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Croke Park commits to community and consistency as it marks fifteen years of sustainability

March 02 2023

Across the world, more and more sports venues, competitions, teams and organisations are waking up to the importance of sustainability. But the team at Croke Park, the third-largest stadium in Europe, have been developing their sustainability programme since 2008. Fifteen years on, how has Croke Park managed to stay at the forefront of the sustainability movement?

Croke Park commits to community and consistency as it marks fifteen years of sustainability

Early leaders in sustainability

Croke Park, which is Ireland’s biggest stadium and serves as the headquarters for the Gaelic Athletics Association (GAA), hosts to up to 1.5 million visitors every year across major sporting events, concerts, conferences, and meetings. As an historic stadium with an 82,300 capacity, an international reputation, and a central urban location, Croke Park is well-placed to act as a role model for other large venues.

It is in this role as industry leaders that Croke Park first began their sustainability journey fifteen years ago. In 2007, the Electricity Supply Board (ESB) and the GAA began to explore how carbon emissions could be reduced at Croke Park. The result of these initial investigations was a joint initiative with ESB, Cúl Green, which put in place an environmental improvement programme across the stadium. From 2009, the team also began working towards ISO certifications, achieving an ISO 14001 certification in environmental management in 2009 and ISO 20121 in 2012. The stadium was the first in the world to achieve the BS8901:2009 certification for sustainable event management.

As well as improving the stadium’s own environmental footprint, the team hoped that the ‘iconic status’ of Croke Park would ‘increase awareness of sustainability’ and ‘resonate with Irish people’, encouraging sustainable behaviour at a time when environmental awareness was not as widespread as it may be today. Developing and maintaining certifications, as well as making improvements to the stadium and connecting with the local community, were three key elements of Croke Park’s sustainability efforts.

Setting objectives

Since the early days, the team at Croke Park have set out three objectives to guide their work:

  1. To mainstream sustainability across all stadium operations
  2. To encourage awareness of sustainability and respect for the community & environment among staff and visitors
  3. To showcase sustainability initiatives for the wider GAA community

By organising their work along these set goals, the Croke Park team have developed a programme that engages with both the environmental and social sides of the sustainability coin. They place an emphasis on five areas: energy, water, waste, nature & biodiversity, and community.

Community roots lead to long-term sustainability

From the beginning, the importance of engaging positively with the local community drove Croke Park’s sustainability work. Colin O’Brien, Operations Executive at Croke Park, believes community is a large part of why Croke Park was such an early leader in sustainability and took the initiative long before many others. ‘We’re the third biggest stadium in Europe, and we’re in quite an urban residential area,’ he explains. ‘We realised early on the impact our events have on the local community and the local environment, and we realised we have a great responsibility to do good.’

The team launched the Croke Park Community Fund in 2009, which funds projects that directly benefits those living within 1.5km of the stadium. Since its launch, over €1m has been allocated to local groups, resident associations, and sports clubs. The stadium employs a dedicated Community Liaison Officer who manages a community engagement programme and puts on a full calendar of events for the local community. A Community Team works with the stadium on event days, while the Croke Park Sustainable Transport Working Group helps to encourage people to travel to events on public transport or by bike, reducing the environmental impact on the area.

Community engagement also means educating the local and wider public on sustainability. Every year Croke Park hosts a Sustainability Day, which attracts up to 80,000 visitors. The dedicated day is an opportunity to showcase all the work they’re doing to the local community, partners, sponsors, and the media, while also raising awareness of environmental issues.

Increasingly, the team is also focusing on equality and diversity. The stadium employs a full-time Inclusion & Diversity Officer and has introduced a sensory space for event days. The stadium is in the process of installing gender neutral and inclusive changing rooms and bathroom facilities. Developing more initiatives focused specifically on inclusion is a target for the coming years. ‘That’s a next step for us,’ O’Brien says.

The emphasis on community has been consistent over the past fifteen years and is a defining feature of Croke Park’s sustainability programme. Feedback and accountability are important. ‘We have an open dialogue with the local community,’ says O’Brien. ‘We get feedback for all the events we have, and we try and improve on every event we hold.’

Maintaining an eco-friendly stadium: energy, waste, water, and biodiversity

Beyond their community work, the Croke Park team have also developed ways to make their stadium as eco-friendly as possible. One of their first measures, introduced in 2008-9, was to install energy monitoring, green waste, and building management systems. The stadium achieved 0% waste to landfill in 2014 and have continued to upgrade and develop initiatives to reduce waste, energy and water usage ever since.

The stadium uses a cloud-based monitoring system to reduce energy use, including a network management software to power down computers when they’re not in use. The pitch heating system was upgraded, resulting in a 19% reduction in gas usage, while Passive Infra-Red (PIR) light sensors reduce energy usage for lighting. All stadium lighting is currently being upgraded to LED.

