It is said that sport is the great equalizer. But in low-income and underserved communities, equal access to sports facilities, fields and courts, green space, equipment, coaching – and even P.E. classes offered in school – is anything but a level playing field.
The root causes of this nation’s fragmented, long-standing equal access issues to youth sports are many. Decades of disinvestment in redlined majority Black and brown neighborhoods resulted in underfunded parks and recreation budgets that build and maintain facilities and youth programs. Existing issues have been compounded by the Covid-19-fueled economic crisis: city budget deficits and deep cuts to school enrichment programs like arts, music and sports will have a sustained and far-reaching impact on program offerings.
Pay-to-play sports programs have become a $17 billion industry according to Forbes magazine, allowing affluent families access to club sports teams, leagues, and private training for their kids. And while some clubs provide scholarships for those in need, many low-income youths are left on the sidelines.
From Greyfield to Playfield
In Atlanta, a coalition of public, private, and civic interests have joined forces to help close the play equity gap and build healthy, resilient communities through a unique urban development ecosystem that knits communities together through mass transit and the world’s most popular game – soccer.
StationSoccer is a burgeoning initiative of Soccer in the Streets, a not-for-profit organization that reaches children in underserved Atlanta neighborhoods through soccer, work-readiness training, experiential activities, and participation in youth leadership councils.
Billed as the world’s first transit soccer league, StationSoccer partnered with MARTA, Metro Atlanta’s public transit system, the City’s Department of City Planning, and the Atlanta United Foundation, the grant-making arm of the city’s Major League Soccer team. Together, they are building a network of 10 mini soccer fields infused with educational and community programming on MARTA’s underutilized space and vacant land around its train stations and under its elevated tracks.
Dubbed “The League of Stations,” the first field opened in 2016 at Five Points Station in the heart of downtown Atlanta – the first soccer field built inside a train station in the world. Fees collected from adult leagues and pick-up games support StationSoccer’s youth programs and facility maintenance, which makes the initiative self-sustaining. With the success of this pilot project, the project grew to West End Station and beyond where additional community partners like the Transformation Alliance have also joined the project as they grow a footprint in equitable transit-oriented development work.
To date, four of the planned 10 soccer fields have opened – the most recent in October 2020 at Lindbergh Station, visualized by HKS through its public interest design initiative, Citizen HKS. In December 2019, a team of HKS Atlanta and Orlando designers began work on designs for three stations, beginning with the West End Station. HKS is collaborating with Atlanta City Studio, a pop-up urban design studio with Atlanta’s Department of City Planning that has led this effort from inception.
Extending far beyond recreational fields, each StationSoccer site is envisioned as a gathering place to build community and support youth education and development, mirroring Soccer in the Streets’ mission – as well as transit-oriented development that attracts new commercial and residential development, enhances the public realm, and serves as the foundation for healthy and more equitable neighborhoods.
“As additional soccer fields get added through Soccer in the Streets, they can spur the transformation of our public realm around MARTA stations – from unused space to a vibrant place that’s central to the neighborhood and community,” said Tim Keane, City of Atlanta Commissioner for City Planning. All project partners have remained focused despite obstacles spurred by the pandemic. “The collaborative effort with partners such as HKS has been instrumental in moving this project forward.”
“The collaborative effort with partners such as HKS has been instrumental in moving this project forward.”
Transforming the Public Realm
The HKS design team endeavored to craft a cohesive but distinct vision for its multi-site masterplan. Two key courses of action – an in-depth data analysis of each of the 10 existing and proposed SoccerStation sites, coupled with a deep community engagement process – is helping guide the design process and project solution.
“To gain a deeper understanding of each community’s needs, we looked at several layers of data using Geographic Information Systems (GIS) mapping tools and visualized the gaps,” said Marwah Garib, an urban designer from HKS Orlando. The team studied data sets related to parks and open space, per-capita income, foreign-born residents, bike and trail infrastructure, access to healthy foods and other demographics to understand the unique make-up and needs of each neighborhood. “Such intricate analysis provided the design team with critical cues for programming that can distinctively cater to each StationSoccer location,” asserts Garib.
HKS’ deep dive data analysis has resulted in a decision-making tool for MARTA, the region’s developers, Atlanta city government and StationSoccer. Although the stations are all located in Metro Atlanta, the data indicated distinctions of adjacencies, demographics, walkability and more to provide cues for customized design solutions based on each location’s unique conditions.
