Just as professional sports franchises can be an economic boon to urban neighborhoods, so too is there power and influence in the stadium and physical property itself. Facilities compete with one another for the hearts of sports fans, recognizing that there is a relationship between positive memories and the sensory experience of attending the physical space itself.  Jaguars owner Shad Khan and the Jacksonville taxpayers just chipped in $63 million to build the largest video boards in the NFL, not to mention pools, cabanas, and other in-stadium renovations.  MLB parks across the country propagandize with imposing arch-based structures reminiscent of the Roman Coliseum.  A single letter off a restroom sign from Old Yankee Stadium goes for $270.  That’s physical power.

By the same token, our cathedrals of the game don’t always fit the urban mold seamlessly.  Like U.S. Cellular Field in South Side Chicago, some sting of gentrification.  Others, like the Atlanta Braves’ new Cobb County stadium, pander to white and wealthy suburban residents, proving the “quest for money trumps the idea that our teams can be — and should be — a part of their community, an aspect of a city’s society that brings all types of people together in one place” (Waldron).

Rendering of the Atlanta Braves' new Cobb County Stadium

Rendering of the Atlanta Braves’ new Cobb County Stadium

The Detroit Advantage

Detroit has the potential to utilize the power of its downtown venues to take the lead in the rising field of sustainable sports.  Admittedly, talk of “potential” probably did not ease the minds of the Big Four franchise owners in the Motor City home as they watched the city’s population drop by 25% in the first decade of the 21st century alone, but the Tigers just had their top two best-selling seasons in the franchise’s 117 year history. When teams perform, Michiganders will show up, regardless of the stadium’s location.

Even in Detroit, downtown urban land has value.  It provides versatility, accessibility, socio-economic crossover and interaction, and the gritty physical connection between the team and the Motor City.  It is also relatively cheap and there is a whole lot of it, which gives Detroit a competitive advantage and the chance to take the lead in establishing long-term sustainable development projects, such as transit integration and renewable energy practices where other cities often have greater concerns over existing land usage.

Since property values took a turn from bad to worse, there’s been a push for more sustainable use of Detroit’s public lands, particularly in the inner city;  “repurposing vacant land in ways that add economic, environmental, and social benefits to Detroiters is part of the vision laid out in the Detroit Future City strategic framework introduced in January.”  The goal is the creation of a healthier and more sustainable urban ecosystem in a region known for pollution, rust, and grit.  With so much vacant property, the most crucial resource for urban development projects – cheap space – is readily available.

A Sustainable Example

The San Francisco 49ers have set the bar high by building a new stadium that uses solar power to generate enough energy for all ten preseason and regular season home football games. That means the sun is powering lights, video boards, speakers, locker rooms, suites, and concourses for an entire season thanks to 38,000 square feet of photovoltaics and a progressive California subsidy or two. To make the deal even sweeter, over sixteen types of native plants grow on Levi’s Stadium’s green roof, all water for irrigation and plumbing is reclaimed, and there are light rail stops and bike racks just outside the stadium. According to Sports Illustrated, some fans have made plans to walk as far as four miles to a 49ers game this year due to the focus on safety, accessibility, and alternative transit.

The Levi’s Stadium website touts a number of other sustainable achievements, such as its LEED Gold certification, the first of any professional American football stadium, use of recycled wood for the owner’s suites, and composting. The new sleek Levi’s Stadium facility is a far cry from the 49ers old home at Candlestick Park, which received quite a bit of scorn over the years for its poor seating design and more recently for back-to-back in-game power outages during Monday Night Football in 2013. While the 49ers’ new facility may be best-in-class, it is not the only NFL stadium making pacts to integrate intelligently with its urban environment. The Giants’ and Jets’ Metlife Stadium signed a memorandum with the EPA in 2009 pledging to be an environmental steward by employing a number of carbon reduction methods. These include composting, a certified “Green Restaurant,” energy savings through efficient metering and monitoring, and even a rooftop solar ring.

