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The Gensler Sports leaders on the impact of climate urgency on design imperative, how second-tier cities set a precedent, progressive stadia and urban master-planning, and “intelligent flexibility” driving efficiencies and inclusiveness in the built environment


AR: How have COVID and the urgency around sustainability and climate change impacted the your approach to projects at Gensler, and your clients’ imperatives and priorities?

KB: We’re seeing clients that are definitely more engaged than they have been in the past, and it’s something that, as an office, we’re trying to make sure we’re bringing up at the very initial client discussions. We kind of have this task force, where people from each studio are really these sustainability leaders that are responsible for making sure that all the projects are addressing it, and trying to bring it to the forefront, right when projects are conceived. 

It’s something that we’ve got clients, especially clients that are more, I would say, internationally focused, already on. Because just being in Europe, and having climate change be something that has really been important for them for a long time, we’re seeing that those clients are bringing it to us. They’re very, very focused on it, saying: ‘We want to definitely to be LEED, or Fitwel,’ things of that sort. But we’re still making sure to push our American clients in that direction. Because it’s not something that they want to focus on, because they see it as cost, but we’re trying to convince them that it’s their responsibility to be a steward of our environment.

DT: I think it’s also important to note that it’s top-down. Our CEO has really tried to put metrics to it, to say that, as a firm, we are going to set these goals over the next five, 10, 15, 20 years. And being a large design firm, we have some control over what our environment is, and how sustainable we are. And to Kristin’s point, we’re working at it from both directions, the client side as well as putting pressure on ourselves, and realizing that this is very important, and it’s going to change our future environment and our future cities. 

It’s just tying that into the 20-minute city, and how important we feel it is to bring people back to the city, whether that be transportation, cutting down on emissions and things like that. Tying the whole story together for our clients allows them to see the purpose of this, in that it’s not just about the money aspect, not just to check the box of LEED or Fitwel, it’s to really do something impactful for the environment. 

Just being in California, there are some baseline things that we have to do. So, if we’re talking LEED, you’re almost always going to get LEED silver, just if it’s a building in California. What we’re seeing clients say is that they want to do better than that, they want to really reach and push themselves to do better. So, we are seeing that. It’s a commitment you have to make pretty early on in the project. So, we are seeing people increase, and saying: ‘This isn’t as bad as I thought it would be. I’m gonna go for Platinum, or I’m gonna go for Fitwel, or add-ons.’ But it’s hard to change course mid-project.

KB: Especially with energy modeling and the things that have to start within the schematic design phase, you really have to get that dialed in very early. I was going to say, one thing that we’re actually using to our advantage, given that the sports world is very competitive, with our professional clients it’s almost like: ‘Well, this client did this. Don’t you want to one-up them?’ you kind of have to put it in their terms, where they feel like: ‘I want the most state-of-the-art facility. I want to be the best.’ And so, we can use that to our advantage to say, how can we get them to commit to more environmental stewardship through that competition? 

And leading on from that, how has progressive stadium development led in terms of sustainability? How can they be the leaders, especially when thinking about community redevelopment?

DT: Sustainability is interesting, and people use the word a lot now interchangeably. To me, one way of being sustainable is using the building more often. So, what we were seeing previously was that the building was used 10 to 12 times a year, and we’re now trying to design the building in such a way that it can be used for multiple events, and it becomes a part of the community. If you’re using a building 250 times a year versus 10 times a year, if you amortize that over the timeframe, it becomes more sustainable. 

Looking at it from that perspective, we are very actively trying to make sure that the building is used, and when it’s used it’s used very efficiently. If we’re only using half the building, we design it so you only have to turn half the building on, in terms of electricity, mechanical equipment and things like that. So, that’s one way. It’s a big building. So, to be sustainable, it’s much different than an office building you have to look at other ways of making it sustainable for the community.

KB: I think another specific example of that is, for Q2 stadium, it was a brownfield site. They really thought about it, from the start, they really researched a lot of different sites. I think they had seven sites, and they ended up settling on this one because it’s north of downtown, where the city is growing. A lot of people say: ‘Why aren’t you putting the stadium downtown?’ That’s really what people want to do to create sustainable cities, because there’s public transit and everything. But, the city of Austin is really growing more north, and it’s not sprawl, just different nodes. 

The new downtown is actual happening at the domain where that stadium was built next to. And they have all of this existing parking infrastructure, they have rail lines that run through there, there’s going to be public transit, a rail station built right on site, which is exciting. So, they saw all these things come together in a sort of perfect storm where that seemed like the right sustainability story for them, and their choice. So, I think it’s good when you’ve got people on the development end that are putting that stuff together from the start, because it basically sets everything up down the road to be a sustainable story. 

