Supporting a compassionate city through urban soccer placemaking

“This is what a city is, bits and pieces that supplement each other and support each other.” — Jane Jacobs

At City Collaborative we are very interested in the bits and pieces of cities, and how they can be improved for a greater community. In this vein we’ve been fortunate to develop the ReSurfaced program, an effort to work with local partners to improve surface parking lots and large vacant sites through placemaking initiatives. Like many cities that have suffered the effects of urban renewal and disinvestment, Louisville has way too many surface parking lots, way too many large, open unused lots — fragmenting our neighborhoods and commercial districts across the city. Back in 2013 we wondered what could we do, as a new, emerging nonprofit organization to tackle this issue, how we could build partnerships to better utilize these vacant and underutilized lots and do more with these negative spaces. How could these spaces be more equitable, creating quality people places where in some neighborhoods, few might exist?

So in the last few years of working on these ‘bits and pieces’, our ReSurfaced projects have lasted sometimes one weekend, in other cases up to a month or more during any particular activation. But in 2016, thanks to our partnership with Louisville Downtown Partnership and Louisville Metro Housing Authority an opportunity presented itself for us to create a more long lasting project as we continue being lighter, quicker, and cheaper in transforming public spaces.

We wanted to take this opportunity to further the collective goal in Louisville of being a more compassionate city, a city that values its residents, no matter where they are coming from, and works to bring them together. In this respect, we were curious how we could use new ideas in placemaking and tactical urbanism to build a community space for all, a place where newcomers and natives can interact and better know one another, and we came up with the idea for Liberty Field, a project for our community where we can demonstrate the potential of a compassionate city, by making a place for play, a place that supports the diversity that makes this city so strong and so great. That’s really where the idea of a soccer field came from, as soccer is a world sport, bringing people of all nationalities together, with a field and a ball and the players as the only requisites.

But Liberty Field was not to be just any soccer field, we wanted a small form, suited for the urban environment, a European form, a five a side field, and what we believe is only 5-a-side field in Louisville, if not the first in the entire Commonwealth of Kentucky.

BEFORE: An old lot and parking lot. The site of Liberty Field at Shelby & Liberty Streets in the Phoenix Hill neighborhood prior to activation

The field was built right on top of unused rubble on a vacant site near downtown Louisville, in the Phoenix Hill neighborhood, at the intersection of Liberty and Shelby Streets. It’s about the same footprint as a basketball court (90 ft x 66 ft), ideal for 5-a-side, one goalie and 4 field players per side. The field is fully netted around the perimeter up to 20 feet so balls aren’t flying out onto the street. In keeping with the aesthetic of the entire site, we utilized repurposed 20’ shipping containers for goals, with a four foot tall by 12 foot wide opening with netting inside.

AFTER: Liberty Field at ReSurfaced, Phoenix Hill neighorhood, Louisville

Soccer Coordinator Daniel Sanders, with City Collaborative says, “It’s a very popular style in Europe and South America, where there is a lot more 5-a-side and futsal, where balls are staying lower to the ground, there’s not a lot of long kicks, it’s really more about foot skills in a more confined space. The field is made of turf that we rolled out, with drainage, so it’s playable year around. You’d find a lot of urban soccer fields in cities like New York or Los Angeles, but I’d say throughout the Midwest and through out a lot of the country, urban soccer is something new and something different and I think that really provides an opportunity to build excitement

Recently, at one of the many nightly pick up games, we talked to John and Will, lifelong Kentuckians in their mid-twenties, who actually met each other at Liberty Field. “It’s a little oasis in the middle of the city… there are always games going on…it’s a pretty nice little hidden gem”, said John.

Will chimed in… “Yeah… a small field, where you can play touch football, where you can be out of shape but still keep up with everyone? You are not going to find this anywhere in Louisville. I feel like you’d be hard pressed to find something like this in any city in the US. I spent some time living in Peru and they had something just like this, and i’ve been looking for something like this in Kentucky ever since i’ve been back. It’s been 4 years, and this is the first time I’ve seen it.

John continued, “Where else can you get a game like this? You’re definitely not going to get a game like this anywhere else in Louisville. You’ve got people from all over, people from Kentucky playing against people from Somalia or Southeast Asia, its a pretty cool spot and really cool people down here.

Abdi, a young man from Somalia, has lived in Kentucky for over a decade, and frequently brings groups of young refugees to Liberty Field to play, “ What we like about the field is the diversity; Americans, Africans, Latinos, not only one group comes here, we have many groups that come in here. Its a brotherhood.. .trying to help the young people get away from problems… from the kind of problems of this generation we’re in. The people that come here, they come from everywhere in the world.There is no where else like this in Louisville for us to play

“There is no where else like this in Louisville for us to play.” — Abdi, a young man originally from Somalia

Abdi’s eyes constantly flitted to the field the brief time we spoke, gauging the remaining time before the next game. Before he broke away from our interview to jump into the next match, he really wanted us to know… “The one thing we like about this field… it brings community together, from all over the world , and i like that. When you come to Liberty Field, this is a great place to find diversity, everybody comes showing love, all we do is play soccer,… its just energized man! This is love!

