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Sustainability in sport: stadium development and planning

Like many other sectors, the sports sector faces an unprecedented challenge to become more sustainable, finding ways to mitigate its effects on the environment and adapting to meet the challenges of climate change.

Last year we saw the men’s World Cup held in Qatar, and whilst the football captivated the world once again, the impact of constructing stadiums, of operating them in a heated environment and of the travelling fans will be felt for years to come.

This is an extreme example, but breaking down some of the key issues the men’s World Cup faced will resonate with sports clubs from across the sector – how can stadiums be developed, operated and managed in a more sustainable way, promoting environmental values and bringing ESG issues to the core of the decision-making process?

According to Sport England “Sustainability plays a key role in the design and management of sports recreation and leisure facilities. Promoting sustainability can help you drive down running costs and make a real contribution in the battle against climate change.”

So, what can the sports sector do to meet the challenges ahead? In this article we take a deep dive into stadium development.

Stadiums, training grounds, car parks, fan zones, merchandise stores, offices, hospitality and conference venues – there can be a multitude of different uses and pieces of real estate that clubs own and occupy.  All have their own unique challenges, but the biggest challenge comes in the form of stadiums; often the largest piece of real estate sports clubs and organisations own and operate. Stadiums usually occupy prime locations in urban areas, forming an integral part of the residential and business community.

They are often seen as emotional beacons to the fans and community hubs and carry their own history, which brings both threats and opportunities. These factors, as well as traditional site constraints such as neighbouring development and land uses, can make adaptions and modifications difficult.

Stadiums provide a further opportunity for clubs to generate income – they can be developed as ‘destinations’ rather than simply traditional sports grounds. Many sports clubs, especially in football, are global businesses with environmental, social and governance issues affecting their operations. This means that they, like many other sectors, are subject to the ever-increasing pressures of climate change and environmental credibility. These pressures manifest themselves in a variety of ways, with stadium development and operation being a key aspect.

With impressive new stadiums being developed across the UK, such as Tottenham Hotspur’s stadium in North London and Everton’s riverside offering at Bramley Moore Dock in Liverpool, due to open for the 2024/25 season, environmental considerations are becoming increasingly important in stadium development as clubs look to build commercial and environmental resilience into the operation as whole. So, what are the key considerations?


Many stadiums are in urban locations. If there is to be an extension then this will utilise previously developed land, but there may come a time when the site is too constrained and new facilities therefore need to be created.

Considering where new sites should be developed is critical to commercial realties of the club – too far out and they may lose the connection with the location, but too close means they are faced with the same issues as the current location.

Using previously developed land and preserving greenfield sites is almost always a better option. However, whilst the site of an existing stadium may be the ideal location, this can pose difficulties including plot size and the need to relocate matches throughout the development period. Match relocation can disrupt several seasons and of course incur additional cost and even potentially cause emotional distress to fans and the local community. Acquiring a larger site can avoid these issues and enable the creation of a much larger redevelopment scheme including housing, other commercial floorspace and community facilities which may not have been possible without the stadium proposal.

Furthermore, there will soon be a requirement for an uplift to support the environment (a 10% biodiversity net gain will become mandatory from November 2023).  Bringing forward mechanisms and enhancements for ecological mitigation will be critical to the future of the development and must be seen as a vital component at the heart of the decision-making process.

This requirement will be a key factor in site selection and will also push developers into incorporating other elements to support biodiversity into their designs. For example, this might be including green roofs, such as is evident at Dartford FC’s Princes Park, or even taking this idea one step further and incorporating entire living walls which change with the seasons, such as is proposed for the Dalian Stadium in China. From a planning perspective, these types of initiative can also make developments more visually acceptable, particularly for small stadia, as they can blend better with green surroundings.

