The Future of Ballparks in a Climate Crisis

Some parks — including Oracle Park in San Francisco — have already tried to become more sustainable. (via Daniel Ramirez)

The climate crisis — more specifically, the extreme heat it will cause — is going to be an issue throughout the U.S. over the coming years and decades. For the nation’s favorite summer pastime, the effects of climate change could be particularly pronounced.

The heat and extreme precipitation events that have already arisen over recent years haven’t gone unnoticed in baseball, and heatwaves and rain delays always inspire thoughts on the relationship between baseball and weather. We talk about fan comfort during games as the weather changes —  something each of us can relate on own individual level. We talk about how the heat and humidity affect play — the way the ball moves, not to mention the composition of the ball (and bat), which wick moisture from the air. We also talk about how the heat affects players — hydration is extremely important to a player’s health, possibly affecting injury risk. To some extent, these discussions implicitly acknowledge that something must be done to return the game to the pre-climate crisis times, to continue to make baseball comfortable and familiar for fans and players.

We need to zoom out a bit, though, and consider not only how the players and the game will adapt to climate change, but how the stadium can adapt. It’s not just about keeping fans comfortable through deadly heat — it’s about the effects of devastating fires and extreme precipitation on stadiums and communities. And it’s not just the frequency of these precipitation events, but the severity which must be considered.

Sports and Sustainability

Sports can be used as a tool for cultural change and awareness. We often speak of this utility in terms of promoting diversity, but it also applies to environmental awareness. The Union of Concerned Scientists used a report about climate change as a mechanism to open a dialogue about how climate change will affect baseball. It’s not that sport hasn’t taken note, but it has been slow. As Allen Hershkowitz of the National Resources Defense Council noted, “It took the environmental community more than 30 years from the first Earth Day to partner with sports. It was the elephant in the room. Only 13% of Americans follow science, but 63% follow sports.”

Not only can sports teams take advantage of the goodwill associated with making smarter, greener choices, it makes sense from a financial perspective. Environmentally friendly stadiums are ultimately cheaper to operate. The initial financial burden of implementation is mitigated by the volume and frequency of use.

It’s not surprising, then, that professional sports leagues are working toward sustainability. MLB first partnered with the NRDC in 2005; subsequently, the NRDC co-founded the Green Sports Alliance with the goal of enhancing sports’ performance in the environmental arena, with the Mariners as an inaugural member. The Green Sports Alliance has since worked with several other baseball teams to make practical steps toward reducing their environmental footprint, publishing a number of case studies as examples for other teams.

Sustainable Ballparks: What’s Being Done

Some of these environmentally-minded modifications are readily visible to the fan at a game. The greenification of sports venues has been well underway for many years, and you have likely observed and participated in the small things. Paper products come to mind, both at the concession stand and in the restrooms, where you may use paper towels and toilet tissue made from recycled fibers after using a low-flow toilet. At the concession stand, your utensils are at least recyclable, if not biodegradable or compostable, and stadiums have increased and improved recycling and composting efforts. The concession stands generate significant amounts of food waste, but composting, smarter purchasing, and donating excesses can help mitigate that waste.

Baseball stadiums also are making sustainability strides in areas that don’t require fan participation. On a larger scale, stadiums have been equipped with more energy-efficient lighting and scoreboards. Using LED bulbs and motion sensors can cut energy usage dramatically. Energy-efficient air conditioning and dehumidifiers are being installed and reflective coatings are placed on windows to deflect sunlight, keeping cooling costs down. St. Louis and Cleveland were both able to reduce energy use by over 20 percent, using a combination of efficient energy use and renewable energy projects. Seattle trimmed $1.5 million in utility costs from 2006 to 2011 by simply reducing energy and water usage.

Reducing energy is a start; many teams have taken the next step by looking at renewable energy. Renewable energy sources are both environmentally and financially attractive, as initial installation costs are quickly recouped and subsequent usage saves money over several years. It’s thus no surprise that many sports venues are having solar panels installed. Retrofitting a stadium to accommodate solar panels can even enhance the aesthetics of the venue, as evidenced by Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia. In 2007, then-AT&T Park and Progressive Field were the first major  league ballparks to install solar panels. Busch Stadium has installed a solar array, touting its commitment to environmental stewardship and sustainability, as have Chase Field, Petco Park, Coors Field, Kauffman Stadium, and other stadiums.  Fenway Park installed solar thermal panels to heat the stadium’s water in 2008. Surely if the major leagues’ oldest ballpark can adapt, others can, too.