Louisville’s Soccer Desert, maps by Rebecca Hollenbach

An important part of City Collaborative’s approach to placemaking is experimentation and prototyping. As the idea for Liberty Field came together, we knew there was a real need for more opportunities for soccer in the city, and believed that through the project, we could begin to tackle this issue of a “soccer desert” in a large expanse of our city’s core from west to downtown to south Louisville. We wanted to test the idea of a 5-a-side field to see if this type of facility would be embraced and utilized. Daniel explains, “When we looked at where soccer fields and soccer parks are in Louisville , most opportunities for soccer play, especially for adults, or any body outside of school, they are found in the east end of Louisville, which you wouldn’t be too surprised to know is the wealthier part of Louisville. So there’s a real dearth of soccer fields of any kind in downtown or in south Louisville in or west Louisville, and so putting a 5-a-side field in a close downtown neighborhood that is generally free to the public has really made a big difference in attracting people to this neighborhood, where in the past, people needed to drive 45 minutes to find a pick up game.

Mohammad, from Kenya, has lived in Louisville for around a decade now, “This is the only space in Louisville, in this whole city right now, that gives everybody a chance a play, and just come out here and hang out , even if you’re not playing sometimes you just come and watch the games. Basically almost every race or every culture comes here… but the one language we all speak is soccer, so as long as there is one soccer ball everyone communicates and gets along pretty well.”

Along those lines Daniel says, “I’ve been playing in organized soccer settings in Louisville very regularly over the past 10 years and maybe occasionally once a year you’ll get guys from the Kenyan community, or Somalis, or the Iraqi community might put a team together, but because of the cost associated with traditional places to play or just the time commitment for a formalized league, it’s really tough for those teams to last over time, but Liberty Field gives them an opportunity to get time on a field they wouldn’t have had otherwise. For the more traditional soccer community, often more middle or upper middle class players, when they come down to Liberty, they’re going to be interacting with people they might not usually connect with. There may be cultural differences in play when new people show up, but as folks stick with it over the course of weeks or months you can really see a sense of respect growing between people coming from very different backgrounds. At the end of the day we find there are a lot more similarities than differences.”

While groups are commuting from all over the city, especially from immigrant communities in south Louisville, the field is also meeting needs very near by. We’ve been working with Nativity Academy an independent middle school in the Phoenix Hill neighborhood that serves and educates urban youth. There are no public parks in Phoenix Hill, and while the school has an indoor gym, there are no outdoor opportunities for physical activity. As many as four days a week kids are coming from school to use the field. Tyler Robertson with Nativity Academy says, “ This soccer field was a blessing to our school this past year! Our students loved it. It gave some of our students their first real experience of playing soccer, which many enjoyed enough to consider playing for an organized team in the future. I would highly recommend and encourage the use of any other available spaces for things of this nature throughout the community. It makes the area look more current and presentable, while giving people something to enjoy and appreciate about their neighborhood.

We’ve also had a partnership with the West End School in west Louisville that just started a new soccer program in 2016 and as they don’t yet have their own official field (they do have a dirt patch they can practice on), they’ve been able to come down and get more of a real soccer field experience.

ReSurfaced placemaking activations wouldn’t be possible without the army of incredible, civic-minded volunteers who believe their time and effort can make a difference and essentially make everything that we do possible. A lot of times when we’re putting these projects together there is a lot going on, and to have volunteers show up on community build days, is vital or things simply wouldn’t get built.

Another essential ingredient to our placemaking efforts are our community partners. This current project would not be happening without massive support from the Louisville Downtown Partnership, the Urban Design Studio at the University of Louisville, and with the land use agreement with the Louisville Metro Housing Authority. Liberty Field would not be possible without generous corporate sponsorship from the folks at Brown-Forman, and with volunteer and equipment donations from our local soccer team, Louisville City FC.

The Liberty Field was a real DIY project that we wanted to test to see if the short side soccer field would not only be utilized, but bring community together. Our hope was that if this was successful, City Collaborative could help bring more of these facilities to underserved areas of our community. When we were searching for our next activation site, we purposefully chose the current location at Shelby and Liberty because the site was endemic of the vast majority of vacant and underutilized properties around our community. It was chosen specifically because the site had little inherent appeal that we wanted to experiment and demonstrate how these spaces could become places.

We now know with the hundreds of people who have use the field almost every day for the last twelve months, that this relatively inexpensive facility could be realized in other communities and certainly a model that we’d like to expand here in Louisville. We were able to successfully plan and develop this quality soccer field with civic-minded professionals who donated their time and expertise, as well as a very small paid team (about three people) of construction workers with little to no prior experience building fields, to bring the idea to reality for approximately $30k. Our goal is to work with community groups, sponsors and donors to realize more of these facilities around Louisville and beyond.

So for a relatively small investment, it’s possible to do projects that have a major impact in energizing abandoned and unused lots, in bringing people together in public spaces, and in demonstrating that we can work together on collaborative projects that celebrate the equity, inclusion, and compassion that Louisville is becoming know for as a city.

As we continue to tackle urban issues we need your support to continue bringing projects like ReSurfaced and Liberty Field to our city. Your support helps build the grassroot efforts of our organization to transform spaces into places and collaborate with partners to bring innovative solutions to common problems.

Written by Pat Smith & Patrick Piuma, with major help from Daniel Sanders and the great players and community partners at Liberty Field