The target audience for HKS’ three projects is predominantly underserved areas, but an analysis of the demographic data allowed the design team to connect population density with key community metrics like poverty, unemployment and health disparities. The project envisions that all children will have the opportunity to succeed on and off the pitch by affording access to soccer regardless of race, gender, religion, or socio-economic status. The design elements strive to integrate communities, intertwining efforts from corporations, education systems, government, non-profits, and community leaders to improve the lives of children through soccer.
“Station Soccer is inspiring kids both on and off the field through mentorship and encouraging them in their dreams. It is so much bigger than just soccer,” said Meggie Meidlinger, a design architect at HKS Atlanta who is part of the project team. “What StationSoccer is doing for kids in the community is incredible, and for us to get to be a part of something like that is such a privilege.”
“What StationSoccer is doing for kids in the community is incredible, and for us to get to be a part of something like that is such a privilege.”
This aligns with the core values of the Atlanta City Design guiding document, championed by Atlanta’s Department of City Planning, that exhorts people-centric design, aspiring to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s concept of the Beloved Community.
- Equity: ensuring that all the benefits of nature, access, ambition, and progress accrue fairly to everyone
- Progress: protecting people and places with meaning
- Ambition: leveraging the disruption of change to unlock new opportunities for people
- Access: updating our hub of transportation for a new generation while also building a sense of community and place
- Nature: protecting and expanding the ecological value of our watersheds, forest, and habitat in the face of rapid urbanization
Kit of Parts Design Solution
The design team developed a kit of parts solution for the League of Stations, replete with educational programming and community amenities. Paying homage to MARTA and sustainability in one central design gesture, StationSoccer now has the benefit to adaptively re-use decommissioned train cars, with exterior wrap designs suggested by the community’s children and families. HKS, through the research of possibilities, has recommended solar powered, WiFi enabled cars serve as learning spaces for children and adults for after school homework, mentoring, career planning and more: local residents can gain valuable life skills such as financial literacy, workplace readiness and job training.
“What we’ve begun to create together is a masterplan to grow the opportunities that can be found at MARTA Stations to further connect Atlanta’s diverse communities,” said Parker Stewart, HKS design architect and StationSoccer team designer. “Upon this research sits a new foundation for a unique kit of StationSoccer program parts to be laid onto each distinct area to best serve that individual community.”
Some ideas that the design team has recommended are amenities that could include shaded pavilions for soccer spectators and relaxation, community gardens, public art and farmer’s markets to create community activation zones that help cultivate healthy communities through sports-based youth development. At each field location, benches are built from re-purposed golden spikes that are autographed and driven into the field by fans to commemorate each Atlanta United home game.
The Impact: Nothing but Net for Atlanta’s Youth
Participation in sports has a direct impact on children on and off the field: research shows that kids who play sports have higher GPAs, stay in school and graduate, have lower rates of obesity, and reap myriad other benefits socially and emotionally.
The League of Stations network of 10 stations is slated for completion by 2022. “The success of the StationSoccer project has relied upon meaningful contributions by the public and private sectors,” said Sanjay Patel, Director of Strategic Projects for Soccer in the Streets, who came up with the idea for StationSoccer back in 2013 while commuting to work on MARTA trains. “Partners like HKS bring some fantastic design elements that make our overall collaborative table have great synergy in our community.”
HKS believes its masterplan, coupled with the tremendous level of community, corporate and civic engagement, is the type of momentum needed to support a thriving, equitable and accessible sports program that is helping forge stronger, healthier, and more resilient Atlanta neighborhoods while boosting ridership on the public transportation system.
People from all over Atlanta are now coming together to play, learn and connect – and other American cities are taking notice, too. Soccer in the Streets has had inquiries and from Chicago, Denver, Los Angeles, and San Francisco about StationSoccer and this unique approach to play in a community where the DNA of a community is at play.
“Sometimes a gratifying experience in the real estate profession does not involve a building, but it always involves people,” said Sheba Ross, StationSoccer project director for HKS Atlanta. “The StationSoccer project has given us a seamless platform to envision inclusive blueprints for the future through active engagement with game changers in our city.”