2023: The year sport strengthens its relationship with nature

2023: The year sport strengthens its relationship with nature

Nature’s value to sport touches on almost every aspect of its core business. An investment in nature is a partial investment in all of those areas

We’ve all seen that aerial image of a football pitch surrounded by a lush, dense, green forest. It’s a commonly-used stock visual to illustrate sustainability and sport, although it probably has the opposite effect if you consider the number of trees, bushes and shrubs that would have to be removed to accommodate the oddly-located and (hopefully) fictional playing field.

It won’t be long (2026 to be exact) before Danish Superliga club AGF Aarhus will be playing in its own ‘Arena of the Forest’ after a design team lead by Zaha Hadid Architects – the firm behind Forest Green Rovers’ Eco Park Stadium concept – was commissioned by the Municipality of Aarhus to bring its latest vision to life within the city’s Marselisborg forest.

But far from levelling over an area of woodland to accommodate the new venue, the Aarhus Stadium will be built to work in harmony with its natural surroundings. According to the presentation put forward by the winning design team, more trees and greenery will be added to the area rather than taken away. Native vegetation will be planted in the area to create more habitats for birds and insects, with trees planted in raised beds to protect them from damage caused by salt, bikes and humans.

This is not just a compensation effort, although the trees planted will support climate change mitigation by sequestering CO2e; there is a strategic element to maintaining and enhancing the surrounding forest. The species of trees planted – including English Oak, Norway Maple, Common Alder, Black Locust, European Hackberry and White Willow – will support specific operations. The formation of the trees, for example, will be positioned for clear wayfinding for fans through to the stadium, adding shade during warmer months. The trees are also robust to drought and climate change impacts, playing a significant role in the facility’s climate adaptation plans.

Nature wasn’t an afterthought in the development of the Aarhus Stadium’s concept because the architects, engineers and planners who conceived the venue understood its critical contribution to other aspects of the stadium’s success, from spectator comfort to infrastructure risk mitigation.

The value of nature

It’s a perspective that needs to be better understood in sport, where, like many other industries, the priority areas have been financial and human capital rather than natural. In recent years, renowned economists, including Sir Partha Dasgupta, have worked to assess the value of nature to make its impacts more tangible for business while highlighting the economic case for preservation.

From a simplistic, yet wholly accurate, point of view, it can be argued that sport is highly dependent on nature. If nature collapses, so does pretty much every sport. But let’s break it down to a few key areas in which significant degradation to nature could impact sport’s key financial levers.

Athlete health and performance is probably the most critical. If conditions, such as air quality, water quality and quality of terrain, start to nosedive, then sporting performance may correlate. World Athletics’ health and science team is currently exploring the link between air pollution and athletic performance. Like a line of dominos, spectator interest is likely to dwindle if that quality of the spectacle is diminished, which will consequently impact revenues.

Additionally, several studies exploring a number of sports indicate that spectator interest and attendance wanes if the experience of watching sport is not comfortable. Imagine two scenarios for watching a live sport event at the height of summer: in one, you are protected by a canopy of trees, enjoying a cool breeze that has made its way through some nearby bushes and shrubs. In the other, the unrelenting sun is beating down on you. Which situation would you prefer to be in?

Indoor spectators watching sports on the television or online are protected from the elements by walls and a roof, but their experience can also be influenced by the presence (or lack of) nature. The aesthetic quality to watching outdoor sport – the crystal blue lakes and oceans, crisp white mountains and deep green forests – cannot be underestimated.

And that’s not to mention what the impact of a well-thought-out climate adaptation strategy, through the planting of native vegetation, could have on infrastructure risk mitigation and insurance premiums.

Nature’s value to sport touches on almost every aspect of sport’s core business. Even if it weren’t possible to accurately calculate the exact financial value related to nature’s impact on athlete health and performance, spectator comfort and enjoyment and sports facility safeguarding, it’s becoming apparent that an investment in nature is a partial investment in all of these core areas.

In an industry where marginal gains are so important, ignoring the intrinsic link between nature and sport’s key performance areas is forfeiting an opportunity to improve sport while addressing an important global issue.

2023 is the year that sport will not only realign its relationship with nature, it will strengthen it, because it has to. We are at a tipping point for biodiversity which means we are at a tipping point for sport. At the same time, sport’s relationship with biodiversity is perhaps the most natural (pardon the pun) fit compared to other sustainability topics because athletes are in nature almost all the time. It’s visual and understandable to practically everyone working in sport.

To formalise their acknowledgement of this delicate relationship, 23 sports bodies became the inaugural signatories to the Sports for Nature Framework devised by the International Olympic Committee (IOC), International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), pledging to develop and implement action plans around four principles: protect nature and avoid damage to natural habitats and species; restore and regenerate nature wherever possible; understand and reduce risks to nature in supply chains; and educate and inspire positive action for nature across and beyond sport.

Weaving conservation into the fabric of sport

For some of the signatories, the framework builds on already-existing foundations. World Rowing has had a strategic alliance with WWF International in place for more than a decade with the goal of raising awareness around water cleanliness issues. In 2018, the international federation became the first sporting body pledging to protect UNESCO World Heritage sites and their buffer zones. It also has a biodiversity strategy that includes scanning World Rowing event locations to identify opportunities to regenerate ecosystems, supporting organising committees to make projects happen by allocating budgets and knitting together a consortium of partners.

