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Building a legacy: Designing sports facilities that serve communities for decades

December 10, 2020

By John Hancock

What to consider when designing infrastructure for a major sporting event—and how to make sure it flourishes afterwards

I love the feeling in the air during a large, multi-day sporting event. There’s the anticipation of intense competition, the buzz of spectators finding their seats, the non-stop sports news coverage, the unveiling of fresh infrastructure and new sports facilities, and the excitement from athletes as they walk into a new facility and prepare to compete.

As a senior designer and avid cyclist—I currently serve as the Director of Coaching for Bicycle Newfoundland and Labrador, the provincial sports organization—the point about new sports facilities interests me the most. It’s fascinating to explore spaces created for a sports event. I’m looking forward to visiting the Niagara, Ontario region for the 2022 Canada Summer Games, and I’m excited for two other events closer to home on Canada’s east coast: The 2023 Canada Winter Games in Prince Edward Island, and the 2025 Canada Summer Games in Newfoundland and Labrador. I’m providing technical input on the 2025 cycling venues to ensure the optimum athlete and spectator experience.

When it comes to designing new infrastructure for large sporting events like the Canada Games—or even bigger ones like the Olympics—it’s important to focus on the legacy outcomes. What impact will new infrastructure or facilities have on your area’s master planning, long-term athletic development, and the health of residents?

I brought this thinking to my work in the Middle East a few years ago while acting as the project manager design lead for a FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022™ project, the Al Thumama Stadium and Precinct in Qatar. This 40,000-seat venue will host matches up to the quarter-final stage—and it has a strong sports legacy. After the tournament, the stadium capacity will be reduced and it will become a mixed sporting facility that features a boutique hotel and sports clinic, among other amenities.

So, how can you embed that idea of sports legacy into the design of your infrastructure and facilities? Here are a few pointers:

Flourishing community sports infrastructure promotes inclusion, social cohesion, and a sense of identity, and it can bring significant economic benefits.

Avoid the white elephant at all costs

Embed the idea of legacy into the base build design from inception. It’s critical to have a clear idea from the outset as to how the design will actively support the transformation to a sustainable and vibrant post-event sports and recreation facility. This requires a clear understanding of the needs of the community and elite athletes.

Designers should be mindful to avoid duplication of facilities and seek to ensure that there is a viable long-term business case to support ongoing delivery. You don’t want to create a “white elephant” situation, where the cost and maintenance of a facility dramatically exceeds its usefulness. Unfortunately, there are well-known examples of facilities built for major sporting events—which I won’t mention here—that sit languishing, underutilized, unloved, and slowly deteriorating.

We know that providing accessible, easy-to-operate, and well-maintained places will get more people involved in sport.

Design and build smartly

Once the legacy masterplan has been decided, the design and engineering impact this has on the base build needs to be clearly established. How will the facility transform after the major sporting event, over what period, and what impact does this have on community athletics and elite sports? For example, smart engineering decisions about the structural design can be made early in the design, which enable the upper tiers to be easily demountable.

The overall engineering infrastructure is likely to be reconfigured to deal with different legacy sporting scenarios, including significantly reduced loads and demand. Ideally, the dismantled building elements can be repurposed in a sustainable manner. For example, the Ras Abu Aboud Stadium, a 2022 FIFA World Cup™ venue, is currently being constructed using shipping containers and removeable seats. After the tournament, the venue will be dismantled, and the parts will be used for future sports events and other projects.

It’s also essential to test the design and identify how you’re going to manage the future construction logistics to get the redundant structure and infrastructure out of the building efficiently.

Following its successful debut during the 2019 Canada Games in Red Deer, Alberta, the Gary W. Harris Canada Games Centre at Red Deer College now accommodates tradeshows and dry land events, skating, minor sport usage, and Hockey Alberta usage.

Create agile and flexible spaces

Even with a clear legacy plan, there’s a need for the design to be sufficiently agile and flexible. The planning period for major events spans many years and circumstances, and it’s normal for requirements and expectations to change during the process. Typically, the building infrastructure is designed and committed as a base build facility, with a plan for event overlay—the temporary architectural elements added for an event—before the preceding major sporting event.

