Design for Ecosystems: The “Uniquely Angelino” Environment at SoFi Stadium
When football fans make way to their seats at SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, California, they behold things never before seen at a sports venue. At once, they have views of an expansive playing field; The Infinity Screen by Samsung, a 360-degree dual-sided video board; and a massive, transparent roof with LED lights.
But they can also look through open air concourses and see a diverse Southern Californian landscape — a newly designed local ecosystem that preserves and restores natural resources.
Open to fans and visitors this year, the Hollywood Park Entertainment District comprises the 70,000-seat SoFi Stadium, the 6,000-seat YouTube Theater and American Airlines Plaza. Situated on the former grounds of Hollywood Park Racetrack, the development also includes a vast network of green space and a six-acre lake.
HKS Principal Lance Evans said that in 2014, LA Rams owner Stan Kroenke asked HKS to create a “uniquely Angelino” entertainment district. That edict quickly became a guiding light for the design team as they set out to honor Southern California’s unique qualities and create a one-of-a kind destination for public enjoyment and environmental well-being.
The 300-acre master plan harkens back to the historic racetrack — which closed nearly two decades ago — drawing inspiration from the small lakes and fields previously encircled by the track where people picnicked and gathered for 75 years. HKS, in collaboration with landscape architecture firm Studio-MLA transformed the deteriorated site by re-introducing open landscaping and water to create an inviting place for area residents and visiting fans.
“From day one, we took hold of this idea that we’re building for something bigger than NFL Sunday. We’re building for a community and for Southern California,” said Evans, who served as lead designer of the stadium, which will host Superbowl LVI in February.
A Complex Site Yields an Innovative Design
The Hollywood Park site presented a range of site conditions that required complex design solutions. Due to its proximity to Los Angeles International Airport, the stadium needed to adhere to a strict height limitation, resulting in a semi-subterranean building design.
But while the idea to place a large portion of the seating bowl 100 feet below grade solved one problem, it presented new challenges for the design team: How could they create a welcoming experience without having visitors feel as if they were going underground? And how could their design achieve an authentic indoor/outdoor environment connected to the natural world?
The solution was all around them in the unique architecture and geography of Southern California. Designers researched Los Angeles area landmarks that also had challenging sites like the Getty Center and the Hollywood Bowl and crafted a new vision for what a civic entertainment destination could be. Evans and fellow HKS Principal, Mike Rogers call the stadium, with its recessed seating bowl and wave-inspired roof, an “embedded object” that creates harmony between the natural and built environments.
“Through this notion of an embedded object, the stadium takes on a really beautiful relationship with the site,” said Rogers.
The team also studied cliffside architecture and ocean access points throughout the region. Inspired by the naturally occurring formations and design solutions they saw, they devised a series of terraced, landscaped canyons that lead visitors down into the stadium’s seating bowl — a walk that takes them on a tour of local flora and fauna.
Paying Homage to SoCal’s Climate
A microcosm of Southern California’s geography and climate, every aspect of the development’s landscape design delivers on the project’s “uniquely Angelino” promise.
“Within a two-hour radius of Los Angeles, there is access to a variety of plant and wildlife, from the Desert of Joshua Tree to the Montane of Big Bear,” Evans said. “We decided to make the landscape strategy around SoFi an educational journey.”
Architecture and the surrounding landscape were designed completely in conjunction, according to Evans and Kush Parekh, the project’s lead landscape architect. The stadium’s passive ventilation and daylighting strategies — both defining features of its indoor/outdoor atmosphere — capitalize on the sun’s position and ocean winds throughout the day, resulting in a series of small microclimates on the site that informed landscape planning.
“Our idea was to take this transect of Southern California, use elements and plantings from different areas and apply them to sides of the stadium based on those microclimates. We explored and celebrated California’s unique geography and created smaller ecological areas,” said Parekh, an Associate Principal at Studio-MLA, the renowned firm led by Mia Lehrer that’s been involved on various landscape projects at the Hollywood Park site for more than a decade.
Featuring plants from the Mediterranean biome, which exists in several regions around the world (including Southern California) that share similar climates, the landscape palette is diverse and carefully planned to contribute to a functional, healthy ecosystem.
The landscape design spreads out like a pinwheel from the stadium, giving each side a unique personality with one of five different plant communities found in Southern California that all fall under the umbrella of the Mediterranean biome. Montane evergreen trees and dark foliage populate the East Canyon while the West Canyon, which is closer to the ocean, emulates Chaparral coastal bluffs. Desert elements can be seen on the stadium’s north side, and the lake park is surrounded with sycamore trees and tall grasses characteristic of Riparian ecosystems. Throughout the entire site, climate-responsive plants from other Mediterranean biome regions will sustain the local ecosystem even in the face of harsh environmental changes predicted for the future.
A new take on an environmental education center, the landscape surrounding SoFi Stadium also includes informational signs about the biomes and plants, encouraging visitors and residents to learn about local climates and even take steps toward environmental action in their own backyards.
“The goal is absolutely that people will come to the site, know more about where they are and what they can do to make our world better,” Parekh said. “Even if it’s just a little bit of knowledge, people take that when they leave.”
Rounding out the new ecosystem, the landscape palette generates wildlife habitats that the area hasn’t seen in nearly 20 years. As soon as planting started on the site three years ago — far before construction on the stadium was completed — birds and insects returned.
“Along with the landscape flourishing, we’ve seen a lot of the wildlife starting to come back in and an ecosystem start to actualize,” said Evans, who recently saw butterflies below grade in the stadium’s club level. “You notice the energy and the life,” he said.
