May 18, 2007 — CSO —
In ancient Pompeii, if you walk northeast along the wide Via dell’Abbondanza, then cut right onto the narrower Via Nocera for a block, then turn left onto Via di Castricio, you’ll approach the southeastern corner of the city, where the road again opens wide to the Anfiteatro, Pompeii’s stadium, preserved remarkably well by the thick blanket of Vesuvian ash that covered it for about 1,700 years.
When G. Keith Still took this walk for the first time nearly 11 years ago and went inside the stadium, he sensed a paradox. In many ways it felt just like modern stadiums. That’s not surprising; the design ethic of modern arenas still borrows liberally from classical Greek and Roman architecture.
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But at the same time, Still, a world-leading expert on crowd management who has consulted on some of the biggest crowd-control events in the world, including the Haj pilgrimage to Mecca and the upcoming Beijing Olympics, felt something different from today’s stadiums at Pompeii. “Everything seemed so much easier,” he says. “There was enough space for everyone. Entrance and exit were simple, elegant. It wasn’t just a stadium, it was an integrated part of the city design.”
From a crowd management perspective, Still says, Pompeii’s stadium is an excellent design, and one worth learning from. Of course, Still understands that modern facilities are looking at economic payback and long-term sustainability and because of that often work with limited space. Still argues, however, that facilities are designed to maximize profit at the expense of creating safe crowd conditions. “They don’t design for the safe movement of people,” he says. “Architects borrow from history. They co-opt features of ancient facilities without understanding the broader context. They’ll spend years studying design and structures and spend a couple of weeks on crowds. They say ‘Let’s put it here, then figure out how to get people in and out.’
There’s scope for improvement, we’ll put it that way.”
Improvement can come from studying sites like Pompeii, Still says, and then trying to balance the profit motive with some of the ancient stadium’s crowd management features that can significantly reduce the risk of often tragic and too-common security events—crowd disasters.
Stampedes, crushes, riots. In crowds, trivial events can have tragic consequences. In a Chinese school last year, a child stopping in a stairwell to tie his shoe spurred a crush that killed six. The belligerent few can sway thousands of normally well-behaved individuals to riot, as soccer hooligans in Italy did earlier this year. Still shows video from an outdoor rock concert in which a few kids dancing fall down and cause, in seconds, a wave of hundreds of collapsing bodies, as if cuffed by the hand of an invisible giant.