Stadium sharing

Making better use of one facility for a variety of sports can result in less waste, more efficient energy usage and an increase in the impact of any environmental initiatives. These collaborations are common between rugby clubs and football clubs, such as can be seen between Wigan Athletic FC and Wigan Warriors RLFC, as well as Brentford FC and London Irish RFC. This kind of arrangement also makes financial sense for many clubs, something particularly pertinent for Wasps RFC and Worcester Warriors RFC who entered into administration in 2022.

Renewable energies 

With the UK aiming to reach net zero by 2030, renewable energy really needs to play a major part in stadium development, maintenance and improvement as we move forward. Solar panels are an increasingly popular option – see for example Bristol FC’s Ashton Gate, where they are expected to reduce carbon emissions by 20%. Further afield, the Antalya Stadium in Turkey is fully solar powered and the Europa Park stadium in Germany is set to become fully carbon neutral through the use of solar panels and waste heat from nearby industry. Whilst these systems can require significant financial outlay initially, rising energy costs mean they can end up paying for themselves over time and can also give better financial certainty, which may be key to the survival of many smaller clubs.

Water preservation 

One effect of global warming that has become increasingly noticeable over the last decade is the number of extreme weather events taking place globally. In the summer of 2022, Europe was hit by record breaking high temperatures as well as a drought, whilst at the other end of the spectrum, flash flooding events continue to increase across the world and the UK. These events have an obvious effect on pitch quality and maintenance. Therefore, including an efficient drainage system, where water is collected and then stored for irrigation, is an imperative part of pitch development. This is included at Dartford’s Princes Park as well as Forest Green Rover’s The New Lawn and the Maracana stadium in Brazil, the latter of which both retrofitted their existing stadia with eco technology demonstrating that these initiatives can be incorporated at any stage. It should, however, be noted that Forest Green Rovers have ambitious plans to build a new stadium, Eco Park, almost entirely out of wood.

Other operating initiatives 

Clubs have the opportunity to be creative here. Whilst some initiatives will be required as part of the planning process through planning conditions and Section 106 Agreements, others may be entirely driven by clubs themselves. These kinds of initiatives may include shuttle buses, travel plans, cycling strategies and electric car charging points, with a particular focus on reducing the emissions created by travelling fans. Commitments to carbon saving and water usage limits are also common, and these in turn require further strategies to be achieved. Organically treated pitches are also increasingly important and, alongside water preservation strategies, can assist with current issues related to nitrates pollution which has hit the south east of England particularly hard. Initiatives may even extend to fully vegan menus, which can already be seen at The New Lawn, and the decision to keep the same kit beyond one season, such as has been done at Brentford FC, which, whilst primarily being aimed at helping fans financially, also has a positive knock-on effect on the environment.

Considering and incorporating all the above points when planning stadium development can feel like a tall order. However, these steps are vital not only to ensuring and promoting sustainability, but also to actually securing planning permission. The early engagement of a planning consultant as well as planning and environmental legal professionals who can help guide through the process with the local planning authority will be key to success. We have experience working with elite football clubs, such as Millwall FC, on planning and development matters.

Clubs may also want to engage consultants specialising in sustainability and sport. Barney Weston, co-director at the environmental non-profit Football For Future, explained that “we can help organisations in football understand their environmental footprint through essential audits, and build effective sustainability strategies across all aspects of the organisations’ operations. This creates a holistic approach to climate action, with stadium management forming part of a wider climate strategy”. You can read more about Football For Future’s work with clubs like Wolves here.

As Homer Rice once said “you can motivate by fear, you can motivate by reward, but both of these are temporary.  The only lasting thing is self-motivation”. Now is the time for the sector to recognise its impact and takes positive steps to a lasting and thriving future.

With impressive new stadiums being developed across the UK, such as Tottenham Hotspur’s stadium in North London and Everton’s riverside offering at Bramley Moore Dock in Liverpool, due to open for the 2024/25 season, environmental considerations are becoming increasingly important in stadium development as clubs look to build commercial and environmental resilience into the operation as whole”