Did you know that the World Cup is just two weeks away? As a soccer fan, I am very excited about this mega sporting event that will feature many of the world’s best players. As a planner, I am also curious about how the World Cup is and will be impacting communities socially and physically in Brazil, the host of this year’s tournament. Soccer is certainly not as big a deal in the United States as in other parts of the world, but as I have learned over the years, the sport is actually very important here in Los Angeles. Specifically, many of the residents I have interacted with are soccer fans and/or players, and enjoy the sport at many of the parks operated by my department. In this article, I would like to share some thoughts on soccer as it relates to park planning, with a special focus on the game and its popularity in L.A.
Soccer is so much more than just a sport to many residents of Los Angeles County. Not only do many residents play soccer at local parks, they are also very loyal to and passionate about professional teams in Mexico and Spain. This was evident in the sports group surveys we collected in the unincorporated community of Florence-Firestone as many soccer teams used the names of famous teams in the two countries. The impact soccer has on communities with large number of immigrants like Florence-Firestone cannot be underestimated. As Pescador (2007) explains, soccer offers Mexican Americans “an opportunity to use recreational facilities, enter a voluntary association, structure a social life after work, reaffirm Mexican culture, and recreate Mexican traditions in combination with American values” (p. 83). In a 2010 study, Castano et al explored the meaning of soccer for low-income consumers in Mexico who attended matches every week. Results of their interviews highlight several themes describing benefits that individuals attain as a result of a strong relationship and identification with a particular team. First, this relationship provides a buffer from feelings of anxiety that emerge from everyday problems. Second, it promotes social ties and feelings of belongingness. Third, it helps in the creation of family identity. Finally, these individuals gain an inner sense of self worth. Residents who play and/or watch soccer in Florence-Firestone and various other communities in L.A. are likely to experience similar rewards.
Given the popularity of soccer in many of the communities we serve, it is clear that we need to do more to accommodate the sport. As part of my doctoral project, I explored various unconventional ways to do this in urban areas with limited vacant land. One idea is the conversion of existing buildings for recreational use. This has been happening more often and has been carried out by both commercial interests and public agencies. Warehouses, for example, have been converted to sports facilities for indoor soccer, badminton, handball, and batting cages. Another idea is the use of vacant or empty lots for recreation purposes (see this article). For example, Florence-Firestone is home to numerous small vacant or underused parking lots which have the potential to be used as temporary recreation areas. Specifically, these lots can be made available for recreational use in the evenings and on weekends (or whenever they are not needed for their primary use) for sports such as basketball, soccer, and skateboarding. Portable basketball hoops and soccer goals may be set up at these locations. The temporary use of land for recreational purposes may sound strange at first, but is similar to the use of vacant lots for seasonal activities, such as the sale of pumpkins for Halloween and Christmas trees.
Recreational facilities can also be developed on the rooftops of existing buildings. One of the most dramatic examples is perhaps the adidas Futsal Park Shibuya in Japan. Constructed in 2001 as an introduction to 2002 World Cup (hosted jointly by Japan and South Korea), the adidas Futsal Park promotes a miniature version of soccer, futsal, on a 14,000 square-foot pitch and commands a breathtaking 270-degree view of Shibuya. Inspired by a former playground on site before the construction of the transportation complex, the futsal park hosts nightly tournaments among adults, offers professional game viewing venues, and includes a futsal school for toddlers and children. Some consider the park a marvel of urban planning that maximizes the use of spaces not generally associated with activities such as futsal or any other sport for that matter.
Futsal is catching on here in Los Angeles as well. It makes good sense to support this sport considering that futsal courts require much less space than full size soccer fields, and can be more easily developed in urban communities. Just last year, my department worked with County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas and the LA84 Foundation to build futsal courts in existing parks in Florence-Firestone and Lennox. As Ridley-Thomas explains in an interview, “Many of our parks were not built with soccer in mind… so, we had to be creative in designing new features to accommodate all of the aspiring soccer players in these communities. The state-of-the-art futsal courts will be a tremendous asset to these parks.” For more on this topic, I suggest reading Paresh Dave’s article in the L.A. Times which discusses how the fast moving game is becoming so popular that people are playing it on tennis and volleyball courts.
As part of my research, I also learned about several privately developed soccer facilities. For example, South Gate offers an example of a successful partnership between a local government and a private corporation in developing a soccer facility. Working with the city, Goals, a Scottish firm, opened the doors to a new soccer complex at South Gate Park in 2010. Reported to be the first of its kind in the U.S., the Goals Soccer Center features ten floodlit mini-soccer fields equipped with rebound walls, netting and artificial turf. Built on 3.5 acres in the northeast corner of the park, the $5.5-million facility also has one larger field for two teams of seven players. The smaller fields are built for two teams of five. Each has been named after famous soccer stadiums such as Azteca Stadium in Mexico City, Maracana in Rio De Janeiro, and San Siro in Milan, Italy. In a city where over 90% of the population is Latino —about half are foreign born— and the median household income is less than $43,000, the cost of a single game at the complex may prove to be a bit high for some families. Company officials want the complex to serve the region, not just South Gate residents, and indicate that similar soccer parks are immensely popular in Britain and hope for the same response in Southern California. Another example of an innovative soccer facility is the Soccer Central Indoor Soccer Arena in Watsonville, California. It is the first and only facility of its kind in the Monterey Bay region. The facility is a 34,000-square foot state-of-the-art Clamshell Building, which is a relocatable tent-like structure. Soccer Central offers two playing fields, and hosts indoor soccer leagues for men, women, co-ed and youth teams.
As park planners, we must understand and plan for the growing and diverse needs of the residents we serve. I have previously mentioned the Community Parks and Recreation Plans that I have been working on (see “Parks and Recreation” and “Surveys“). To ensure that these plans reflect the desires and needs of the communities, we have been engaging the public in a wide variety of ways, including stakeholder interviews, focus groups, surveys, bike and walking tours, and community fairs/workshops. One of the key things we have learned from these activities is that soccer is very popular and our constituents want more safe places to play the sport. Thus despite funding and land constraints, we must explore ways, including those that are less conventional, to create additional areas where soccer and futsal may be played.
On a related note, if you are interested in art and soccer (better known as football outside the U.S.), I highly recommend the show “Fútbol: The Beautiful Game” at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). The exhibition examines football, referred to by some as “the beautiful game,” and its significance in societies around the world. It shows how football touches on a variety of issues, such as nationalism and identity, globalism and mass spectacle, as well as the common human experience shared by spectators from many cultures. On display until July 20, 2014, the exhibition includes the work of about thirty artists, including paintings, photographs, sculptures, and videos.
Castano, R., Nunez, S., & Sanchez, M. (2010). Understanding the passion of soccer for Mexican consumers. International Journal of Leisure and Tourism Marketing, 1(4), 344-357.
Pescador, J.J. (2007). Los Heroes del Domingo: Soccer, Borders, and Social Spaces in Mexican Communities. In J. Iber & S.O. Regalado (Eds.), Mexican Americans and Sports: A Reader on Athletics and Barrio Life (pp. 73-88). College Station, TX: Texas A&M University Press.
Soccer balls with little girl by author
Futsal players by Wilson Dias/ABr on Wikipedia
Futsal pitch by MDBR on Wikipedia
Rooftop futsal park in Tokyo by Jack French on Wikipedia
Photo by author of painting at LACMA exhibit “Fu’tbol: The Beautiful Game.”