Which Is the Greenest Olympic City of Them All?

Rio Olympics


The dust has settled on Rio’s big win over Chicago in the bid for the 2016 Olympic Games, and we’re left wondering why the South American city trumped a city that was supposed to be a guaranteed winner. According to Jim Scher, the former CEO of the U.S. Olympic Committee, “Rio had advantages that Chicago was always going to have trouble overcoming.” It’s hard to say what exactly those advantages are, but we do know that both cities upped their sustainability quotients prior to the decision. So if we had to pick a winner based on green efforts, which city would take the gold?

Instead of trying to fix its slums, Rio decided to hide them in advance of the games with 10-foot-high walls surrounding the city’s worst favelas. Rio claims that the walls aren’t meant to mask the slums from the public–instead, the so-called “eco-walls” are intended to prevent the slums from expanding into the Atlantic Forest, one of the most diverse ecosystems on the planet. Really, though, it seems more like apartheid.

Rio also promised to focus on renewable energy, water conservation, waste management, and social responsibility. The city gave a nod to the carbon footprint of its bid for the Olympics with the “Rio 2016 Zero Carbon Project”, an effort to plant 3,580 trees to offset emissions of Olympic planning from 2007 to 2009. During the games, Rio pledged to work on forest restoration projects and plant over three million trees–a nod to Brazil’s ravaged forests.

Rio’s bid may have been impressive, but Chicago went all out on the sustainability front, declaring plans to create a”blue-green” Olympics that works to conserve water, cut CO2 emissions, and recycle temporary venues. Students and corporate executives already ripped up asphalt and stuck 500 plants in a 1,600-square-foot rain garden at Thomas Chalmers Specialty School–all as part of an attempt to show that Chicago literally wanted to green itself for the Olympics. The Chicago 2016 nonprofit donated $60 million towards sustainability initiatives, which included plans to turn seats from temporary venues into wheelchairs, buy carbon offsets and renewable energy credits, turn the Olympic Village into affordable housing at the end of the games, and sink $9 billion into an upgraded transportation infrastructure.

But Chicago would still have to build a number of energy-guzzling structures before the games, including 90,000 temporary park and ride facilities. And Rio will have to move hundreds of families in illegal settlements before the games begin.

It’s hard to pick a clear winner in the sustainability arena, but we have to go with Chicago. The city planned to spend loads of cash on initiatives that would continue to pay off well after the Olympics ended–the true sign of a sustainable event. Sorry, Rio. Better luck next time.


About the author

Ariel Schwartz is a Senior Editor at Co.Exist. She has contributed to SF Weekly, Popular Science, Inhabitat, Greenbiz, NBC Bay Area, GOOD Magazine and more.