Exercise and unwind in the Campus park: The BUGA [Federal horticultural show] Heilbronn has come up with innovative sports facilities under the oldest trees in town, created based on the unusual combination of a gradation tower and calisthenics facilities.
Does every local community need an outdoor fitness park?
The arguments for and against – more for than against or less for and more against? A discussion with Steffen Strasser (Head of the Exercise Park Group of the Association of German Playground Equipment and Leisure Facility Constructors (BSFH e.V.), CEO of Play-Parc Allwetter-Freizeitanlagenbau GmbH) and Professor Robin Kähler of the German Sport Science Association (dvs e.V.).
Playground@Landscape: Why do you consider the provision of outdoor exercise facilities in public areas to be necessary?
Steffen Strasser: People want to take exercise. In fact, the need to take exercise is an inherent urge within all us human beings, irrespective of how old we are. Children are provided with dedicated spaces in the public arena in the form of playgrounds where they can freely indulge in physical activities and play without supervision. The modern exercise park concept provides facilities where adolescents and adults can try out something new, where they ‒ in small groups or individually ‒ have the freedom to spontaneously explore their own capabilities and do something to improve their fitness. Of course such facilities are necessary. However, they need to be appropriately designed and constructed for their purpose; it is not enough to just thoughtlessly stick a few pieces of equipment in place.
Playground@Landscape: Do you have any criticisms of current public exercise facilities?
Robin Kähler: I'd first like to point out that I welcome the fact that local authorities have now recognised that public spaces can also be employed as the location of exercise options that can be used by many people. There is a considerable demand for open spaces that can be used for physical activities in general ‒ all my sport-related projects in local communities point to this. Sadly, we need to fight to preserve every square metre of open space, particularly in the increasingly built-up urban environments. The local authorities are thus taking the correct approach by better employing existing green and open spaces for exercise purposes in such a way that this does not dislodge other users. But the problem begins with the question of how to plan these spaces. Just doing something for the sake of it, however well meant, will not necessarily result in the desired outcome. There are many less successful examples out there that show that it can actually be asked, for example: what exactly is the purpose of providing exercise equipment? The matter should be considered from a professional point of view and a decision should be made as to what equipment is appropriate and suitable for each venue and who is to be responsible for its long-term upkeep.
P@L: Are there public exercise facilities that you would consider to be a success?
Robin Kähler: Yes, of course there are many successful examples. I’ll list the most important criteria that I think determine whether a facility works or not. It needs to be stimulating so that it represents a challenge for users. It must be versatile so that users can develop their own exercise concepts there and are not simply restricted to carrying out the movements and exercises that have been predefined by the constructors. It must be tidy, clean and safe (with lighting if appropriate) and there must be toilets in the immediate vicinity. It is a good idea if some form of supervision is provided in the case of larger facilities. Finally, all good facilities have a positive atmosphere so that people feel comfortable and enjoy spending time there. Required for this are not just exciting exercise options but also opportunities to meet and interact with other people or places where you can withdraw; there should be shade, nature, grass etc.; there is no simple recipe for success ‒ each facility should have its own character and should be right for the local residents. This is something that is all too often ignored so that, wherever you go in Germany, you always encounter the same facility. Those who will be using the equipment are hardly ever asked what they want.
P@L: Local authorities often tell me that they have constructed an exercise park but nobody ever uses it. Why would that be? What sort of mistakes might they have made?
Steffen Strasser: An exercise park that will continue to be popular over the long term must first be systematically planned. You need to decide what exactly it is you want to achieve. It is often the case that the objective is too diffusely and incoherently defined. To my mind, there are three aspects that are important if you wish to ensure that a facility will actually be used continuously:
1. A detailed location study
2. A clear definition of the target group and thus provision of suitable equipment and options in an appropriate combination
3. Cooperation with local institutions (sports associations, physiotherapists, sports authorities etc.)
If these three core factors are not taken into account, there is the risk that any project will end in failure.
P@L: A question for both of you: Isn't it unrealistic to believe that you can get all generations exercising together in the fresh air? Don't peer groups prefer to remain among themselves? And don’t people prefer to be screened from others in a 'private environment', such as a fitness studio?