Renewable energy sources have moved beyond solar. In 2012 Cleveland became the first major league stadium to install a unique corkscrew-shaped wind turbine atop Progressive Field. Although the concept was short-lived, Cleveland later committed to powering Progressive Field using only wind-driven electricity.

Organizations are looking for other ways to reduce their environmental impact. Among the projects that aren’t readily apparent to a fan is irrigation of the playing field. The Giants reportedly changed their infield mix by reducing the amount of sand and increasing the amount of clay, thereby reducing field watering by 33%. More thoughtful use of irrigation and watering systems can reduce water consumption, and some teams have turned to rainwater conservation. Not only can capturing stormwater minimize the effect of flooding within the stadium and externally, the water can be repurposed for irrigation and other uses. Target Field employs a system to capture, control, and reuse rainwater, reducing the ballpark’s external water needs by 50%. The underground cistern repurposed a feature of the original 2010 design; initially, the water capture and control system was intended to mitigate sediment leaving the ballpark, but a water filtration company suggested reusing the water instead.

Those steps are helpful, but may not be enough in an area that is facing long term arid climates. In states with severe drought issues, the challenges of maintaining the playing field will only become more difficult, as the climate becomes more regularly arid. As an example, the whole Colorado River basin and its reservoirs are preparing for climate change with a drought contingency plan. The Colorado River and its tributaries affect areas not only in Colorado, but Arizona, Nevada, and southern California — potentially impacting the Rockies, Diamondbacks, Padres, Angels, and Dodgers primarily, but also affiliates in the PCL, Cal League, and AZL, and spring training facilities. Many teams will have to maintain a consistent, high-quality playing surface in the face of an evolving climate.

The Rays upgraded their artificial turf recently, and the Diamondbacks started using an artificial turf for the 2019 season. A subsidiary of the flooring company Shaw Sports Turf is providing the Rays and Diamondbacks playing surfaces for the 2019 season, and the Rangers have committed to Shaw Sports Turf’s B1K package for their new stadium in 2020. Any entity facing drainage, irrigation, drought, or water concerns may turn to artificial turf; retrofitting an infield to accommodate synthetic materials is a reasonable undertaking. Advanced artificial turf and playing surfaces could allow for a more environmentally friendly playing surface. Don’t mistake the new synthetic turfs for the old AstroTurf and Chemgrass of the Astrodome, Tropicana Field, or the Rogers Centre; carpeting companies have undertaken significant research and testing to ensure that balls roll and hop in a predictable manner, and the field responds to players’ movements the way that a natural grass and soil playing field would.

Not only will these require less watering, maintenance, sun, and irrigation, but safety concerns have allegedly been mitigated. The manufacturer is working in conjunction with Auburn University in a kinesiology study to evaluate how players respond to surfaces; this information can then be used to optimize the synthetic playing surface to minimize injury risks. The manufacturer is paying for the study, but the Rangers’ senior director of medical operations and sports science is actively involved in the kinesiology study, evaluating both safety and performance of the artificial turf. While there hasn’t been explicit confirmation that the new, artificial playing fields do not increase a player’s injury risk, players have been conspicuously silent regarding the overall play on these new surfaces, a tacit acceptance of a concession baseball may have to make to make current stadiums sustainable.

Catfish and Me
Reminisces of a meeting with an all-time great.

The Future of Sustainable Stadiums

While existing stadiums are being retrofitted, new stadium plans are also being proposed. Given that a modern stadium will see at least 25 years of use, sustainable design is a necessary consideration for organizations and architects. As new stadiums are being designed and constructed, organizations and architects would be wise to turn to the venues of Europe, which has already acknowledged the inevitability of  climate change. That’s not to say that there aren’t examples in North America; Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta has been heralded as a leader in green design, earning a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design Platinum certification from the United States Green Building Council. The LEED certification takes into account sustainable design and energy efficiency, as gauged by metrics including lighting efficiency, air conditioning and efficient water fixtures, and for using locally sourced and recycled materials. It seems that there are some general guidelines for sustainable stadiums to be built in the near future.

All that said, building a new stadium that will survive at least 25 years will require a more critical look at how climate change affects our immediate location, as it may not be pragmatic to simply build at a ballpark’s current location. There’s no denying the beauty of a ballpark overlooking a body of water — Oracle Park and PNC Park consistently receive high rankings as fan favorite ballparks. But this may become impractical, as water levels rise. Other ballparks perilously located due to proximity to water include Great American Ball Park and Nationals Park. We may need to relocate within cities, and move further inland, to avoid visualizing Oracle Park and Petco Park as swimming pools. Even when a ballpark isn’t adjacent to a body of water, the threat of flooding is real. Houston is a prime example of this, as Minute Maid Park’s roof was no match for a severe weather event.