Has Austin set a precedent for how other cities might think about the build-out, or is it very much specific to the city? Or is there a mix of the two, where there is that element of ‘Look what they did, maybe we should take those lessons?’ And how about larger cities—can they take lessons from some of these successful rising cities, like Austin?

KB: I think you’re right, every city is different. But, it’s the principles that other cities can latch onto and study. The next MLS stadium that happens, they can take a look at Austin and be like: ‘These are the five things they did to create their sustainable story. Maybe three of them don’t apply to us, but what can we learn from that, and do some things differently?’ So, yeah, I think it’s a hybrid approach.

DT: I agree. You could pull out some of those same sustainability stories with LAFC, again, being on a transit line, extending the Figueroa corridor, extending parts of the city in a natural way. So, I think you just have to understand the city. We have offices in different cities, and we spend a lot of time in the cities understanding where the city is going. It’s as much about the master planning of 15 years from now as it is the three to five years that it’s going to take to build a stadium.

Tying the whole story together for our clients allows them to see the purpose of this, in that it’s not just about the money aspect, not just to check the box of LEED or Fitwel, it’s to really do something impactful for the environment.

DT: I think the community aspect is the biggest thing that’s transferrable, because regardless of the city size, you have a community that lives there, that wants to be there, that’s trying to build a stadium, or build a fanbase. So, the community, the programming—those are things that are scalable. Any of the things that are very scalable, you can take from the larger cities and scale them up or down. Sometimes transportation doesn’t work, because if it’s a small city they don’t need public transit. But, I feel like the community, the park, the green space, these are things that everyone needs, regardless of race, gender, anything. So, those are the aspects that I think are transferrable.

KB: The scalable part is really important. You may not need a huge metro line if it’s a small city, but you provide more bike parking, and you have bus routes that are a quarter-mile walk from your destination. I think those lead principles that we follow, it’s very scalable, and it’s not a one-size-fits-all approach.

“The smaller city experience could possibly be the future of urban life”: 2021 City Pulse Survey, Gensler Research Institute (Image: Gensler)

So, when you’re thinking about that level of planning and engagement from stakeholders and communities, how do you see local policymakers, the role that they play, and how they can help support and foster those civic priorities and sustainability goals? How are they engaged?

KB: At least for Austin, they have a really large homeless population there, and one of the big policy decisions that went into the development deal was that they would partner with Foundation Communities to stipulate in the deal that there would be x amount of affordable housing either built on that site in the future, or Austin FC would be required to find a different site to build in the future. 

It’s either taking part of the parking that’s there and building affordable housing, or finding another site, I guess. So, I think, when you’ve got policymakers who are really interested in bolstering and making the community a better place, then that’s even better for these large developments, that they can basically kill two birds with one stone. It’s making the communities better, and solving social issues that we’re experiencing everywhere.

DT: In terms of the community, we’re always wanting to hear the communities’ concerns, especially the surrounding communities, because that’s usually telling you things that aren’t necessarily as public. We really want to hear from that perspective, and address those concerns. 

A lot of times, it’s transportation. That’s a lot of what we hear from the communities: transportation. Will this negatively affect my in-and-out? Will it cause more traffic? Will you add public transportation? Is that going to help me get to work, or will it bring people that I don’t want into my neighborhood? 

Addressing all those concerns at a community level is always really important to do. And then: What is this going to do for our environment? The temperature, climate—are we going to add areas of green for people to play in their parks when there is no game? Those are the types of things that we try to integrate, to include sustainability and make the facility more welcoming to the community.

KB: That’s a good point, especially with the green spaces. That’s just a big part of Austin’s vibe anyway, and they made a specific, conscious decision to include more green space on that stadium site in lieu of parking, because they thought that was something that would be more beneficial to the community. People are able to use it on non-game days. And given the fact that they’ve got plenty of parking and public transit infrastructure, they really didn’t think that they needed as much parking as most other stadiums provide.

DT: And it’s just so hot, right? 

KB: You don’t want to create more of a heat island effect.

When you’ve got policymakers who are really interested in bolstering and making the community a better place, then that’s even better for these large developments, that they can basically kill two birds with one stone. It’s making the communities better, and solving social issues that we’re experiencing everywhere.

There’s been so much discussion about how we need to build better, and build in ways that are more welcoming, and increase accessibility to more people. How does that apply to the built environment? What does that actually look like in terms of development and how you think about approaching urban design? 

KB: So, maybe we get specific, and then zoom out again. At least with the Austin FC stadium, and the decision I was talking about where they chose to move it north of downtown because the city is growing that way, another big reason for them putting it in that area was that the surrounding community is a lot more economically and racially diverse. They wanted much more inclusion for that site itself, as opposed to putting it in an area where maybe there isn’t as much diversity. And in terms of Austin FC’s platform, they really made a conscious decision when they were scheduling their first game that it was gonna be a US Women’s National Team game. They wanted that to be the first match in that stadium. 

