Guest Column - January 2014
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Sports Fields

When There's a Will, There's a Way
How to Design a Field With Unique Requirements

By David Nardone

When it comes to design, every field, every community and every sport has its own distinct needs and requirements. While there aren't off-the-shelf templates (or at least shouldn't be) for any given athletic field, there are some general design approaches for projects with unique circumstances that can help a community find a practical and resilient end product.

Limited Space

The first step in determining how best to design a field for a tight space is to talk to the coaches and managers who will be using the field. As a project begins, forming a representative user group—including coaches from each sport using the field, officials, a member or two from the field ownership or management organization, etc.—not only gets all users together to discuss the objectives for the field, but it also allows the designer to present some creative options for meeting those goals.

This kind of user group proved to be essential in redesigning the community ballfield in the Battery Park City neighborhood of New York City. Between its dense urban surroundings and jam-packed schedule of youth and adult sports, maximizing every inch of athletic space was the top priority for the new field. As the user group put it, every square inch of space meant another child could participate.

One solution for helping the community meet that goal was to design moveable nets into the field—these systems can separate areas of the field for particular use, such as baseball batting practice or stretching, while other activities are happening in surrounding field areas. The ball net systems are strung on a series of poles embedded below the turf with a sleeve from which the net poles can slide in and out. These nets are reconfigured seasonally to accommodate Little League, soccer and summer camps, as needed. The nets are also configured to create smaller spaces for specific drills, and teams often use the spaces between nets for warm-ups.

Multiple Sports

Battery Park City is not alone in needing to make sure its field space can accommodate several programs. Many—if not most—communities must share field space among sports. With that programming already defined, the next step in finding the most effective design is to conduct a feasibility or "fit" analysis. In other words, a designer can compare the available space against the programming goals to figure out what will and won't work. Sometimes adding a field is an option, but when it isn't, there may be some ways to reconfigure what's there to reach the same end result.

That was exactly the dilemma facing Belmont Hill School in Belmont, Mass. The school has one natural grass playing field inside its track, as well as a large, open, natural grass field complex for baseball, soccer, lacrosse and football. Adding an entirely new field for one of the sports wasn't an option, so the design team weighed the school's goals with the available space to come up with a few solutions:

  1. Convert to synthetic turf. With today's technologies, synthetic surfaces can match the high-level performance of natural grass that soccer players look for while holding up to the rough treatment that football and lacrosse adds. By converting both the field inside the track and the practice field to synthetic, all sports could use both fields, opening up the options.
  2. Reconfigure the layout. One of the challenges was the existing lacrosse field was not large enough to meet the field size regulations for soccer. However, the field abutted some useable space that just needed to be graded to increase the width of the field to work for both lacrosse and soccer. The other challenge was that the synthetic turf surface of this expanded field overlapped the natural grass outfield of the baseball field. By matching the grade of both fields and keeping the turf anchor subgrade, the two surfaces blend into each smoothly, without a noticeable difference to the eye or the feet of the baseball players.
  3. Add removable outfield fences. Like the netting used in Battery Park City, Belmont Hill includes removable fencing installed during the baseball season. These fences are installed through subsurface footings or sleeves that are capped and covered with sand in the off-season, keeping them out of sight and harm's way to the other sports' athletes.