Expansion and the Climate Crisis

Existing teams may find themselves relocating within their current MLB designated territory — but expansion talks are constantly ongoing. As MLB explores potential sites for expansion, it looks at the potential fan base and market, the actual site, and business matters — without mentioning climate change. While expansion will most likely occur within the next decade, expansion is considered with the thought that the franchise will remain in the expansion city for at least a generation or two, which necessitates forecasting the needs of the expansion team.

Where should we be located – both within current major league cities and in expasion — to mitigate the effects of climate change?

Thanks to an interactive map developed by climate scientists, we can use climate-analog mapping to peer into the future and identify a current city having a climate most like any existing major  league metropolitan area in 60 years. In looking at the map, it’s easy to overgeneralize and oversimplify, and merely acknowledge that it will be warmer everywhere. But it fails to account for the day-to-day fluctuations we will experience, particularly the extreme, sudden storms which can unexpectedly result in flooding. It can be an instructive experience, though, and it’s worth considering where current teams will be in terms of climate. For example, both Tampa and Miami will resemble the current climates of two towns in Mexico, with Tampa experiencing a nearly 20% increase in precipitation. Detroit will shift to a climate like that of Chester, Pennsylvania, just outside Philadelphia: both warmer and 63.6% wetter than present day Detroit.

Let’s apply this same projection to possible expansion cities. Currently, cities thought to be front-runners for expansion include Portland, Las Vegas, Charlotte or Raleigh, Nashville, Montreal, and Vancouver.

Las Vegas is already in a desert, and one could contend that its current climate would make a ballpark challenging even in 2019. Its analogue, Bullhead City, Arizona, is geographically close, and Las Vegas is projected to be 9.1 °F warmer and only 5.4% drier in winter. Portland will resemble Sacramento — which was awfully close to the wildfires wreaking havoc throughout the central valley of California. Portland is projected as having a winter 6.6 °F warmer and 35.6% drier than its current winter. A drier climate brings with it concerns about care of the playing field, not to mention the potential for fires and thus poor air quality in the metropolitan area surrounding the stadium.

Charlotte and Raleigh will resemble the Florida panhandle, specifically Tallahassee, which is 12.6 °F warmer and 10.6% to 14.4% wetter than winter in Charlotte and Raleigh. Nashville is not too far, with Mobile, Alabama serving as its closest projection, having a summer that is 3.3°F warmer and 56.3% wetter than Nashville. This may necessitate a roof on a stadium that is more durable than the roof on Minute Maid Park.

Vancouver will experience a climate closer to that of current day Seattle, 2.6 °F  warmer and 33.5% drier than its current clime. Montreal, like Detroit, will resemble Chester, experiencing winters 17.1 °F warmer and 10.7% wetter. While the overall situation is bleak, this does suggest that Vancouver and Montreal could look toward current day T-Mobile Park and Citizens Bank Park as examples of how to keep fans comfortable during games. It thus appears that the two northernmost cities under consideration would not only have a somewhat more favorable climate, but other cities and stadiums on which to model their potential new stadiums.

Sustainability and Team Travel

This brings us to another aspect of expansion which usually is discussed only in terms of player comfort: travel and transportation. There’s a general acknowledgement of the impact of transportation on baseball at the individual level (“The biggest carbon impact of sports events typically comes from fans getting to and from the game”). Teams can encourage fans to carpool, ride their bikes, or take public transit, thereby mitigating the effects of cars looking for parking, and idling while getting in and out of a parking lot. But there’s only so much teams  can do when it comes to their own travel.

The NHL, in its own environmental stewardship efforts, maintains data on the emissions generated by team travel. Perhaps it’s time for MLB to do the same, as air travel is harmful: According to the Federal Aviation Administration, aircraft engines produce various greenhouse gasses, including carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and even water (when given off at altitude), and ground operations at airports belch further carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. Clearly, then, the amount of travel required of teams contributes negatively to climate change. Although there is no easy solution to the travel requirements in baseball, the travel could be reduced by decreasing the number of games in the season, which would reduce the number of flights each team would be required to take. Creating a more thoughtful travel schedule falls squarely at the leagues’ feet, and it does present another argument for reducing the schedule overall. It’s not only better for players’ health, but for the environment.