Croke Park has maintained 0% waste to landfill since reaching their target in 2014, and 100% of waste is recycled, reused, or recovered as solid fuel. Meanwhile, the team continue to work to reduce overall waste levels. Initiatives include paperless meetings, a composting system, and a single-use plastics reduction programme, which has replaced cups, straws and cutlery with biodegradable and compostable alternatives and introduced 23 water-fill stations. Creative solutions help the team continue to develop in this area: a partnership with Recreate Ireland, for example, uses material left over by events for artistic and creative projects.

Reducing water usage is another continued focus. Croke Park is a member of the Water Stewardship Programme run by Irish Water, and solenoid valves have been installed in toilets, saving up to 300,000l of water per day. Future plans include solenoid valve extensions, electronic water metering, and water harvesting to reduce water usage even more.

In a stadium that is over a hundred years old, updating and renovating infrastructure is an ongoing project. This provides an opportunity to constantly centre eco-friendly technology. ‘With all these renovations and upgrades, sustainability plays a big part,’ O’Brien says. ‘We’re looking at things like water harvesting and solar energy, things like that, to incorporate into any stadium upgrades that we do.’

Croke Park’s environmental initiatives extend beyond the walls of the stadium. The team launched a biodiversity programme in 2015 and have continued to actively promote biodiversity in the area. The team have worked with experts from Wildlife Management Services to install blue tit, swift, and sparrow nesting boxes; installed a polytunnel for growing herbs and fresh vegetables; and have worked with beekeepers to produce their own honey. In 2018 the stadium purchased the Croke Park Turf Farm to grow their own turf for their pitch and are also developing an orchard.

The team’s approach has always emphasised monitoring and management. ‘You can’t manage what you can’t measure,’ says O’Brien. As well as maintaining their current certifications, the team are currently working towards an ISO 50001 certification for energy management. Critically, they are also currently calculating their carbon footprint. Until now, the stadium hasn’t yet officially calculated and offset their carbon emissions, but this is a key target for 2023. ‘It’s been on the agenda for a while,’ O’Brien says. ‘We’re eager to know where we’re at and compare ourselves to similar size venues. It’ll give us baseline and help us reduce it going forward.’

Embedding a culture of sustainability

A culture of sustainability underlies all the ongoing work at Croke Park. Constantly reiterating and encouraging sustainability, even in small gestures, is one way that the team have managed to keep up their work over the past decade and a half. ‘There is certainly a huge sustainability culture across the stadium,’ O’Brien says. The stadium has a Green Team which meets every few weeks to discuss ideas, while all new staff take part in an induction that includes a sustainability module. ‘All new staff members coming into the stadium know exactly what we do and what’s expected of them,’ O’Brien explains. ‘We’re embedding that culture from day one.’

One new change in 2023 is devolving sustainability objectives to each department. By tasking each department with identifying their own sustainability goals, O’Brien hopes to encourage more staff members to take responsibility for their department, whether they’re working in operations, meetings and events, or sponsorship. ‘Each department now has responsibility and buy-in, and that’s going to be the way forward for us now,’ says O’Brien.

Tackling challenges and developing future plans

Croke Park’s fifteen-year journey proves that dedicated staff, clear sustainability targets, and engaging with the local community can pay off in the long run. Their continued commitment to certifications, measurement, and management, while less headline-grabbing, are also key elements of their strategy. But what does O’Brien think are the biggest challenges Croke Park will face in their efforts, and what are their plans for the future?

‘Our biggest challenge is just trying to stay on that journey, trying to improve as we go along, and making sure everything we report is true and accurate—that we can stand by everything that we do,’ O’Brien says. ‘There’s a lot of greenwashing out there, and we want to stay transparent.’

From their vantage point as relative sustainability veterans, the team at Croke Park are also working to help others who want to make their own changes. ‘We want to help other organisations come on the journey with us—show them what we’ve done and where we’ve come from,’ O’Brien says. ‘We try and meet other organisations on a regular basis.’ Croke Park are now part of a working group of different large venues and stadia in Ireland who meet to discuss their plans and progress.

Future plans at Croke Park include calculating their carbon footprint and continuing eco-friendly renovations, including completing LED light installations, solar panels, and water harvesting. O’Brien also wants to continue to use Croke Park’s platform to spread the sustainability message. ‘One of our objectives this year is to put more of what we do on social media for the wider public to see,’ he says.

Croke Park’s fifteen-year record speaks for itself, but their continued openness and commitment to change is what has kept their momentum going over the long run. O’Brien is hopeful for the future, and encourages other organisations to take their first step if they haven’t already. ‘I think over the past few years people have begun to understand sustainability more,’ he says. ‘The main thing is just to get started—once you get started, even with something small, it snowballs.’

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