Steffen Strasser: I think it is next to impossible to create a public facility at which all age groups will be able to exercise or amuse themselves in a way that is fulfilling for all of them; the belief that you can actually do this is a delusion. The needs of different age groups can in some instances even be diametrically opposed. It is and will remain the task of architects and planners to create venues and their features so that these are suitable for the defined target group. So, for example, the mere integration of a children's playground in an exercise park designed for seniors will not necessarily achieve the intended purpose.
Robin Kähler: Both are correct and experience shows this is the case. People are no longer willing to be dictated to; they like to meet with others and at other times they like to be alone, depending on the situation and how they feel. Games, sport and exercise are the best means of achieving this. It is thus important for the local authorities and equipment manufacturers to know what the everyday lives and wishes of those living in a local community and what the effects of individual exercise options are. Facilities that have been created with the best of intentions are all too often rejected by potential users because in their minds they might fail to provide for sufficient social interaction or be seen as possible sites where they could encounter conflict.
P@L: Do you think that the exercise facilities created specifically for senior citizens are really consistent with the demands of the intended users? After all, how many elderly persons actually want to undertake physical activities? And that in the full view of the public gaze? Should we not see the future of public exercise spaces in terms of younger users who want to do things like callisthenics and freelethics?
Robin Kähler: I am quite sure that the design of tomorrow's exercise and fitness equipment will be made more appropriate for particular target groups. This will be unavoidable in view of the fact that the exercise needs of people, their subjective approach to exercise and their health problems differ widely from individual to individual and are influenced by factors such as physical capacity, culture and environment; there are actually no forms of equipment currently available in public that can be correctly used by everyone and will benefit them to the same extent. Athletes want equipment that they can use to improve their fitness and their stamina. Older people, on the other hand, have a different physical make-up and have less capacity and flexibility than younger people. Although we can assume that in future there will be more elderly people than at present who want to take physical exercise, it will still be necessary to increase the diversity of equipment on offer. I thus expect that future exercise parks will contain a far wider range of equipment and exercise options.
Steffen Strasser: I fully agree with Professor Kähler here. The future will require planning of facilities for specific target groups. Whereby I'd like to add that, in my view, it is not appropriate to design public spaces that are reserved for senior citizens only ‒ for one thing, what exactly is a senior citizen? I can see no sense in defining a target group in terms of just their age. You can do this in the case of children up to a certain age but experience shows that such an approach is not necessarily suitable when it comes to adults. Here you need to consider aspects such as motivation, needs and abilities. Abilities are determined to a certain extent by age, but not by age alone.
P@L: Is it a good idea to construct outdoor fitness parks next to children's playgrounds? Would it not be better to separate exercise and play areas instead of creating such 'multigenerational playgrounds'?
Robin Kähler: In Germany, we currently have safety standard DIN 79000 that provides guidelines on the siting of playgrounds next to other facilities. But I am a great believer in integrated exercise space concepts because they promote the installation of a larger selection of options and equipment and the interaction of people of different generations ‒ in contrast with spaces designed for use by a single age group. In practice, it must be said, the latter are not usually used solely by the target group. But those spaces designed specifically for sports and athletics should, I think, be kept separate from playgrounds. By the way, I find the terms we use for multigenerational facilities in German ‒ 'Mehrgenerationen-Spielplatz/-Areal/-Park' ugly. It's typical. Why can't we Germans come up with more congenial and enticing descriptions when it comes to designating places used for the pleasant, life-enhancing activity of exercise?
P@L: The weather can be unreliable all year round in many parts of Germany. When it's cold, or windy or raining, open air facilities are hardly used. And many people will also be put off using them when they consider it is too hot to exercise outdoors. Is there any point in constructing facilities such as this if the weather is going to be unsuitable on about 270 days out of every 365?
Steffen Strasser: Well, in my experience, that is not the case. I have witnessed groups of pensioners exercising outdoors under the supervision of a trainer while there was snow on the ground and athletes exercising in groups in drizzle and sub-zero temperatures ‒ now, while this may not be the rule, it certainly happens. 'There's no such thing as bad weather, only unsuitable clothing', as the saying goes.
P@L: Exercise facilities differ greatly. What features do you think are appropriate? What features would it be better to do without? Is there anything that is completely worthless?
