Stadiums and Placemaking

Image (c) Herzog and de Meuron

Image (c) Herzog and de Meuron

In the past few months , we have seen Chelsea Football Club secure planning consent for a new stadium and Tottenham Hotspur release the first images of a future White Hart Lane. Millwall FC earned a reprieve from a threatened Compulsory Purchase Order of ‘The Den’ and City Hall announced a comprehensive review of the London Stadium deal. Amid all the excitement, Jonathan Rochwerger considers the regeneration case for new sports stadiums.  Do they really work as placemaking anchors for new destinations?

Since the turn of the century, 22 major football stadiums across the UK have been built or have undergone a significant redevelopment, at a combined capital cost – after adjusting for inflation – of approx. £2.7 billion (see Figure 1).

Chart 1b

For most professional football clubs there is always a set of powerful commercial arguments to build a new stadium or expand an existing one.  These include the need to increase match-day income – ticket sales, season tickets, F&B and merchandise – to keep pace with the ever-escalating cost of running a competitive club.

But is this flurry of construction activity genuinely warranted or is it all just part of the financial inflation of the English football leagues. Are all these new stadiums really necessary?

Some headline data suggests that it probably is.  We compared the home stadiums of all 20 Premier League clubs with those in the other major European leagues and found that Premier League stadiums are, on average, a bit older and a bit smaller (Figure 2).  This is the legacy of smaller grounds that were built in the heart of local communities around the late 19th and early 20th Centuries.

Chart 2

The Premier League also has the fewest number of cities represented, which is a product of the high concentration of football clubs and stadiums within London.  The 2016/17 edition of the Premier League includes six London-based clubs – almost a third of the entire league.  If we included all the professional football leagues in the UK, then Greater London alone boasts 16 football stadiums with a combined capacity of nearly half-a-million seats, making London the best-served city for stadium capacity in Europe.

chart 3

New stadium development activity in London seems particularly intensive. In the past year alone, Tottenham Hotspur began constructing its new stadium, while Chelsea and AFC Wimbledon have submitted planning applications for their new homes.  A host of other clubs also have new stadium projects in the pipeline, including: Queen’s Park Rangers, Brentford, Crystal Palace, Fulham, Charlton and Luton Town.  And, of course, the former Olympic Stadium was controversially downsized, redeveloped and leased to West Ham Football Club.

If the rationale for building a new stadium is clear and demonstrable, however, the path through planning is not always easy.  Stadiums are huge pieces of infrastructure that take up large areas of scarce London land and they cause no small amount of disruption on match days when tens of thousands of people need to be safely marshalled and managed to and from the ground.

To see their project through the tortuous planning process, stadium builders are thus at pains to demonstrate the wider economic benefit that a new stadium will bring to a local area in the form of placemaking and regeneration.  But the realities are often far different to the PR spin.

Does stadium-led placemaking work?

New stadiums can impact the local economy in a variety of ways, but their most immediate and noticeable effect is on local property and land values. A study by the Spatial Economic Research Centre, which focused on the impact of the new Wembley Stadium (built 2007) and Emirates Stadium (2006), found that in both cases there was a “significant increase in property prices” where “distance to the stadium is reduced”.  It is debatable, however, if simply driving up land and property prices can be considered an act of regeneration.  This can only be considered on a case-by-case basis and it is related to the socioeconomic status of the local population and the proportion of housing that is privately owner-occupied rather than social or rented.

The ‘placemaking’ impact of a new stadium can also be overstated.  This is largely a function of execution and management.  The better-designed and better-managed stadiums might be alive with activity on a Saturday afternoon match day, but they are generally lacking a sense of place or purpose from Sunday to Friday.  Sure, they’ll have a museum.  They will offer a stadium tour.  The club megastore will be open and, maybe, a café or a pub.  But a Premier League stadium outside of match days is usually a staid, sterile, inhospitable place.

English football is also so notoriously tribal that any form of tourist attraction – other than the club museum – is almost always a non-starter.  Take, for example, the Science of Sport.  This was one of the Science Museum’s most successful ever exhibitions, which toured to great acclaim and big box office all over the world.  It was bought outright by Ken Bates, installed at Stamford Bridge and re-branded as Chelsea World of Sport – where it promptly fell flat.  How can a product that did so well in South Kensington perform so poorly in Chelsea?  Well, what self-respecting Arsenal supporter is ever going to visit an exhibition called Chelsea World of Sport?

The idea that dropping a massive stadium – however beautifully designed –  into any urban setting is going to automatically create a sense of place is just naïve.  Despite loud claims and promises, a large football stadium is not a natural placemaking catalyst.  It takes work and effort and the right mix of product to bring the place alive and to get the placemaking benefit promised by all that aspirational planning language.

The next generation of stadia may start to change this.  They can take inspiration not just from the state of the art stadium design, but also from city centre multi-use arenas that – generally speaking – have done a better job at integrating with their surrounding urban environment.

Some of the best examples are generally found in North America, such as the multi-purpose Verizon Centre in Washington, D.C., which is a great example of how to build a successful stadium within a developed urban area. The opening of this stadium in 1997 coincided with the revitalisation of the inner city, as it was the first big, transformative project that helped to catalyse more development in the area. The stadium hosts multiple sports events – ranging from basketball to ice hockey – and over 200 non-sports events per annum, such as ‘blockbuster’ music concerts. But its location and design also attracts footfall to the area on a regular basis, even in the absence of major events. Visitors and residents alike are drawn to the stadium’s downtown location and the many mid-tier and upscale restaurant chains in the stadium surrounds. This is complemented by the stadium design, which contains the following ‘ingredients’ that are needed to promote placemaking and improve accessibility: limited outdoor car parking (to minimise the amount of barren paved areas), integration with street layout, proximate public transport and pedestrian-friendly areas. The result of this is a vibrant, rejuvenated environment, which attracts consistent non-match day footfall.

Another good example is the Staples Centre in downtown Los Angeles.  The arena is part of a major AEG development known as LA Live that has helped to transform the area into a broad, multifaceted 24/7 entertainment district. This includes the Los Angeles Convention Centre, Microsoft Theatre, Grammy Museum, various hotels and residences, mid- to high-end restaurants and cinemas, as well as retail programming. It has become a visitor destination in its own right, to the benefit of local businesses in the businesses in the vicinity and the city’s thriving visitor economy.

Understandably, there is a lot of media attention and excitement that surrounds every new stadium announcement. It provides a certain ‘buzz’ and is certainly a boon for supporters of the club. But, like most major development projects, the regeneration impact is less clear. As with most projects that make grand placemaking and regeneration promises, it is important to look past the flashy renders and PR spin to consider the fine detail of what exactly is planned and how it will work in practice.