Large events such as the Olympics are hosted on a four-year cycle, and there’s a need to accommodate changes in regulations, threat and risk assessments, crowd management, media requirements, and lessons learned from the most recent events. This thinking is particularly appropriate to the legacy planning with facilities realized a decade or so in the future. What are the future socio-economic justifications going to be for the major-event venues that we are providing now, and how will they meet future stakeholder requirements and create more impact?

The current COVID-19 pandemic brings this sharply into focus. With some sporting and concert events on hold, stadiums are being repurposed to provide emergency hospitals, community facilities, and controlled social spaces. Other venues are preparing for the return of spectators and addressing issues around ticketing, transport, arrival spaces, concourse circulation, sanitary controls, and minimizing contact. What’s clear is that there’s likely to be a significant reduction in capacity, and the need for this building typology to be flexible, sustainable, and viable over the long-term is even more critical.

The successful reconfiguration of sporting venues into lasting, high-quality legacy facilities can deliver increased participation in sport, healthier communities, and lasting change.

Be ambitious

The successful reconfiguration of these spectacular sporting venues into lasting, high-quality legacy facilities can deliver increased participation in sport, healthier communities, and lasting change. My colleague Scott Klaus has written about how investments in athletic facilities improve communities—and how these facilities are a point of pride for many people. Flourishing community sports infrastructure promotes inclusion, social cohesion, and a sense of identity. Plus, it can bring significant economic benefits.

These beacons of sporting excellence can be a catalyst for wider community regeneration, and there are many examples of how this investment has been a key part of the strategy for urban development. For instance, the 2012 London Olympics bid was partly awarded because of the urban regeneration potential for Stratford and the Lower Lea Valley. As a result of the investment, these areas have undergone significant development building on the Olympic infrastructure—although there have been challenges in providing sufficient and suitable affordable housing as areas undergo gentrification.

We know that providing accessible, easy-to-operate, and well-maintained places will get more people involved in sport, inspire young people, and provide new opportunities. At the core, they are places to share experiences and athletic prowess. Embedding this thinking and ambition into projects helps long-term athlete development and ensures that the next generation of elite athletes—across Canada and the globe—will have somewhere to thrive for decades to come.

The Gary W. Harris Canada Games Centre at Red Deer College currently has several uses following the 2019 Canada Games in Red Deer, Alberta.

Consider the lasting benefits

It’s interesting to look at previous editions of the Canada Games across the country and their resulting legacies. The City of Kamloops, British Columbia hosted the games in 1993, leaving a legacy of new and upgraded facilities valued at over C$11 million, new equipment (like kayaks, sailboats, sports medicine equipment, and more), a boost in tourism from media coverage of the Games, and strong community pride from 8,500 volunteers and staff. Stantec provided engineering services for the Canada Games Stadium and Canada Games Pool. In the years since the Games, Stantec has worked with the City of Kamloops on several exciting sports facilities that benefit athletes and their families in the community, including work on the Tournament Capital of Canada Facility, Hillside Stadium, and the McArthur Island Sport and Event Centre.

The most recent Canada Games, held in Red Deer, Alberta, supported C$110 million of economic activity in the province (according to the Canadian Sport Tourism Alliance), drew 26,000 visitors, and left a legacy of first-class facilities and a trained volunteer base for future events. One of Stantec’s projects for the 2019 Games, the Gary W. Harris Canada Games Centre at Red Deer College, currently has several post-Games uses, as it accommodates tradeshows and dry land events, skating, minor sport usage, and Hockey Alberta usage. It also serves as home ice for the Red Deer College Kings and Queens hockey teams.

In 2013, the International Olympic Committee defined legacy as the “lasting benefits which can considerably change a community, its image, and its infrastructure.” In my work on sports infrastructure design, I always keep legacy top of mind. I encourage all municipalities that are considering hosting a multi-sport event to seriously analyze the long-term impacts of that event—and to build that legacy thinking into their plan. 

  • John Hancock

    Working with our team in St. John’s, John acts as the design team leader on our projects. There, he creates and coordinates innovative and sustainable multi-disciplinary design solutions from inception through to completion.

    Contact John
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