It's Futbol Time in Tennessee!!!

Last week I was honored to return to my home state to participate in Design Alabama’s Mayor’s Design Summit. We produced a lot of good work, and I met some very nice, bright and energetic people. The downside to the trip was that I have not had a lot of time to think about a blog topic. Consequently, this week I will be shooting from the hip. With college football over and Birmingham City still alive in the FA Cup and in the finals of the League Cup next week, I find that I am now totally fixated on "the other" football. Let's see if I can make a cogent argument for the connection between Chattanooga+Design+Sport. Here goes…

On March 6, Columbus and New England of Major League Soccer will be playing an exhibition match here in our very own Finley Stadium. I am quite excited about this. However, I must admit that some of the initial excitement came from rumors that Stern John may be signing with Crew again. Yes, that Stern John, that Stern John, and inspiration for a certain other namesake Stern. (as of this posting, the rumor remains just that and there is 0% chance he will be playing in Chattanooga).

Stern & Stern
When I was a young man, in the early days of ESPN I saw an English 1st Division game (before it was called the Premier League) between Aston Villa and some other team (little did I know that Villa would eventually be the object of my hate and derision later in life.) The most memorable thing about the game to me was the atmosphere – it was rainy, muddy and the fans were singing loud and in unison. The stadium looked more like a theatre, it had vertical stands that came right down to the edge of the field. I was sold on the whole thing.
As fate would have it, later in life one of my fraternity brothers in New Mexico happened to be an Englishman (Jem) whose father (Alan) was club secretary at Birmingham City Football Club (Burmingum not BirmingHAM). As we became friends I became a Blues fan for life. Jem and I kept in touch in the pre-electronic era, and by the turn of the century the internet had made following Blues as easy as following Bama. By that time Denise and I had some 'ends (the kids were still a few years off) and several trips to England to visit the Joneses and watch football ensued.

Jem & I at St. Andrews - home of my Blues
The thing that draws me to the English version of the sport is atmosphere. It’s the grounds, the singing, the weather, and the fans. So what the hell does this have to do with urbanism and design? The atmosphere that draws me to the game is in part created buy its physical form.  How stadiums respond to their surroundings and their form make a large contribution to the experience.
The grounds are generally located in a neighborhood and are not surrounded by a sea of parking (as is most often the case in America). So, instead of tailgating on asphalt, you go to a pub near the grounds to drink and sing, then walk over to the game. Most of the grounds there evolved with their cities over time. As the neighborhoods around them grew, the stadiums had to grow up instead of out to accommodate larger fan bases. There is a special feeling to going to a place that is purpose built for an activity and that has evolved over time with its surroundings. These places are about people, for sharing, singing, laughing and crying together. Celebrating a passion that has been carried through generations and shared with a community in a communal place is a truly awesome experience.

St. Andrews in Birmingham 
I have no great love for QPR, but Loftus Rd is a cool
grounds located in the middle of a neighborhood.
I can hear the Americans: "...but where do they park?"
Secondly, the design of the stadiums is perfectly suited to watching a soccer game. Traditional soccer grounds have stands built up to the edge of the pitch. How so unlike an American football field where the stands are separated from the action by 20 yards and 50 reserve players. Most of the stands have steeper slopes than American stadiums. These stands almost always have overhanging structures that provide some form of protection from the elements. The overall effect is that of a performance in a well-proportioned outdoor room. The sense of space is very well defined and adds immensely to the atmosphere of the grounds.

Main Stand at St. Andrew's (which surprisingly enough
is not the "main" stand. Highlighted is the perch
from which I saw my first Blues game

Unfortunately, they’re not all that way. A lot of the new stadiums are Americanized, multi-purpose places that accommodate track and field, rugby, etc and are located on major motorways set in a sea of parking – the Reebok Stadium springs to mind as an example. This is somewhat similar to the MLS experience in our country. To be fair, it makes sense to have a venue that is flexible enough to accommodate a wide range of activities throughout the year as opposed to single-purpose venues that lay fallow most of the year (ahem, BellSouth Park, ahem). I would not suggested that it would make any kind of sense to build the CFC a replica of Loftus Road in the Southside- but how cool would it be to have a few pints and walk over to watch the boys play in an intimate, bespoke soccer grounds.

Soccer in a massive football stadium just isn't the same.
Although the experience of the game is better in England, I do not want to disparage the passion and interests of MLS fans. I'm very excited about the MLS game they’re playing in Chattanooga, a tip of the cap to the folks who pulled that one off. Luckily for me, the CFC experience isn’t far off from the English one- they play in my neighborhood, I can walk to the game, and there are several pubs along the way. So cheers till next week, hope to see you on the 6th, and Keep right on to the end of the road... 

Bonus Material:
just because...
My friend Daz Porter... 

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