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Public sport facilities - what does their future look like?

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© STEKLO_KRD / stock.adobe.com

Renovation backlogs, sustainability, climate change - there are many factors today that impinge on public sport facilities. As for their future, there are certain elements that are already playing a role and will become even more relevant tomorrow. Here, the emphasis is on the routes that sport, society and the world in which we live will be taking. In order to have an effective future strategy, it is essential to take as many of these aspects into account as possible - and at least analyse their potential impacts.

 

Stalled upgrading - how to promote a sport-friendly infrastructure

"Germany has been demoted from the premier league to a non-league team when it comes to the construction of sport facilities," complained Christian Siegel of the German Olympic Sports Confederation in 2019. And it is indeed the case that the sport infrastructure in Germany is in many locations exhibiting the effects of long neglect and requires major renovation and upgrading. It is estimated that some 70% of sport facilities in this country are run by local authorities; most of the others are owned by clubs. Both groups are responsible for the failure to undertake refurbishment work, although the focus tends to be on the local authorities because they are responsible for the majority of the facilities. It is clear that this problem can only be resolved by the provision of sufficient financial means over a longer period. Various stakeholders need to become active if the required funding for the necessary measures is to be found. Minister of the Interior Horst Seehofer recently put forward a 'Golden Plan', thus generating the prospect that the federal government will make billions available for this purpose. To date, the states and local authorities have themselves borne the responsibility for the maintenance of their public facilities. And, although there are now public sector funding programmes within the various states and the financial situation has improved in many places in recent years, it is still the poor financial standing of local authorities that is all too frequently the obstacle preventing the modernisation of sport infrastructure. Money provided by the federal government would certainly improve the situation; discussions on this topic - so the politicians claim - will be initiated soon. This is to be welcomed as the backlog of facilities requiring upgrading is growing daily.

 Should the 'Golden Plan' be revised, it would be essential to bear in mind that not just construction of new facilities, their renovation and modernisation are required. The inferior status of sport infrastructure is also attributable to lack of maintenance and lack of respect for facilities on the part of users. Any new comprehensive support strategy thus needs to cover the costs of maintenance and upkeep while the users of public sport facilities should also be to some extent involved in these processes. And those clubs that are often able to use facilities free of charge could also be made actively responsible for their upkeep. There are many situations in which this approach is already being taken. Another way to get around the problem of lack of updating of public sport facilities would be to more extensively privatise them. But to make a concept like this generally acceptable, it would be necessary for sport, politics and business to put the appropriate fundamentals in place 

 

Sport of the future for a society of the future

Even if it may seem that much is undergoing very rapid transformation, it is in fact the case that the various sports disciplines are not changing as quickly as might be supposed. Although opportunities for sport and the number of types of sport available are continually growing, the most popular forms of organised sport have remained largely the same for decades. As it is the case that most newly conceived forms of sport never completely disappear again, we now have a vast range of sport and exercise options available. As the numbers of those practising sports is not growing rapidly but gradually - if at all - and there is a much greater range of choice of activities, many sports clubs are lamenting the fact they are finding it difficult to gain new recruits. Here, demographic change is playing a role. In our society, fewer births are being registered every year, which means even if every individual of each succeeding generation were to join a sports club, the number of members would fall over time anyway. Of course, we are still nowhere near a situation in which most of the population are members of a sports club. There are justified worries about the failure to take physical exercise and the possible consequences of this. But one thing is clear: our society is growing older and the sport and exercise options on offer need to be adapted to this fact. The concept of a sport infrastructure catering to the needs of persons aged 5 - 35 years is no longer appropriate to the times as this group constitutes an increasingly smaller proportion of the population. The provision of dance classes, fitness facilities and gymnastics for senior citizens are not enough to compensate. Clubs will no longer find their new recruits among the ranks of the young but among those making up the older generations. It is undoubtedly difficult to adapt to these changes but both clubs and operators of public sport facilities will need to do so. One possibility would be develop sport options suitable for older active persons at established sports facilities. There are examples of mainstream sports that have been adapted to the capacity of older people. Walking football, in which there is no running and body contact, is increasing in popularity. And to accommodate the older generations, sport facilities need to be become more barrier-free and inclusive. The infrastructure also needs to be improved - sanitary installations and seating are just two such aspects that need to be taken into account. It is to be expected that the already mentioned diversity of sports and exercise options will increase to complement demographic changes. This is the time for measures and plans to be developed that will take such changes into consideration. An important objective of our society should be to ensure that everyone has the opportunity to indulge in sport and exercise

 

The relevance of sustainability and climate change is growing

Nowadays, there is no avoiding the topics of 'sustainability' and 'climate change'; the active involvement of the younger generation in this connection in particular has placed the awareness of these aspects in the forefront. The corresponding problems have long ago started to impact on sport facility planning and construction. The release of microplastics needs to be avoided, environmentally-compatible disposal of waste materials is enforced while everyone is encouraged to reduce their carbon footprint. At the same time, sport facilities must be long lasting and not have negative effects on the environment. The expression of concerns about the use of artificial granules and artificial turf show just how sensitive the public is to this aspect and how important appropriate studies and proper handling of these materials are. Of course, it should not be assumed that the world of sport is failing to meet environmental targets as in the case of other commercial sectors that have a different political standing, but sport infrastructure has the opportunity here to set a good example with regard to its environmental-friendliness and promotion of sustainability. It is important in this context that those who play sports and sports clubs are not made subject to overhasty legislation from the top that dictates to them overstringent regulations they need to comply with - they need to be encouraged to collaborate in plans to make sport facilities as eco-friendly and climate-conscious as possible. The consequence is that not only sports clubs and facility planners need to deal with aspects of environmental protection but  environmental organisations and policy-makers also need to be aware of the features required by sport facilities. Only if both sides are well informed can appropriate discussions take place and sustainable measures be implemented.

Climate change represents a further problem in this connection when it comes to the planning and upkeep of public sport facilities. The record temperatures in summer 2019 placed considerable strains on humans, the environment and the infrastructure. In addition, drought is becoming more common as are extremes of weather and there is greater exposure to higher levels of solar radiation. As result, sport and exercise outdoors will in future be subject to increasing limitations. This is something that in future will also need to be taken into account in the planning of sport facilities. What needs to be found is the best way to protect those involved in sport activities so that they can continue as usual despite greater exposure to sun and bad weather. Required are modifications to architecture, materials employed and the infrastructure. Although interpretations of the prognoses for climate change differ widely, the weather situation of recent years surely indicates the beginning of a trend that needs to be reacted to now. To ensure that the playing of sports will not in 20 years time be restricted to air-conditioned interior areas, measures must be initiated without delay that will provide for exercise opportunities out of doors.

The three challenges outlined above are not of course all the problems that public sport facilities face today and will need to confront tomorrow. Inner city densification, the protection of resources, safety factors, provisions for high-performance sports and the allocation of utilisation periods are also important themes in this respect. It will not be possible to change everything all at once, so it is all the more important to gain an overview and decide what can be undertaken at the local level and what will have to be referred to higher up. But all stakeholders need to be aware that a radical rethink will be necessary in many areas.

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