A “Water Wise” Strategy
While SoFi Stadium’s award-winning design and its landscaped canyons may appear to some as the focal point of the development, designers say the lake is the project’s true heart. With its lushly planted walking trails and gathering spots, the lake and its park provide an enriching and beautiful environment for visitors, regardless of whether they attend a game or concert.
Driven by their on-going work on Southern California water conservation projects and advocacy, Studio-MLA designed the lake and landscape surrounding SoFi Stadium to tackle one of the region’s most complex climate challenges: water scarcity.
Parekh explained that because droughts and fires are common in California, water is one of the state’s most precious resources. The success of the design, which includes more than 5,000 trees and native plantings, hinges on responsible water use. Incorporating as many performative landscape elements as possible and saving and re-using water were key design drivers, Parekh said.
Though the LA area experiences significant rainfall somewhat infrequently, designers incorporated multifaced stormwater capture strategies to capitalize on every possible opportunity to keep naturally occurring water on site. The lake, as well as bioswales, storm drains and rolling arroyos all collect rainwater that gets filtered by wetland vegetation and soil so it can be used to irrigate the rest of the landscape. The stadium’s 28-acre roof and subterranean cisterns also collect and store rainwater, leveraging the architecture as a tool for environmental health. Approximately 75% of stormwater that reaches the site is retained there for irrigation, according to the designers.
“We had a very water-wise strategy,” Evans said. “With every decision we made, we took into account how we could be responsible stewards of water with an appropriate level of planting that will allow for the site to thrive and not be a burden on our environment. It will be something that actually heals and helps.”
To ensure water would be high enough quality to maintain healthy ecological conditions regardless of the season, Parekh said the team devised a custom filtration system that allows reclaimed water from a nearby water recycling plant to be used as lake infill. Before construction began, the team set-up a “water laboratory” on site for six months to test out different methods and chemistries, resulting in a filtration process that could support a thriving ecosystem over time.
“This system is the first of its kind. It hasn’t been done before on a scale like this,” Parekh said.
The water-wise strategy and filtration system are working. Now, an estimated 26 million gallons of water per year — 100% of all irrigation water used on site — is reclaimed. The landscape flourishes without taking away precious potable water from area residents and those who visit and work at the entertainment venues.
“In the next 20 years, we feel that water is going to become one of the scarcest resources on the planet, so we really need to think smartly about how we use and conserve our water for our future,” Parekh said.
An Example for the Future
With an eye toward upcoming high-profile events at SoFi Stadium, including the 2028 Olympics, plans for Inglewood and the land surrounding Hollywood Park Entertainment District include new commercial and mixed-use properties as well as connections to the region’s public transit system. As those projects come to fruition, the design team hopes that the landscape will influence future designers and developers working in the area.
“It’s not just a stadium and a parking lot. This landscape is intended to promote education,” Rogers said. “As the site develops and becomes denser, hopefully this landscape strategy can be applied to retail establishments, offices, and hotels.”
Parcels of land near the stadium, currently used for temporary parking, will likely be developed at some point. To help ensure future projects at those sites contribute to environmental health and maintain the rich landscape, Parekh and his team designed a series of tree boxes with planting palettes that sit on the parcels today.
“As these lots are highlighted to get developed, each of them has a series of trees maturing over time already in place that developers will get as part of the land and that they can implement within the landscape,” Parekh said, adding that each box’s plantings correspond with the plant community on its respective side of the stadium, which he hopes inspires other designers to incorporate them in their own way.
Symbolizing Design Excellence
Hollywood Park Entertainment District highlights how stunning architecture, environmental sustainability, and high performance and can coexist in one special place. Though the project implements strategies outlined in every one of AIA’s 10 Measures for Design Excellence — the industry-leading sustainable design framework — the most surprising, perhaps, is “Design for Ecosystems.” The project’s environmentally sensitive design is a rarity for large sports and entertainment venues, which are often surrounded solely by parking lots and secluded from the natural world.
In addition to employing Design for Ecosystems’ best practices that promote resource conservation and environmental regeneration, the project’s architecture and construction also reduce ecological impact. Almost all dirt from the stadium excavation was re-used on site, decreasing the need for trucked-in soil and reducing the project’s carbon footprint.
The stadium’s open-air, partially subterranean design is free of tall vertical enclosures and limits the need for loud and energy-intensive mechanical systems, which reduces the building’s potential to disturb regional wildlife and migrating birds. All lighting on site also adheres to Federal Aviation Administration guidelines that accommodate planes flying into LAX and in turn, cuts back on light pollution, especially on non-game days.
Evans says the HKS sports practice is committed to an integrated, sustainable design approach and that SoFi Stadium is the continuation of an exciting journey he and his colleagues have undertaken to transform stadium design.
“We see ecologies playing a large role in this venue type in the future. We’re trying to evolve stadiums into destinations that provide something memorable for everyone — places that are not burdens to communities but enhance them and provide necessary public amenities,” he said.
Creating a ‘Tangible Connection’
To create this “uniquely Angelino” destination for today and for the future, the designers all said the inspiration comes back to the people — to Angelinos themselves.
Parekh, who believes that any conversation about ecology and the environment “must include humans and how we interact with where we live,” said that the project’s green space drove all design program decisions his team made and, “created a connected fiber that brings people from around Inglewood into Hollywood Park.”
For Evans, who lives very close by, Hollywood Park Entertainment District and SoFi Stadium offer new spaces that combine the best of Southern California’s unique climate and culture for all to enjoy.
“We really wanted to create a place for people to go for entertainment that also had a tangible connection to its surroundings and would strike an emotional chord and resonate for generations to come,” he said.