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16.10.2013 - Ausgabe: 5/2013

How leisure time wishes could become reality

By Prof. Dr. Robin Kähler, Kiel University


Many municipalities are currently facing considerable challenges regarding their leisure, play and sports facilities: many dilapidated facilities have to be refurbished, schools, sports facilities and public spaces modernised and kindergartens built. These are just some of the tasks to be tackled by planners. It should be borne in mind that many people have different movement interests from previous generations, older people expect a residential environment that promotes movement, and people from different cultures have different desires. Furthermore, public space is also increasingly used for sport and movement by people who are not organised in sports clubs. So planning was simpler in the past: the contents, apparatus and spatial requirements were largely well-defined. Parks were regarded as tranquil green spaces, playgrounds always featured the same equipment and those areas set aside for sport complied with the norms of professional sports federations. The future planning of play, sports and leisure facilities will, on the other hand, have to take the form of open urban development planning directly based on and integrating the desires of people, as it seeks appropriate answers to contemporary movement problems and the changed sport and movement behaviour of citizens. In numerous participation processes, I have gained the impression that planners have not yet quite taken these facts on board to the extent that I had thought. Let me illustrate what I mean using a fictitious example, but one which reflects well the reality of municipal planning practice. However, in this article I can only point out some fundamental planning problems.

Imagine the following example: in a city district characterised by a high population density, unemployment, child poverty and cultural diversity, an until now run-down, barely used leisure park with an old football pitch, relatively small playing fields and a number of paths is now to be renovated and upgraded. The steering group provided for and established for such projects consists of experts from various departments, chairpersons of sports clubs and associations, advisory bodies representing young people, women, immigrants, the disabled and senior citizens, and professional project moderators. Non-organised citizens rarely participate. The planning objective is set jointly. The park is intended to promote movement, play and sport and to offer citizens the opportunity to come into contact with each other.

Despite this joint approach, two points should be observed already in this planning phase. On the one hand, each of the participants perceives movement and the leisure park in a particular way as a result of their professional or personal perspective. The city authorities not only consider the interests of citizens, but also, and perhaps primarily, the ability of the project to be subsidised, having regard to such problems as safety, funding, follow-on costs, monitoring, political acceptance, media coverage and conflict prevention.

Sports clubs are only interested in the standardised sporting areas of the park and not in open spaces, unless they will be using them. In particular, as far as participation in the operation of the park is concerned, clubs may see themselves as being faced with decisions of vital importance, and sometimes adopt very defensive or even hostile positions in discussions. Immigrants want to be granted their own spaces, etc.

On the other hand, the enthusiasm of municipal and professional planners for the participatory cooperation of citizens in the planning process is very limited. The process appears to be more a politically necessary ritual and one that leaves the "lay planners" with the impression that the professionals would prefer to go it alone (and are in any case better equipped for the task). Ordinary citizens feel they are not taken seriously.

This means that, although everyone is able to agree on an overall objective for the project, each individual has their own different understanding and particular interest, when it comes to how they interpret that objective and what they want to achieve with the park. But what do the people living in the area want, the actual potential users? It becomes very clear that trust plays a role in participation processes that is not to be underestimated.

The wishes of the children, young people and adults from the local area include an abundance of diverse and meaningful ideas which, as all our research has demonstrated, are shared by these target groups throughout Germany. Children want to slide, swing, sway, balance, climb, hide, experience adventures, build things with water and soil, sand or clay, find areas for their ball and catching games, and be in a natural environment. Young people prefer inline skating, skateboarding, cycling and roller skating, parkour, streetball or just kicking a ball around, they want to hang out and listen to music, preferably undisturbed and away from adults. In a leisure facility adults seek opportunities for relaxation, barbecuing, lying down, celebrating, and playing with their children; they want to jog there, practise Nordic walking and play different games.

So if the planners want to encourage the local people to engage in movement, and these people have concrete wishes, the planning should be very simple. The future green spaces, open spaces and functional areas would be developed in such a way as to create multifunctional, non-standardised areas and perhaps also a small standardised sports area and modelled forms of terrain, which fulfil a variety of movement wishes as well as permitting games and types of sport, while promoting sociable coexistence. In addition to this, playground apparatus should be planned that offers exciting experiences and stimulates the imagination. The two concepts of openness and diversity could be designated as planning principles for this. However, we have already been able to identify that these concepts are not compatible with the specific interests of those involved in the planning process. Their ideas regarding planning might better be characterised by two other concepts: cohesion and
functionality. So how do the professional planners deal with what their clients and what people want, how do they turn this into reality?

The designers of landscapes and open spaces are charged with preparing a blueprint for the leisure facility on the basis of stipulated, normally standardised specifications. On the one hand, they therefore have to follow the client's specifications strictly. On the other, they also bring along their own professional and private ideas regarding play, sport and movement. These are not
necessarily the same as those of the majority of the local residents. As planners of space, they principally orientate themselves towards the structures in those places, to established norms such as types of sport, and to standardised playground apparatus. Furthermore, they are also not specialists in movement, who understand the different desires of those living locally regarding their living and spatial situation and implement them in their planning. Rather, they see themselves as having been successful when they create a purely functional plan that is likely to satisfy their client.

The example shows that the customary participation and planning processes are unlikely to lead to the fulfilment of the wishes of local residents. Rather, people’s expectations are increasingly lost sight of as the planning process continues. What ultimately prevails are the own interests of organised groups and planners. These tend to be based not on their impact on people, but rather on their effect within a political and economic system. What is to be done? In my opinion, this is primarily a problem of communication and of mutual understanding and trust. The experts should cooperate better and at an earlier stage. They should also concern themselves intensely with local movement problems. Planners, municipalities and movement experts should, from the start of
a project and across professions and administrative authorities, show better understanding, consult more closely with each other, and trust more in the fact that perfectly ordinary people are also "experts" and know what they want and what is right for them. Planners of landscapes and open spaces in particular are called on to liberate themselves from incomprehensible and outdated standardisations, and implement projects in collaboration with experienced sports and movement scientists. It would therefore also be beneficial if movement issues were integrated into the professional training of planners, so that the students are open to developments and the many and varied interests of ordinary people.

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