Circular economy meets pro sport with new multi-use stadiums

Variety of sports balls
ShutterstockSebastian Duda
Every sport has its season, but most don't require a dedicated stadium.

If you’re American and about 40 to 60 years old, you grew up in the age of the multi-use or multi-purpose stadium. These stadia were built to accommodate football and baseball. Because the geometry of the two games are very different, the sight lines for both sports generally were awful.

That led to the great baseball-only, retro-ballpark movement, starting with Baltimore’s Camden Yards in 1992, and rectangular football-only palaces (every NFL stadium). But sustainability concerns have led to a new type of design, the flexible-use stadium.

Don’t worry

We are not going back to the drab, Soviet-bloc style sameness of the cold multi-use stadia of the 1960s through 1980s. Circular in shape to fit both baseball and football, these bland concrete edifices had all of the charm of — a bland concrete edifice.

Cinergy Field
Cinergy Field shows the poor sight lines that made multi-use stadia unpopular. This photo was taken in 2001, a year before its demolition.

Philadelphia’s Veterans Stadium (MLB Phillies and NFL Eagles) looked and felt the same as its cross-Pennsylvania counterpart, Pittsburgh’s Three Rivers Stadium (Pirates and Steelers), which looked and felt the same as Cinergy Field (aka Riverfront Stadium) in Cincinnati (Reds and Bengals).

No one shed a tear when most were replaced by architecturally advanced, charming single-sports stadia with spectacular sight lines. Except, perhaps, for the folks in Philly, who were nostalgic for the makeshift hoosegow in the bowels of “The Vet” for Eagles fans who went a bit over the edge (remember, they booed Santa Claus).

But those charmless structures had one thing going for them: Sustainability. Just by the fact that one stadium was home to two teams meant less concrete, less land used for parking, etc. But, from a sports fan experience point-of-view, baseball- and football-only venues are infinitely better.

Plus, back in the '70s, climate change was barely on the radar and sustainability was not a term associated with the environment. Yes, there were the gas lines of the late '70s, but I don’t remember a linkage being made between high oil prices and a need to have one stadium instead of two.

That was then

Things are, of course, much different now. GreenSportsBlog’s very existence is testament to the fact that sustainability is now the rule rather than the exception when stadia and arenas are planned and designed. (Atlanta Braves, you are a sad exception.) In fact, the San Diego Chargers and Oakland Raiders, the only NFL teams still playing in multi-use stadia, are in cahoots on a move to Los Angeles to share a stadium there.

While baseball and football teams will not play in the same stadium anytime soon (thank goodness), multi-use is making a return of sorts. Or, rather, I should say flexible-use.

In “What Makes A Stadium Sustainable” in the Feb. 25 issue of Sourceable, an Australian/Canadian architecture and construction trade journal, Justin McGar shows that stadia increasingly are being designed to be flexible in size (can grow or shrink) and in terms of the constituencies/stakeholders who use them. He cites several examples, including three stadia designed by the sports architecture firm Populous.

Incheon Stadium
Incheon Stadium is based on a community park and serves amateur as well as pro sports.

Incheon Stadium (Incheon, South Korea)

Incheon Stadium was designed to hold 60,000 people for the 2014 Asian Games and is now being reduced to a single-sided, permanent grandstand (capacity 30,000) to be “used as a People’s Park for the city of Incheon.” Sustainability and legacy, including the ability of the people of Incheon to actually play in the stadium, were the driving factors in the stadium’s design. 

Per Populous Senior Principal Andrew James: “Rather than considering how we could shrink a 60,000-seat stadium, we turned the idea on its head and thought let’s build a 30,000 seat stadium and add 30,000 temporary seats. … This approach provided multiple advantages. Financially it reduced the building by two-thirds meaning there are substantial savings in operational and maintenance costs. … But the biggest advantage in the design is the freedom it provided in terms of legacy. The plans were always based on a community park, which after the Games, will replace the Eastern stand, forming a traditional stadium hill, with plazas on the north and south ends, providing atmospheric spectator viewing during a match, and a green space for the public to enjoy at all other times.”

This means that local and school soccer and rugby clubs will play matches there as well as the professionals.

But, wait, there’s more: The roof of the temporary stand will become the canopy roof of a new post-games shopping mall. And the shell that housed the broadcast hub, hospitality and site management of the Asian Games is being replaced by commercial space.

Aerial view of London 2012 Olympic stadium
Aerial view of London 2012 Olympic stadium, which is now being transformed into a soccer and rugby venue.

New Wembley Stadium and 2012 Olympic Stadium (London)

Incheon Stadium/People’s Park was not Populous’ first foray into flexible-use stadium design. Its work on London’s New Wembley Stadium and its 2012 Olympic Stadium demonstrated how flexible-use was the most sustainable approach, in terms of material use and operational efficiency, as well as the way to offer the best sight lines possible for any sport.

At Wembley, the seats at the historic “Old” incarnation, which opened in 1923, were set back far from the pitch for football as it was built to also accommodate track and field. The new version, which opened in 2007, also fits both sports, but with great sight lines for both. That seems to defy physics, no? No. By use of platforms to raise the pitch (field) for track, the 90,000 seat soccer stadium, with the front row just several yards from the pitch, becomes a 67,000-seat track and field venue, again with the front row close to the action.

Olympic Stadium, which housed 80,000 fans during the opening and closing ceremonies, is in the finishing stages of its transformation into a 54,000 seat football (soccer) and rugby venue, with great sight lines for both. It will be the home ground of Barclay’s Premier League’s side West Ham United starting with the 2016-2017 campaign as well as the site for international rugby matches.

In addition to flexible size, multiple sports uses and great sight lines, the flexible-use structures highlighted here have one more important thing in common: Fewer stadia ultimately were built (there was no need for a national track and field stadium in London and a smaller football/rugby stadium was not needed in Incheon). One stadium is always more sustainable than two. Especially when it has great sight lines.

This article first appeared at GreenSportsBlog.