And speaking about the training facility as well, when we were doing the initial master planning for that, they made a conscious decision to basically create a footprint on that campus that will be for a future women’s team. So, thinking about inclusion from those very beginning stages, about how we can grow, especially women’s soccer in Austin. I mean, there’s a huge population of girls who play soccer in central Texas, and they weren’t spearheading that, but they saw that there’s already this huge community, and so it’s, like: ‘How can we foster that? Okay, maybe we don’t have money to build a training facility and bring a women’s team here right now, but we definitely want to set aside the land for that.’ 

So, it’s really about having clients that have inclusion at the top of their mind, and given the fact that we’ve done projects where we are working with those types of clients, we can bring that to clients going forward, and just be like: ‘Well, these other teams did this, have you thought about this? Is it something that you’re interested in doing?’ And just start posing that question. And they might be like: ‘Well, I haven’t even thought about bringing a girls’ academy here. Maybe we should.’ It’s just getting the discussion started, I think.

DT: The diversity and inclusion conversation is a two-way street. It’s bringing a diverse team to the meeting to be able to address and bring those questions up. Because you don’t know what you don’t know. So, we, on our side, really try to bring a diverse team, from a leadership standpoint, to the meetings, to the client, and then have them reciprocate that on their end, it goes back to reaching out to the community. That’s how you get more diverse opinions. Talking to the community about what they want. 

It’s not just what we think you should have. It’s not me coming in and telling a city what I think they should have, it’s more bringing a diverse group from that city, and asking: ‘What do you want? What do you need? What’s going to impact your community? What’s going to impact your day-to-day?’ So, having that level of discussion multiple times with different people to get a variety of opinions.

Byrd and Thornton at Gensler’s downtown Los Angeles offices

You mentioned earlier the 20-minute city, and the idea of stadiums being more diverse in terms of what else they include—that it’s not just for football games. How do those principles play into the questions of diversity and inclusion, and making these areas not only more accessible, but also provide more for the communities?

KB: It’s about offering a variety of experiences too. Different people are going to want different things. If we’ve got a lot of green space around, maybe people are using that as a picnic area on the weekends. Or, if there are parts of the stadium that are open on non-game days, people can gather there. But, I think it’s really about just trying to find those different opportunities, and like Demetra mentioned earlier, activating that space for more than just the 18 games a year that MLS is playing, trying to find ways that the community feels like it’s also their stadium, it’s their piece of the master plan. It’s not something that’s gated and you’re supposed to stay off the grass when you’re not there for a game. And that’s what’s nice about Banc of California [Stadium]. There are little plaza spaces around the edge, and Austin’s the same way, where you can just go out and hang out in the amphitheater, bring your dog. It’s not the sort of turn-your-back-on-the-city idea that a lot of older stadiums had.

DT: And it’s programming, actively programming these spaces, and saying: ‘Every third Thursday we’re gonna have an event in this plaza.’ So, it becomes a habit for people, and it engages people. And you say: ‘Hey, I can get there in 15 minutes.’ And it’s gonna be food trucks, or whatever is in. Because it’s cyclical, and things go in and out of style. But, actively programming that. And sometimes it’s the team doing that, sometimes it’s the city. There are people that have to work together to program these spaces so there’s activity there. And people want to be around activity, just naturally.

Looking ahead to LA 2028 Olympics, and the city potentially hosting some World Cup 2026 games, with those mega-events in mind, and all the planning and investment, what are you most excited about or hopeful for in terms of what that will incentivize in the city, and how people are approaching building out and investing in the environment?

DT: LA is doing a good job of thinking about this strategically, and not just for 2028. I’m excited about 2029—because it’s not going to be just one massive build for that, it’s going to be: ‘Let’s build for that, but let’s take into consideration what the community looks like after.’ Sometimes you see cities that don’t take that into consideration, and LA—it feels slow, but I think it feels slow because they’re taking into consideration everything, and trying to master-plan or put things into place that will last well after 2028.

KB: I agree. I think a lot of the approach is more on repurposing existing buildings that we have into being training facilities, or practice venues, or things of that sort. Also, avoiding temporary facilities so we’re not putting a whole bunch of brand new carbon footprints all over the place. What can we use that we already have, and repurpose it in a thoughtful way? And after, in 2029, will those facilities become community amenities? If they have to build a place with some basketball courts, and they’ve got to build a training facility for some random team to practice, can that just be a give-back?

Demetra Thornton, AIA, NOMA, and Kristin Byrd, AIA, are senior sports practice leaders at Gensler, the world’s largest design firm. Their North American stadium projects include Los Angeles FC’s Banc of California and Austin City FC’s Q2.

Thornton was an adviser to then-Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti’s RENEW task force on civil rights and equity. Byrd is a member of the US Green Building Council.

This is one of a running series exploring the crosscurrents of sport, urbanism and sustainable development