Making The Most Of It

By David Nardone

As expected, the neighborhood known as Battery Park City along the southwestern edge of Lower Manhattan puts a premium on space. The 92-acre community comprises residential areas, high-rise commercial buildings, and various businesses and community resources.


Amidst this urban density, the Battery Park City Authority (BPCA), which manages the area, has incorporated open and park space wherever possible. In fact, more than a third of the area’s land is dedicated to parks, gardens, plazas, athletic fields, and other open spaces. Accordingly, the community takes full advantage of these resources, and its sole athletic-field complex hosts a robust lineup of youth recreation programs, including Little League baseball and soccer for all levels, as well as field time for adult recreation leagues and youth camps. With so much activity in the neighborhood, the space is constantly in high demand.

The building boom around the ball fields and the volume of users eventually led the BPCA to recognize the need for an upgrade. In the words of the user group, every square foot represented another child who could participate, so making the best use of the site was paramount. In addition, converting the natural grass to synthetic turf would help protect the field from further wear and tear.

Getting Creative
With the challenge upon them, the project team began the redesign process by first asking a targeted user group for feedback and ideas on how they use the space as well as how they would like to. The group included representatives from various organizations, particularly youth soccer and Little League. Participants raised a number of concerns with the existing fields, including the lack of dedicated team areas, the quality of the surface, and the limitations the field orientation put on tournament play.

With that guidance and input--solicited from the early schematic design phases through to construction documents--the field designers considered a number of methods to make the most of the field’s space.

Overlap. In order to accommodate the various sports, field overlap was a given. The tight space could feasibly host only one large soccer field and two Little League baseball fields, so maximizing that overlap was a key objective. With synthetic turf, separate infield mix was no longer needed, allowing the fields to overlap further and create a better-proportioned and larger soccer field. The two baseball fields within it lined up with each other, with the first-base line of one field adjacent to the third-base line of the other.

Netting. With the baseball fields so close to each other, safety and interference from overthrown or foul balls became a concern. To solve the problem, the design incorporated movable netting systems to separate the baseball fields during the season. The nets are strung on a circular foundation embedded below the turf with a sleeve from which the net can slide in and out, and can be used to create separate practice spaces as well. And to further take advantage of every inch, even the space between the nets in the middle of the field is utilized as warm-up space.

Portable mounds. Another method for quick shifting from baseball to soccer was the use of portable mounds. With synthetic turf, the mounds can simply be moved on and off the field as needed. They can also be used with a natural-grass field; however, conversion requires much more work than with a synthetic surface.

Stormwater drainage. Typically, recreation fields include a stormwater basin or swale to manage the runoff during and after storms. However, this field really couldn’t sacrifice that type of space, so the design team instead incorporated a stormwater bioswale in the safety zone along the eastern side of the soccer field, essentially making it a double-duty space.

Ancillary areas. Finally, the team assessed all the remaining space not dedicated directly to play or to required safety areas, and determined how it could best be put to use. As a result, the maintenance building was removed (the BPCA found another location to store the equipment), and the surrounding area was opened up into play space. The fencing along the walkway leading from the community center to the fields was removed, and a seamless transition between the walkway and the turf was created to remove that fixed boundary and extend the field’s flexibility.

Going Green
One of the guiding principles for the BPCA is to ensure that any development in the neighborhood employs the highest-performing environmental techniques available.  So while maximizing space was indeed a priority of the project, doing so sustainably was equally important and posed an added challenge for the field’s designers.

To find the optimum “green” system that could also withstand the demands of this multipurpose site, the design team conducted a life-cycle analysis of each component of the synthetic-turf system,

With synthetic turf, portable mounds can be moved on and off the field as needed. including fibers, infill, carpet backings, standard and short pile, and pads. Based on a 30-year period for a heavily used multipurpose field, the study led the team to a custom system of short pile with alternative infill turf on a 100-percent recyclable shock pad. This new system--considered the most sustainable in any athletic field in the world--was then coupled with the space-saving drainage system to treat stormwater runoff on-site without sacrificing field space.

Lessons Learned
With such challenging goals, the reconstruction of this much-loved field certainly provided some lessons for designing high-demand, multiuse athletic fields.

  • Listen. Obtain input from a field’s users early and often. Listen to how they really use the field most--half-field scrimmages, multi-team/age group practices, etc.--versus general expectations for standard play. Depending on users’ goals, fixed boundaries and hard lines may not be as important as flexible spaces.
  • Be flexible. Keep in mind that a little creativity can go a long way. At Battery Park City, many of the changes to the field space were minor but, added together, allowed for an expansion here or shifting there that translated into more space for more children.
  • Go small. Depending on the level of play on a field, more participants can be accommodated if the field is divided into smaller areas. In soccer, for example, there is a trend at the younger levels to have the kids play small 3-on-3 games at one end of the field instead of having larger teams run the full length. Rather than concentrating on field lining, focus on creating a space that is as flexible as possible and can adjust to these examples of changes in coaching and training philosophy. Aim to combine the lines of each sport as much as possible to avoid the now-common rainbow of different lines for different sports that often confuse not only players, but officials, coaches, and spectators.

Since opening in the fall, the ball fields are used almost every day of the week. Thanks to the input of the user group, the field’s flexibility allows for all levels of participants to learn and play on the fields--from young soccer players learning skills in small groups to older players taking batting practice in net-enclosed practice spaces--in one of the most condensed urban areas in the country.

David Nardone is a co-leader of the sport group at Stantec. He is based in Boston, Mass., and can be reached at .