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A game of two halves

As final preparations are made for the Rio 2016 Olympics Kat Martindale asks whether stadia from Sydney to Nottingham to Washington really can deliver the regeneration they promise

‘I was sitting on the verandah of my farm home in eastern Iowa when a voice very clearly said to me, “If you build it, he will come”.  The voice was that of a ballpark announcer. As he spoke, I instantly envisioned the finished product I knew I was being asked to conceive. I could see the dark, squarish speakers, like ancient sailors’ hats, attached to aluminium-painted light standards that glowed down into a baseball field.’  

It is this evocative and perennially misquoted first page passage from W P Kinsella’s novel Shoeless Joe, later adapted for the film Field of Dreams, that has become inextricably linked with contemporary sport stadium development. Build a stadium and sports fans will flock to watch their sporting heroes in battle in a state of the art facility, and with them they will bring money to create a new local economy on vibrant streets. The stadium, a catalyst for urban development and regeneration, is the city’s saviour. But how successfully do these sporting cathedrals fit into the city? And is the stadium the urban panacea it promises to be or the white elephant the naysayers predict?

Building sports grounds in urban and suburban places is more common than in Kinsella’s field of corn. Like many cricket grounds, when Nottingham’s Trent Bridge was established in 1801 it was on open land surrounding the city, followed almost a century later by two football grounds.  The City Ground, home to Nottingham Forest, was built between Trent Bridge and the River Trent in 1898 and was followed 12 years later by Nottingham City’s Meadow Lane, located across the river. Over the last 100 years Nottingham and the adjacent town of West Bridgford have grown up around the three grounds. As they are a short walk from both bus and train stations most spectators arrive on foot, stopping in at the pubs and fast food outlets on the streets close to the grounds. Despite the density of the city around them, these outlets exist because of the grounds, relying on match day crowds: one owner reported that he could take a month’s worth of sales in a single day and without it they would close. This cluster is quite confined and doesn’t deliver the economic trickle-down expected of stadium development, but that can be attributed to the small size of the grounds, whose capacity ranges from 17,500 to 28,000, and full attendance is rare. When it comes to the economic benefits of a stadium, size matters.

  • Spectators arriving at Trent Bridge cricket ground, Nottingham.
    Spectators arriving at Trent Bridge cricket ground, Nottingham.

Proximity to stadia can provide substantial benefits to some businesses but a comprehensive strategy to support or create an ecosystem of businesses is rare, and when grounds relocate the withdrawal of the high-dose patronage of long established outlets can be terminal, as the Nottingham trader suggests. When St Helens rugby league team, the Saints, moved from Knowsley Road to Langtree Park in 2012 after 120 years, all but one of the fast food outlets close to the main entrance subsequently closed. The new stadium sits amid low density light industrial developments and the retail mega sheds of Tesco and B&Q to the south east of the city. Although it is now much closer to public transport and the city centre, its location fails to inspire the same level of passion as Saints’ former home, and the much anticipated redevelopment and additional facilities have yet to arrive. As Marie Rimmer, the council leader during the development phase, pointed out, ‘the money just ran out and there was never any plan for that. They just expected it to happen’.

Langtree Park is not alone in this challenge. There is a long list of football teams, including Arsenal, Bolton, Wimbledon and Oxford, that have relocated to new sites. In many cases the spatial and financial implications of the 1990 Taylor Report on the Hillsborough disaster provided the impetus. Beside prompting relocations, the recommendation, later to become law, that all top tier football clubs should be all-seater has affected stadium capacity, with new stands accommodating fewer spectators than standing terraces. Fewer spectators make the financial viability of food and beverage outlets less certain, particularly in edge of city locations and with most stadia hosting a limited number of match days. In 2015 the Saints played only 14 matches at Langtree Park with all but one witnessed by about 11,000 spectators, far below its 18,000 capacity. It’s not just the number of spectators but the frequency of event days that matter.

  • Langtree Park, new home to St Helens' Saints.
    Langtree Park, new home to St Helens' Saints.