Robin Kähler: I can't give a generalised answer here; every facility stands alone and should be assessed on the basis of whether it achieves what it was intended to do. There are many stimulating exercise options designed to encourage jumping, hopping, balancing, swinging, rocking, rolling, climbing and ball games and they are very popular. At the same time, however, I wish a bit more imagination would be used when designing equipment. As far as I am concerned, fitness equipment installed in public spaces has the primary purpose of being used to maintain physical fitness. This specialised type of equipment can only be used properly by appropriately trained individuals. People who are inexperienced or do not regularly take exercise ‒ and that is the majority ‒ need supervision when on such equipment otherwise they can easily injure themselves. Information boards are not enough ‒ inexperienced individuals simply have too little body awareness.
Steffen Strasser: Completely worthless in my view is outdoor fitness equipment originally designed for adults that has been reduced in size to make it appropriate for children. I have repeatedly encountered such devices and I think this is not the way that designers should be going. Children have a completely different natural and informal approach to taking exercise; you can't simply transpose elements from the adult world to cater for this.
What I see as successful are those elements and concepts that are popular and frequently used. When it comes down to it, if something is continuously in use, then it must be considered a success.
P@L: Who should be consulted prior to the construction of a public exercise facility? What stakeholder groups and associations need to be approached? How can it be determined whether such a facility is really what is wanted?
Robin Kähler: It is first necessary to take a professional approach to identifying whether the need is there. Exercise facilities ‒ depending on what their purpose is ‒ should only be designed and realised by suitably qualified persons, such as games and sport educators, physiotherapists, orthopaedists, exercise space planners, social workers, sports associations etc. in collaboration with landscape architects and urban planners. Although public consultation processes are desirable and are considered a political necessity, the members of the public participating will always need to be tutored in the specialised aspects of exercise and sport. This is because their wants with regard to equipment can only be based on what they know. The most important thing during the planning phase is to always keep the needs of people in mind and their exercise-related capacities, problems and wishes: predefined concepts with regard to forms of exercise and options need to be put to one side.
Steffen Strasser: We recommend involving locally-based sports groups. They generally know about exercise and are familiar with the local circumstances and requirements. It is also a good idea to look at as many reference concepts as possible that have been realised and talk these through with the persons responsible at the local authority. This exchange of ideas among operators will prevent the risk of misconceived planning and project failure.
P@L: What will outdoor fitness parks look like in ten years' time? Will they be rusting and abandoned derelict sites on the fringes of urban parks? Or widely popular, frequently used facilities that, like playgrounds, will be present in every local community?
Robin Kähler: After the 'Trimm-Dich' fitness trail craze of the 1970s, we are now seeing the construction of a second generation of such concepts in the form of exercise parks. But let me look further into the future. Developments will take very different directions in Germany. In rural areas where there is still a lot of green space and wooded areas, exercise facilities will be of secondary importance because people living there will have sufficient options to take exercise.
But in urban environments and large cities, we will see the growth of increasing numbers of centrally located, health-promoting attractive open spaces in public areas. These maintained and supervised facilities, that might well be financed and supported by health insurance organisations, will be open all day and will be provided with IT-controlled fitness and exercise equipment. We will also see the construction of 'green arteries' in built-up areas. These will take the form of pathways that can serve as jogging, cycle and skateboard tracks that link small islands with gymnastic equipment. With the growth of electric transport and the concomitant reduction in pollution, the streets will again become a popular venue where people can take exercise. There will also be an increase in the technologically-controlled mobility of exercise equipment.
Steffen Strasser: I'm not quite in agreement with Professor Kähler's prognosis. I'm sure his predictions with regard to urban spaces will prove accurate. But I can't agree with him when it comes to rural areas. We also need to make these more attractive; a deliberate strategy to ensure they can compete with cities. Upgrading and enhancement of public spaces here is just as important and the construction of exercise parks can help achieve this.
P@L: What sort of exercise do you take? How do you keep fit?
Robin Kähler: I swim, I cycle, I play tennis and I do gymnastics.
Steffen Strasser: I use exercise parks and I quite enjoy jogging. If the weather is amenable and my destination is not too far, I use my bicycle to get about.
P@L: Then it’s likely all three of us will meet again keeping fit in the exercise park in Nuremberg during the GaLaBau Fair! …
The interviewer on behalf of Playground@Landscape was Thomas R. Müller. The interview was based on a round table discussion that formed part of the Bewegungsplan seminar held in Fulda on 12 April 2016 (www.bewegungsplan.org). Participants: Steffen Strasser, Robin Kähler; presenter: Tobias Thierjung (Playground + Landscape Verlag GmbH).