require that the location is well-chosen in the first place, so that post-event land use is well-served. The choice of greenfield sites carries the burden of being away from the current city centre, so needs to be integrated into a greater vision that connects transport, housing, recreation and commercial development. Possibly a better strategy is to use a brownfield site that takes dated and possibly contaminated industrial land and rehabilitates it for post-industrial use. Good examples of revived urban space include the South Bank district in Brisbane as a legacy of Expo 1988, the waterfront park and development of Expo 1998 in Lisbon, and the museums and parks of Shanghai Expo 2010 that includes an award winning public space (Houtan Park). In all of these cases, waning industrial land was used to host an Expo and then form the basis for development.

Maintaining legacy

One aspect of post-event management is maintaining the legacy to protect the host’s investment. The end of an Expo or many mega-events means that the authorities and inertia that produced the event is lost as responsibilities end or are transferred to a new organisation that lacks the experience of the initial host. The physical maintenance of the Expo investment makes certain that facilities are in good condition and used as much as possible, and if planned appropriately, the transition to a post-Expo use should be predictable.

"Maintaining momentum may require other events that reinforce in the public a positive view of the city."

What is less evident after an Expo is the maintenance of the media presence of the host city. After spending a decade on development and media promotion for the event, soon after an Expo ends the host may also end its promotion and marketing of the city. One example of such a missed opportunity is Sydney’s failure to capture the momentum of the 2000 Olympics by continuing its city branding and marketing. The host city should have tourism volunteers to call on, as well as established media relationships that can continue to be used, so that the city remains present in the minds of the public. Maintaining momentum may require other events that reinforce in the public a positive view of the city.

Despite the many advantages that Expos offer for event led urban development, the model can also fail when the space and attractions find little public, tourist or commercial interest. Expos should be able to avoid the problem of unused venues that haunt Olympic and FIFA World Cup hosts, but they still have structures and spaces that no-one may need or want when the event ends. Some Expos struggle to find a legacy purpose but eventually are successful, such as Expo 1988 Brisbane or Expo 1993 Daejeon, but the process takes time and often the successful use is not what was initially planned. While planning can avoid many of these problems, Expo sites that are not legacy oriented from the beginning struggle to find a purpose.


Of the many events that cities can host to serve their needs, Expos offer a unique combination of a global event that also has many advantages for urban development if used well. The Expo format provides considerable flexibility to use the event to benefit the future city, making it an investment in sustainability and not an ephemeral celebration. The focus should always be on legacy oriented planning for the city using Expo as a vehicle for both visibility and prestige and at the same time enhancing the built environment and human talents of the host. Careful planning should allow a host city to serve the long-term needs of its residents along with the short-term demands of a global event.


This article initially appeared in "Expo Cities - Urban Change", the 2018 edition of the BIE Bulletin.

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