Sydney Cricket Ground has occupied the same site in Sydney’s Eastern Suburbs since 1848 and at full capacity accommodates 48,000 spectators. Unlike their English counterparts, Australian cricket grounds host two sports. The cricketing off season becomes the Australian Rules Football season, and with the ground in use year round, the annual tally of match days increases significantly. Adjacent to the SCG is the 45,500 seater Sydney Football Stadium, host to three codes of ‘football’: league, union and soccer.  While both stadia rarely see capacity crowds for every match, the number of event days each year across all sports, supplemented by the occasional concert, provides year round patrons to support the pubs and eateries between the main train station and stadia.

Nats Park in Washington DC, home to the Washington Nationals baseball team, was built on brownfield land in 2008 in the City’s south east quadrant that borders the Anacostia River. From the outset the stadium had been developed with a far more comprehensive urban design and economic strategy than is common. There was no ‘build it and he will come’ attitude, the 41,300 seater ground was to be a catalyst for mixed use development – although plans were swiftly thwarted by the economic crash. For several years all that lay along Half Street between the ball park and Navy Yard Metro station were ‘artists’ impressions’ on boards marking out what was to come. 

Since 2010 part of the west side of the street has been occupied by Half Street Fairgrounds. Empty and repurposed shipping containers, the pop-up industry’s structure of choice, provide a fan zone on match nights through the six-month season. Last year it was announced that the site had been acquired for residential development, leaving fans to bemoan the cost of food and drink and formality of the recently completed bars and restaurants in surrounding streets. In the last few years much of the planned mixed use development has been completed, with more apartment buildings and a soccer stadium to follow, indicating that a clear vision, more than a stadium alone, is essential.

  • Sydney Football Stadium on match day, waiting for the Sydney Roosters rugby league home match.
    Sydney Football Stadium on match day, waiting for the Sydney Roosters rugby league home match.

Olympic bids are an exercise in vision and the bid document for Sydney Olympic Park is an impressive, weighty production. From on-site transport strategies to the sleeping arrangements for stable hands, the submission examines in minute detail aspects of designing and operating a summer Olympiad that made their rivals’ bids for the 2000 event look like high school essays. Nowhere, however, did the proposal mention what would happen to the Homebush Bay site following the Games. Even Sue Holliday, director general of planning New South Wales from 1997 to 2003, admits that considerations for the site’s use and its transition from Olympic Village to an integrated part of an ever growing city were never a consideration.  Legacy planning was just not on the agenda.  

It wasn’t until the London Organising Committee made legacy their bid’s USP that it became such a focus for host cities. While the use and management of costly facilities has long been under discussion, and core to the long running protests of organised opposition groups, there had been little consideration of transforming such large sites with oversized facilities connected by breathtakingly wide boulevards to a more human and everyday scale. The challenge with such sites is achieving this scale while retaining access for the volume of people needed to make these stadia financially viable, and this remains a challenge for Sydney Olympic Park Authority (SOPA) 16 years later.

  • The Olympic stadium at Sydney Olympic Park.
    The Olympic stadium at Sydney Olympic Park.

Much like the Millennium Dome in Greenwich (now the O2 Arena), the Homebush site entertained several post-Olympic proposals before settling into its current purpose of delivering the state government’s housing agenda. However, the high density residential areas don’t connect well with the rest of site. And, despite continuing development of landscaped parklands, including the fantastic Brick Pit Ring Walk by Durbach Block, the site lacks social infrastructure such as retail, restaurants and bars that could be supported by event visitors and residents and overall it feels empty. The 2030 masterplan has great intentions but SOPA is playing catch-up.

  • Post-Olympic office development at Sydney Olympic Park.
    Post-Olympic office development at Sydney Olympic Park.
  • Post-Olympic apartments on Sydney Olympic Park.
    Post-Olympic apartments on Sydney Olympic Park.

Good urbanism extends far beyond beer sales. Creating great places around large stadia to serve both the visiting spectators and resident community remains a significant challenge. Most occupy awkward plot shapes, are physically imposing and require large external circulation spaces leaving vast empty areas on non-event days – far removed from the nirvana of Kinsella’s baseball ground standing in perfect isolation in a rural landscape. Much could be achieved though sharing stadia between sports, as is common in Australia, and urban management that extends beyond the initial design phase and immediate stadium area.


Dr Kat Martindale is head of research and innovation at RIBA and founder of Cities Research.