A New Paradigm for Sports Venues: Community Connections
03.29.2012
Tim Pittman in Sports, Sports Venues New Paradigm

This is the final article in a five part series. It explores the possibilities for sports venues to connect with the cities in which they are increasingly being located. Read the Full Report.

Stadiums are big and monolithic, there’s no getting around it. And almost by definition, stadiums are venues that focus inward – after all, that’s where the games are played. Those two characteristics alone set the stadium in opposition to what many now consider principles of good urbanism, and in the second half of the 20th century we saw teams locate stadiums on the outskirts of cities, plopped in the center of expansive parking lots with little consideration for place or surroundings – the anti-city.

Looking back it’s easy to see the problems with this approach, but these stadiums weren’t without precedent. From Robert Moses to LeCorbusier, big thinkers with noble visions worked to transform our cities into places that prioritized the car and rejected the messiness of the urban in favor of the ordered promises of modernity. The 50-year backlash that ensued has largely flipped this dialogue on its head, bringing celebrations of the social, environmental and economic power of the city to the public consciousness.

As Gensler’s Ron Turner points out in the post that began this series and his Dialogue article on the topic, stadiums are following suit. The days of the stadium-in-the-parking-lot are ending: “Today’s stadiums and arenas are much more likely to be located in transit-friendly urban sports/entertainment districts.” Urban stadiums offer opportunities to pursue economic synergy with adjoining districts, leveraging “beyond-the-gates” revenue opportunities that may even exceed those within the venue. But the opportunities for the urban stadium go beyond merely economic stimulus – these venues have the opportunity to be positive physical additions to the urban fabric, and possibly define a new breed of public space.

There’s a lot of support for this transition to a new urban paradigm for sports venues. Kaid Benfield – Director, Sustainable Communities for the Natural Resources Defense Council – expounded on Indianapolis’ success hosting the 2012 Super Bowl, citing Lucas Oil Stadium’s walkability and downtown location. Considering the numbers of people flocking to and from these venues (and the amount some of them will be drinking), placing them in locations that support public transportation and walking seems like a no-brainer.

As someone who grew up and began a career in Washington, DC, I’ve seen some very different, and positive, examples of this approach. I remember going to Orioles games at Camden Yards as a kid (this was before the Nationals) – the way it sits behind a historic warehouse, symbolic of the city’s manufacturing history, always struck me as very non-stadium in a good way. With a commuter rail station out front and downtown visible from the stands, Baltimore is better for the investment and influx the stadium brings, and better still for the fact that the stadium is just one part of its urban neighborhood. As Camden Yards celebrates its 20th anniversary, we can look back at “the ballpark that forever changed baseball” and see its effect on the industry, setting new standards that almost all baseball venues designed after 1992 aspired to meet.

The Verizon Center in DC is another example. Opened in 1997 as the MCI Center, it didn’t have a historic building to provide an authentic backdrop, but it achieves an even more startling vanishing effect by cloaking itself in retail, restaurants and other entertainment venues – it’s definitely still big, but it doesn’t feel that way. It ultimately served as a catalyst for the regeneration of its surrounding neighborhood and another example for stadiums to come. After all, DC’s Chinatown wasn’t always a site for high-end restaurants and upscale bowling venues.

Spurring development and delivering revenue opportunities beyond the gates are leaps forward that provide the return on investment that make these developments possible as cities stop footing the bill. These are great first steps. But to truly be contributing members of their communities, stadiums need to move beyond economic stimulation to physical integration – they must become positive physical additions to the urban fabric.

The Verizon Center, or more recently DC’s new National’s Park, demonstrate the ability to transform a neighborhood and begin to point the way. For all their positives, however, they remain private venues – their effects may radiate into the community, but that community is only allowed in with the purchase of a ticket. The next step, I believe, is stadiums that contribute to their communities by joining with the urban fabric. This requires blurring the boundaries between the private and the public.

Royal Festival Hall in London

London’s Southbank Centre and Royal Festival Hall is the first example that comes to mind, though there are (hopefully) more I haven’t had the opportunity to visit. It’s a music and performance venue, not a stadium, but the principles are similar – the building’s event spaces require ticketed access, but “entry to Southbank Centre and to all our buildings is free, and you are welcome to come into our Foyer spaces and enjoy the atmosphere with or without a ticket.” The result is a public space that hosts private events - and the integrated retail and shopping opportunities serve both communities to their benefit.

In Shenbei, China, Gensler is designing a new development that applies these principles to a district with an 18,000-seat NBA arena as its anchor. With an outward-focused design and large doors that allow the structure to physically open to the outside and serve as a public space or a wide variety of events, the venue looks to be more than a catalyst for development – Gensler’s design creates a physical center, the possibilities of use as a truly public place.

There are undoubtedly more opportunities that have yet to be realized to truly leverage these stadiums as positive additions to their urban neighborhoods. As these developments move from stadiums to 24/7 entertainment districts, what are the possibilities for synergy that have yet to be realized? As stadiums expand their physical and economic influence out into their communities, they would be well served by also inviting that community into their walls and seeing the new class of public space, and opportunity, that invitation might create.

Click here to download a summary of our research on sports venues’ new paradigm.

Tim Pittman
Tim Pittman is a member of Gensler’s research team and holds a masters in City Design and Social Science from the London School of Economics. His passion for cities stems from the belief that great design has a positive impact on the human experience and that the way we design our cities today will have a profound impact on how we inhabit and experience them tomorrow. Contact him at tim_pittman@gensler.com.
Article originally appeared on architecture and design (http://www.gensleron.com/).
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