Switching On: What Placemaking Means to Stadium Design

For our latest Switching On webinar, we invited a panel of specialists to talk about designing the modern football stadium and the importance of placemaking in this process.

On our panel for this latest Switching On webinar were:

  • Gareth Davis – Director, Vectos
  • John Roberts – Director, AFL Architects
  • Gavin Watts – Founder & Director, Define Architects.

What is the Football Stadium For?

At one time, this might have seemed too obvious a question, but, at a time where matches are being played to row upon row of empty seats, the purpose of the football stadium has never been more pertinent.

The origins of football grounds lie within communities. They are part of them, often centred amid the chimney stacks.

Examples include Manchester City’s original home, Maine Road, in the heart of Moss Side.

But the modern stadium is far more likely to be removed from its community, geographically at least.

When this happens, it represents more than a physical relocation. It impacts on the demographic of the fans, shifting it. In one aspect, this is another reflection of football’s changing nature, and of the huge commercial interests it represents.

The modern stadium itself needs to offer more than the basics as a football ground, if it is to become a sustainable, long-term investment. It is a multi-functional space.

But where does that leave its soul? How do you future-proof a stadium and still retain the essential community-based character of it?

Designing the 365-Day Destination

Successful stadium design puts the new development at the heart of a community-centred regeneration.

These can include elements such as improvements in the public realm, new apartments and facilities. The idea is that the stadium is a focal point for the community, putting its roots down there.

To do this requires excellent community engagement. It is not simply about keeping existing fans happy, but establishing a kind of buy-in that will work in establishing the stadium as a broader sort of venue, alongside its primary purpose.

If the club can demonstrate its respect for the local community, then the community will repay this engagement by supporting the stadium development, beyond match days.

But there can be different imperatives at work, which are not always easy to reconcile.

One is the whole notion of the 365-day stadium as both a fan experience and a commercial enterprise. Modern stadium design has a focus on the visitor experience, naturally, and how to ensure this is both world-class and sustainable.

But how removed does this make the stadium from its original community, and is the new model reconcilable with its traditional role?

Another imperative, and potentially a conflicting one, is retaining the club’s roots, despite its relocation.

There are likely to be obstacles and issues when it comes to uprooting a club from its community and giving it a new, purpose-built location.

Have Fans’ Expectations Changed?

The concept of match-day has changed. It is much more of a day out and a complete experience, than just 90 minutes plus half-time.

The football-watching demographic is broader, but rather than see this as a dilution, it is an opportunity to integrate the whole structure of the club into its supporting community.

And because the fan experience should, notionally, begin at the front door, and include the whole journey to and from the venue, this could potentially overcome difficulties of geographic relocation.

It also poses challenges to do with infrastructure. As expectations have changed, so working out how to spare fans a 45 minute wait in post-match traffic becomes another design factor.

The emphasis, therefore, has to be as much on placemaking as on the design of the actual stadium.

In designing new stadiums, the architects responsible must aim to strengthen the connection between these physical spaces and the people using them, or impacted by them.

How to Create Social Value from Stadium Projects

Football is charged with powerful notions of identity and community. The paradox is that while these elements drive the tribal nature of football, the fans themselves have, traditionally, had little influence over the club, or even a stake in its stadium.

On one hand, therefore, uprooting a stadium, and therefore its club, and relocating it out of town, would seem to confirm the essential powerlessness of its fans.

But on the other, it is an opportunity for clubs to reengage with fans, and to reaffirm shared values by investing in local communities through placemaking.

This sense of social responsibility doesn’t stop with the club, but extends to the architectural practice undertaking its new stadium design.

The challenge for the practice is to enact this in such a way that it can embed social value in its project, from the outset, and in the foreseeable future.

This requires a strategy, both on the part of the practice and the club, which should involve proper engagement with the community.

Inside the Stadium: Capacity Versus Atmosphere

There are various technical aspects to stadium design that can enhance the atmosphere within the structure.

These include situating fans closer to the action on the pitch, as with the new Tottenham Hotspur stadium. This is also a retractable grass football pitch, which enables the rapid conversion of the stadium for other functions.

Stadium architecture can also affect match-day atmosphere through careful design of acoustics. The seating configuration at the Tottenham stadium has a sweeping rise, which amplifies the roar of the crowd, reflecting it back into the stadium bowl.

Naturally, many new stadiums will require more space for fans, but good design is also about managing this space. This type of management is likely to apply for some time to come with issues of social distancing, once fans can watch live games once again.

Another issue is safe standing at UK football grounds, and how to incorporate this in stadium designs to help boost atmosphere during games, should the Government act on the interim findings of the SGSA (Sports Grounds Safety Authority).

Atmosphere is an important consideration when considering ground capacity. In this context, a stadium is always half-empty. To maintain atmosphere and experience, it makes sense to design with enough capacity for the future, but not to over-capacity.

What Makes for Good Stadium Design?

There are various critical factors to consider, including:

  • Flexibility – a stadium needs to last, and it should be convertible and adaptable, like all buildings, it has to evolve
  • Atmosphere – the function of the stadium is to generate excitement, therefore the experience on arrival is vital in emphasising the theatre of the event
  • Placemaking – how the stadium reflects its surroundings and the needs of the communities it serves.

The modern stadium is currently facing a challenging period, but ultimately it is here for the long-term, and legacy is another key aspect in its design.

Planning for this legacy means getting fans, local authorities and other relevant parties on-board from the start, because they are essential to the overall success of the project.

A Partisan Approach

We’re a brand consultancy based in Manchester, and our focus is on supporting the built environment and purposeful brands within it. We aim to help these brands develop strategies to meet the challenges of change.

For more information, please call us on 0161 860 7010, or email hello@partisan.studio

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