Moving pitches and public parks: How future MLS stadiums could blur lines between teams, cities

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MLS-leading stadium architects Populous designed a stadium of the future exclusively for FourFourTwo

Get really cozy with your favorite downtown environment when you start thinking about the MLS stadium of the future, a structure that could blur the line between soccer home and public park.

The world’s largest sports architecture firm, Kansas City-based Populous, and its leading soccer design principal, Bruce Miller, set to work on designing a view into the future, an exclusive look for FourFourTwo at what to expect from MLS stadia in 20 to 30 years.

“Really it is like a concept car,” Miller says. “It is to stir thinking and have some fun with where we think things are going and technologies that we think are really interesting. We let our imaginations go crazy with what the possibilities could be.”

First and foremost, Miller says that future soccer stadiums will firmly root themselves inside the urban core, so that the “edges between what is stadium and what is city become blurred and there is a space that might be a stadium one day and the best public park you could imagine the next, and the day after that there is a music festival.”

With that thought in mind, we’ve dubbed the Populous creation “Urban Park,” easily transferable to nearly any downtown environment, more so than, say, a baseball field, because of its rectangular geometry. And it fits better than an NFL building due to scale.

While MLS continues to gain traction in North America, Miller sees a trend toward larger buildings and expects in 20 years to hit the sweet spot of stadiums scaling to as many as 40,000 fans.

But to blur the lines between stadium and city, Populous has done two key things with Urban Park. First, you’ll see mixed-use towers at the corners. These areas can serve specific city needs — retail and dining, for example —during the day, facing the city streets, and then turn toward the pitch for game day as hospitality areas, a meshing of uses that allows a more intimate seating bowl.

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Second, and most striking, Miller says to expect the technology of blended artificial and natural grass to make it so the pitch itself can be in use for far more than just soccer.

“That is maybe controversial because the soccer players want their grass to be sacred, but that is one of the things we took as supposition, is the quality and durability of the pitch makes it able to be used on non-game days,” Miller said.

And from there, Populous had fun with it beyond kids running amok on the grass during a family picnic, designing a completely movable pitch. Miller says the futuristic design includes a pitch that can rise up on non gamedays to reduce the vastness of the stadium for a park-like setting and reveal space underneath for parking, for example. Also, they designed in a stage that can rise out of the “pop the top” pitch, creating a theater or concert venue.

“It will become a community asset with large open space in the middle of the city, and that open space becomes a magnet for people in the city,” Miller says.

Populous

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Expect a futuristic stadium to also boast the latest technology when it comes to sustainability, which is why Urban Park uses a translucent-fabric retractable roof loaded with photovoltaic panels to create a net-zero energy structure and one that even adds energy back to the grid. And to match the park environment, Miller’s team added in zip lining for those off days and a stadium edge that softens into the city with community gardens.

Technology within the seating bowl will change the viewer experience too, with fans gaining live stats about a player as they move across the pitch, enhancing the experience in a communal-style engagement.

And while Urban Park puts a focus on technology, why not go all in on augmented and virtual reality and create a stadium capable of using holographic technology and projection systems to allow fans to watch an away game virtually in the home Urban Park?

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The technology could also allow fans to relive past games, whether historic worldwide contests or the home team’s big games from yesteryear. And when used as a concert, turn the projection system around to play video on the stands and intensify the experience for those on the field.

With an intimate seating bowl designed for the intensity of a 90-minute game, the future of stadiums will further brand a team as part of the city, creating an Urban Park that blurs the line between city and stadium.

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Follow Tim Newcomb on Twitter at @tdnewcomb.

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