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Exercise in public spaces – non-organised sport as a feature of sport development policies

Dr. Julia Thurn, Institut für Kooperative Planung und Sportentwicklung GbR


How many football pitches does a locality need? Do local authorities provide opportunities to motivate residents to take up sport and exercise? Not only the needs of schools and clubs should be taken into account in sport development policies; those of people indulging in sport and exercise as casual activities also need to be considered. Discussed in the following is the relevance of recreational sport and how this needs to be catered for in sport-related policies.

From representative surveys on the subjects of sport and exercise, we know that the physical activities that are most frequently undertaken by those aged 10 to 80 years are cycling, fitness training, jogging and swimming. The trends of social transformation, such as the greater stress on individualism, influence how sport-related activities are undertaken and organised. Publicly accessible spaces provide the venue for almost 50% of such activities. Sports clubs – the most important sports organisations in this connection – arrange some 19% of the relevant activities. To put it another way, it is apparent that exercise and sport are more frequently undertaken without formal organisation and that public spaces are the most popular venues for this purpose. A sport development policy needs to take the interests and needs of everyone who wants to be active into consideration. If sport and physical exercise are to be encouraged, non-organised activities cannot be ignored.

In Germany, 71% of the population undertake some form of exercise at least once a week. Recent studies show, however, that less than 50% of adult Germans take enough exercise while in the case of young people, the statistics are even more alarming – just 17% in this group engage in the recommended minimum level of physical activity! The guidelines in Germany (Rütten & Pfeiffer, 2016) indicate that children and young people should take moderate exercise for at least 90 minutes daily. To remain fit and healthy, adults need to undertake moderate exercise for at least 150 minutes per week. Physical inactivity is the most significant behaviour-related health risk factor – even before smoking and an unhealthy diet. Not only what individuals can do for their own health is relevant here; local authorities need to adopt policies through which they make sport and exercise amenities available that cater for the wants of those not involved in organised activities. Local authorities can create environments that support the corresponding activities and promote the health of their residents in public spaces – grassed areas, plazas, roads and thoroughfares.

Each project needs to be based on empirically established insights into the needs of those concerned, irrespective of whether these are involved in recreational activities, are club members or prefer an informal approach to exercise. Surveys are suitable instruments for determining behaviour (what activities are most popular and what venues are used) and the viewpoints and wishes of residents. The specific needs of those involved in informal activities can thus be spotlighted and appropriate measures introduced in future plans.

Another way of discovering what this group require is to go out into the various localities themselves – a technique derived from action space research. By focussing on target groups (such as children, older people, participants in organised runs), public consultation can be facilitated and the standpoints of residents identified. The public space (e.g. district, running track) used by each target group is reconnoitred and the group is interviewed with regard to positive and negative aspects, future potentials and proposals for changes.

In a cooperative planning process, representatives of the various interest groups can exchange ideas and form a network to formulate innovative and future-orientated concepts for the promotion of sport and exercise. Included should be representatives (e.g. public youth workers, handicapped persons, senior citizens) of those involved in informal exercise activities. Wide sections of the public – residents, potential users and interest groups outside sport clubs – can be reached by staging public consultation sessions (e.g. on locality planning, the interests of young people) and announcing these through the local media, poster actions and the groups themselves. In this way, the concerns, experiences and ideas of the informally active can also be included in the planning process and their needs catered for.

Focus group workshops with peer groups (e.g. representatives of young people, older people and fans of trend sports) will aid in pinpointing the specific requirements of target groups. In these focus groups, the situation and wishes of each group can be scrutinised and the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats concretized by means of SWOT analysis. The results for each target and focus group can then be summarised in a final workshop and recommendations for action by the local authority can be drawn up.

School playgrounds are another potential resource through which public spaces can be made more exercise-friendly. They can be designed so that, during school hours, pupils can use these as exercise, meeting, learning and adventure spaces. Making a playground publicly accessible when the school is out will provide an amenity, particularly in densely populated areas, where children and young people can meet and be physically active – a school playground will thus be transformed into a neighbourhood facility. When it comes to planning an exercise-friendly school playground (that is to be made accessible for the public) all parties involved in school life and the relevant authorities (e.g. green space and child welfare agencies) need to be consulted so that their interests and demands can be accommodated.

Conventional sports grounds are by definition sport- and exercise-friendly spaces but in many localities these are used by football clubs only. However, there are instances in which sports grounds have been modified to provide attractive exercise and sport opportunities not just for clubs but also for the recreationally active. The Jahnpark in Bad Hersfeld is one of the first such pilot projects in which a conventional sports ground was converted into a peri-urban leisure and sport centre in 2000. Participating in the collaborative planning process were various social groups and experts who together prepared a future-orientated concept suitable for all age groups providing for children's play, youth trend sports, school and club activities. The popularity of the amenity – it is visited by up to 2,000 users daily at weekends – demonstrate the efficacy of both the concept and its implementation and the Jahnpark pilot project has since been imitated throughout Germany. Similarly popular are the so-called ‘alla hopp!' exercise parks in the Rhine-Neckar region that have been designed as multigenerational exercise and meeting spaces.

Finally, a brief consideration of what is happening in Denmark in this connection. Here there are several good examples of ways in which informal exercise is provided for in indoor sports facilities. The Gyngemosehallen in Copenhagen provide space for training, gymnastics, fitness and dance activities. All holders of a membership card have access to the centre from 5.00 am to 12 midnight. Users are schools, clubs and those indulging in leisure activities and all are responsible for the maintenance of the facility and ensuring its proper use.


Rütten, A. & Pfeiffer, K. (2016). Nationale Empfehlungen für Bewegung und Bewegungsförderung. FAU, Erlangen-Nürnberg.

Image: ikps

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