The Braves’ Cobb County Stadium

On the other side of the country, the Atlanta Braves are dropping millions to pander to the wealthiest fans with hardly a mention of renewable energy projects, despite prime solar energy location in a city where the sun is shining 60% of the year.  The Cobb County relocation proves that franchises believe they can thrive by avoiding the struggles that come with being a part of a complex community that includes poor and minority citizens. As much as one positions the move as an economic decision, the city government and franchise are shirking their collective responsibility to take care of and invest in their constituents by building safe transportation infrastructure and integrating effectively with the urban landscape. Fleeing from the troubled areas of the inner city is a kick in the gut to the most loyal fans — the urban laborer who spends an entire year’s overtime to take his son to a game, or the thousands who rely on the stadium for income. Will the new venue just leave behind more unemployment, vacant land, crime, and resentment? Will Georgia State be able to put together a redevelopment deal for “The Ted”?

Additionally, Braves executive David Schiller has repeatedly emphasized that the new stadium will promote automobile infrastructure to increase car accessibility, which “starts with roadways.”  This ignores the importance of sports as part of the urban transit nexus and caters to exclusionary suburban values.

The New Detroit Entertainment District

Back in July 2014, the Ilitch family — owners of the Tigers and Red Wings franchises — provided the first renderings of Detroit’s new Red Wings Arena and surrounding sports and entertainment district, which seeks to integrate a new 20,000+ seat hockey venue with Comerica Park, Ford Field, and brand new retail, business, and residential space spanning over 45 blocks. Christopher Illitch estimates that the new district will “create at least $1.8 billion in total economic impact over several years, 8,300 construction and construction-related jobs, and 1,100 permanent jobs,” while rivaling the bustling street life found in many European cities. Among the plans are a commitment to creating five new neighborhoods in the area that are modeled after European streets, walkable, and transit-oriented, as well as sustainable and innovative arena design and grade separation over the I-75 corridor.

The availability of plentiful land downtown has allowed franchise owners like the Illitches and other private investors to carve out a powerful economic district in the heart of Detroit, and they have chosen to anchor it with sports venues, most notably the $450 million Red Wings Arena.  The sports-centric entertainment hub, which broke ground last September, is estimated to be ready by Summer 2017 and is a promising example of Detroit’s commitment to revitalizing urban property.

It is imperative that sporting programs, franchises, and facilities recognize their influence as representatives of community identity and stewards of their cities’ values. Aside from the raw benefits for the environment, downtown stadiums employing sustainable design practices will associate “greenness” with urban community investment, rather than simply as a luxury for the wealthy and suburban. The payoff will be immense for franchises that can acknowledge the challenges of their city’s core, recognize their role as a part of that community, and learn to utilize urban property to its full potential.  Rather than fleeing to the suburbs, the most visionary owners will create a sustainable operating model and integrate more effectively with their human and natural environments.

In Detroit, you find a third of the city’s residential lots vacant; beautiful architecture sitting unused; the old Tiger Stadium demolished, awaiting final plans for redevelopment; and Comerica Park adjacent to Ford Field, creating potential for collaboration and vast roof space for photovoltaics or vegetation. Most importantly, you find a thriving downtown sports culture and an exciting new integrated entertainment district plan, spearheaded by franchise owners and the Downtown Development Association, that will give new life to the neglected area between Detroit’s downtown core and the midtown University district. Urban property remains powerful, sustainable urban integration has never been more important, and the city needs a public image overhaul.

Now is the perfect opportunity for Detroit to take the lead.


Jake Higdon

Undergraduate in Global Studies at University of North Carolina
Jake Higdon is an undergraduate student at the University of North Carolina, majoring in Global Studies and minoring in City & Regional Planning and Arabic. A recent intern at an urban development NGO in Cape Town, South Africa, he is passionate about sustainable city planning, transportation, and environmental law in emerging economies.

Latest posts by Jake Higdon (see all)

Related Posts