Just how do you build the perfect Olympic stadium?

What have the Romans ever done for us....

London Olympics On 27 July, London will be transformed as the biggest celebration of sports in the world kicks off in the newly built Olympic Stadium in Stratford.

The stadium has been designed to hold 80,000 people, and the Olympic Village will certainly hold many more.

On a normal day, Stratford tube station handles somewhere between 220,000 and 225,000 people. During the Olympic games, Transport for London (TfL) is expecting an additional 310,000 people through the turnstiles, bringing the total to well over half a million.

Obviously, if you are one of the regular 225,000, you might save yourself a bit of a headache by going another way – any other way – for the duration of the games.

“Stations will have contingency plans in place to deal with crowds, but it will be busy and there will be bottlenecks,” a TfL spokeswoman said.

“We are really stressing that people should not chance it. They should plan ahead.”

On yer bikes

TfL is loading London’s transport infrastructure with as many trains, buses and river buses as it can lay its hand on.

During the games the tube will run for an hour later than usual, with the last train departing at around 1.30am. There will be more frequent services on key lines, with up to 30 tubes an hour running on the Jubilee line, for example.

The number of buses has been increased on 37 key routes by a booster fleet of 200 single-decker buses. Even the cycling option has been improved: TfL says that an additional 4,000 rental cycles will be available in Stratford.

London knows how to do big events: it stages plenty of football matches, rock concerts and so on. But the Olympics are a bigger task than all of those.

So how will such huge numbers of people be managed? Or has a lot of the groundwork already been done? Can you build crowd safety into the very fabric of a building?

If you had to design the perfect stadium, it would look something like the stadium in the ancient city of Pompeii. According to Professor Keith Still, G4S professor of crowd sciences at Bucks New University, this was as close to perfect as you can get.

Pompeii stadium, slightly overgrown with grass. Image via Vyacheslav Argenberg, licensed for commercial use under Creative Commons

Pompeii Stadium as it looks today ... Pic by © VascoPlanet.com, licensed under Creative Commons

“The design of the stadium was integral to the city, and the streets were integral to the movement of the people. The Romans really understood the geometric nature of crowd movement,” he says.

“The town was a self-contained walled city, and historical records indicate that it was the thing to do for the whole family on a Saturday afternoon. The town had a population of roughly 30,000 and the stadium had seating of a similar magnitude. Everyone went.”

Pompeii Stadium: the cheap seats...
Pic by © VascoPlanet.com, licensed under Creative Commons

Still notes that many of the design features of Pompeii would not translate across the millennia.

“They had no internal toilets, so the concourses were set up to fill and empty as quickly as possible to get people to and from the building next door, which was all toilet,” he says.

“It is the same at Ephesus in Turkey and the Colosseum in Rome. That has an extremely fast entry and exit rate.”

Modern architects borrow from the design of classical wonders

Stadium at Ephesus. Pic courtesy Keith Still

Things have also changed somewhat since the designers of Pompeii were wondering how to get 30,000 bladders safely emptied during an interval. One is that the ancient stadia were designed for pedestrian access only.

“You came to see a chariot race; you didn’t bring your own chariot,” says Still.

Nor were there any plans to accommodate disabled people, any merchandising to sell or any lifts.

Modern architects borrow from the design of these classical wonders, but perhaps without understanding all of the underlying principles, Still observes.

The Olympics Stadium in Athens, Greece Pic courtesy Keith Still

“Look at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff. Would I have designed that to be so close to public transport links? Probably not, in an ideal world,” he says.

The reason is that crowds have not had time to thin out before lining up at the venue.

“It is not just the building you have to consider, it is the location, the local streets, the transport links. It has to fit within the environment,” says Still.

For Tom Jones, principal architect at Populous, the firm behind the Stratford stadium, fitting into the environment was right at the heart of the project.

“The master plan placed the stadium on an island site in the southern part of the Olympic Park, to enable it to act as a focal point within the park,” he says.

The Olympic Stadium at Stratford. Pic courtesy LOCOG (click to enlarge)

“Great care was taken in developing routes from the train and tube stations, to ensure that there was a logic to the pattern of movement of spectators entering the park and moving to the individual venues.”

It starts with something as basic as ticketing. Your ticket should tell you not just your seat number but how to get to the venue, so that people with tickets for the North end arrive at the North end rather than the South end, for example.

Clear signage is also critical in bringing the crowd from stations and car parks.

“Inside the stadium, there need to be signs to seating blocks and spectator facilities which provide increasing levels of detail as you move towards your seat," says Jones

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