***

Ballparks can adapt to climate change beyond using energy more efficiently, and some of these changes can be implemented immediately. But the stadiums of the future will necessarily be built with the climate crisis in mind. Whether a team is taking an altruistic view of baseball’s relationship with the world, or thinking about how to get fans into seats on a sweltering day, MLB needs to consider how it will adapt to climate change.

It doesn’t make sense from an environmental perspective — or, more importantly for baseball, from a financial perspective — to ignore the inevitable. Reducing energy usage, composting, and recycling are just the first steps. More stadiums may be designed specifically with solar panels and wind turbines in mind. Fields will be designed with irrigation systems adapted to make the most of collected rainfall, not to mention using artificial/synthetic turf and infill to minimize field maintenance. There may even be a time when stadiums will be equipped with their own carbon collection device. When we consider the future of the game, stadium location and layout may be a significant step forward in adjusting to the reality of climate change, and something that MLB’s expansion committee must take into account as it explores the potential for new markets.

References and Resources

Allen Hershkowitz, “Sustainability leadership in sports is needed more than ever.” Sports Business Journal, March 20, 2017.

Ken Belson, “Sports Stadiums Help Lead the Way Toward Greener Architecture.” The New York Times, May 24, 2018.

“Greening the Sports Industry.” Initiative for Global Environmental Leadership, December 2013.

US Department of Energy, “Play Ball! American Baseball Stadiums Round the Bases on Energy Efficiency.” energy.gov, April 3, 2017.

US Department of Energy, “Taking the Field: Advancing Energy and Water Efficiency in Sports Venues.” energy.gov, February 2017.

Matt Simon, “This Scary Map Shows How Climate Change Will Transform Your City.” Wired, February 12, 2019.

Matthew C. Fitzpatrick and Robert R. Dunn, “Contemporary climatic analogs for 540 North American urban areas in the late 21st century.” Nature Communications, vol. 10, article number 614, 2019.


Stephanie Springer is an organic chemist turned patent examiner. Follow her on Twitter @stephaniekays.

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Brendan
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Brendan

It seems like the most salient issues are: 1. Drastically reducing the number of games overall. Each game uses a lot of energy, no matter what. Each game requires pollution-creating travel as well, by players and fans alike. The number of games, which in baseball is extreme, needs to be drastically reduced in order to make the environmental footprint of the sport in any way manageable. 2. Artificial turf needs to become mandatory in order to cut down on the waste of resources and energy that is associated with grass. 3. Parking lots and garages near stadiums need to be… Read more »

Dennis Bedard
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Dennis Bedard

Nice work Brendan. The State of Oceania salutes you!!

JLandonDC
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JLandonDC

Snark with a healthy bite. Nicely done!

ckruschke
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ckruschke

The sustainability argument is fine. We all need to be better at reusing stuff. Although if you are McDonalds and switch to recyclable paper straws, you should probably make sure that that those straws can be recycled without special treatment (they can’t). However, you lost me on the crystal balling of climate change. This is beyond speculation and you are also using the worst case example of what could happen (if you are referencing an outfit like “Wired”). These temperature / precipitation projections are kind of a joke. I mean did you actually read what you typed – there is… Read more »

scrap1ron
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scrap1ron

Socialism is merely for the peasant class, not the socialist elite my good man.

Ryan
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Ryan

One of my favorite sustainability changes at Fenway Park in recent years is they’ve started offering a free bike valet to attendees of every game. It’s super conveniently located (right across the street from the park), free, and is constantly attended so you don’t have to worry about theft. Plus, you get to avoid all the post-game auto traffic and packed-full subway cars!

JLandonDC
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JLandonDC

Have you visited their new Water Sommelier? She’s great at recommending which water goes best with your vegan hot dog. #win-win

The Guru
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The Guru

I didn’t know the summers were getting more extreme? I thought they were getting cooler.

JLandonDC
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JLandonDC

I’d be curious to learn how much the typical baseball fan is concerned with sustainable stadia. Do we have data?

Barry
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Barry

Seriously? There is no climate crisis. There is warming in recent years, but no crisis. Even undergraduate students are aware that there is a weak link at best between warming and carbon emissions. Consider that this site has respect for data vs. anecdotal evidence. Climate scientists are split (the 97% of scientists agreeing myth is wrong and was shamelessly pushed by politicians – is that a statement that surprises you?) in the hypothesis that warming of the past 30 or so years is due to human activity including some of the most respected climatologists who are strong opponents of that… Read more »

fredcdobbs
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fredcdobbs

Barry makes important and salient points about looking at the data not just the headlines, especially when there is a political element. We see that with steroids, and other things in Baseball.