Another of the signatories, Extreme E, has its own Scientific Committee to advise the electric off-road racing series about where to allocate attention and resources when it comes to education and research programmes, logistics and its flagship legacy projects, which include turtle conservation along the Red Sea coastline, the planting of one million mangrove trees in Senegal and the restoration of rainforest along the Amazon.

Events and venues are clearly the vehicles by which federations, clubs and organising committees can weave conservation into the fabric of sport. At the Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games, conservation was one of three environmental sustainability pillars. As part of that vision, 72 ‘tiny forests’ were planted across Birmingham and the surrounding Midlands region of the UK. Typically the size of a tennis court, and inhabited by an abundance of different species of native vegetation, tiny forests can protect urban environments from the increasing environmental pressures they face from heat stress, flooding and biodiversity loss. 

However, a lack of ownership when it comes to facilities can present a major challenge when developing a biodiversity strategy for sport. While a number of conservation projects were successfully integrated across a number of Birmingham 2022 venues, achieving consistency across stadiums and arenas owned and operated by several different actors proved to be difficult.

(Photo credit: Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

To try and address hurdles like this, the ‘Sport for Nature: Setting a Baseline’ guide was devised by UNEP and Loughborough University, primarily encouraging sports organisations to get clear on their biodiversity impacts and ambitions by setting a baseline from which a coherent nature strategy can be built. 

This first step prompts organisations to answer (or attempt to answer) four questions: to what extent is your sports organisation dependent on the natural environment? What impact does your organisation or event have on nature? What priority ecosystems and species need your attention? And, which communities of practice can you join and engage with?

One of the guide’s main recommendations is to work with others – a policy used to good effect by the Birmingham 2022 organising committee as it sought the support of its Nature and Carbon Neutral Partner, Severn Trent, to map out several of its key environmental sustainability goals. This included the concept and execution of the tiny forests and the planning, planting and maintenance of the Commonwealth Legacy Forest that will sequester the 201,800 tonnes of unavoidable carbon emissions generated by the event.

Taking this guidance a step on, luxury goods brand Kering produced the ‘Developing a Corporate Biodiversity Strategy’ primer alongside the University of Cambridge’s Institute for Sustainability Leadership. Although primarily developed for the fashion industry, the document has eight steps that can be adapted and applied by most if not all organisations, with several steps overlapping with Sport for Nature and the Natural Capital Protocol.

After understanding dependencies and impacts, organisations are then in a position to map out a course of action, with specific targets, that can be implemented, monitored and reviewed.

A model for increasing biodiversity

Developing a biodiversity strategy iteratively through one or a handful of pilot projects is a practical way to start understanding impacts, opportunities and potential pitfalls before rolling out a comprehensive roadmap. 

With the support of a research team from Copenhagen Business School, the Dansk Automobil Sports Union (DASU) established a biodiversity project at one of its member tracks, Københavns Gokart Bane on Amager. With racetracks surrounded by underused spaces, DASU asked the research team (which consisted of Adam Bocev, Bjørn Hansen, Brunello Olivero, Lorenzo Sacchetti and Kacper Szostakow) to start developing a model for increasing biodiversity in these areas for two main reasons: to create a more hospitable environment for animal and plant life and to give local people accessible areas to enjoy and get involved in nature.

After embarking on a period of regular dialogue with key stakeholders, site visits and engagement with experts, the research group discovered a number of barriers and opportunities that could help inform a wider biodiversity or nature strategy for DASU going forward.

Like many sports venues, the track is owned by the local municipality, and any project of this type must be greenlit. Even if work is approved, there’s a chance that the municipality will provide minimal assistance in terms of maintenance to support plant and animal life. Initial landscaping work also includes some upfront costs and many sports organisations, especially smaller, grassroots ones, may not have funding to distribute beyond their core activities.

Their findings led the research team to a handful of recommendations to be considered when developing a wider biodiversity strategy. The first is to enlist expert advice (in this case, through the support of the local nature conservancy) to define what is achievable and most impactful when it comes to cultivating plants and habitats on a particular area of land.

Secondly, the group discovered that involving local school children was “feasible and necessary” for implementation; the intervention of humans is important for the upkeep and maintenance of natural life and, in the absence of support from a local authority, enthusiastic and eager-to-learn school children can fill the void.

The lack of time and financial resources are obviously the biggest barrier to implementing a successful strategy for nature. From a funding point of view, the research team recommends searching for appropriate partners, particularly foundations, by matching project objectives with grant criteria. To make sure site maintenance is sustainable, projects should be the “least inconvenient” to existing operations.

It’s clear that sport needs to reset its relationship with nature, and the arguments, tools and case study examples to help make that happen are emerging. Let’s make 2023 the year for sport and nature.

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  • Andrew Byekwaso
    January 7, 2023, 11:01 am

    Using a sports plus programme we are invested in SDGs 13 and 4. We have a BHAG of a million children in sports and games activities every week, winning for the environment through establishing tree nurseries in their spaces and waste clearing activities through plogging. We also champion traditional African sports and games. We seek partners and support.

  • Kattia Juarez
    January 9, 2023, 7:20 am

    Excellent article.
    We, in motorcycle, have an exciting example of the relationship between nature and sport.
    Best regards