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15.04.2021 - Ausgabe: 2/2021

Public spaces - health-promoting and future-proof? Exercise and sports before the Covid-19 pandemic

By Prof. Ulrike Böhm (bbzl - böhm benfer zahiri landschaften städtebau architektur)

© böhm benfer zahiri landschaften städtebau architektur

Before the Covid-19 pandemic, two opposing trends in physical activity, exercise and sports could be identified: 

The spectrum of individual sports-oriented activities in public open spaces has visibly grown - the variety and quantity of these new types of exercise has clearly increased.[1]  Unlike club sports, these initiatives are often organised spontaneously, 'bottom-up' and in loose groups: people arrange to do calisthenics, yoga or slacklining via social networks; the meeting place is the nearby park. The joint activities are recorded in selfies and communicated by the same networks. City parks and green corridors are the main areas used for this, i.e. public open spaces, which are often in short supply anyway and have to cope with additional burdens. In the medium term, the relationship between open spaces and designated areas will thus shift. Instead of an open and generous impression, the areas are 'segmented' into a patchwork area of specific recreational offers for selected user groups. However, the segmentation is often implemented without consideration of the existing design and without the landscape architect who originally planned this area.

This visible increase in individually practised sports contrasts with the development showing that a large part of the population does not exercise enough: according to a 2018 study by the German Health Insurance Fund (DKV), only 43% of German citizens follow the recommendation for minimum daily activity - they practise sports for more than 30 minutes a day. [2]    Things don't look much better for children and adolescents: "According to KiGGS wave 2 (2014-2017), only 26% of them in Germany are still physically active for at least 60 minutes a day, thus reaching the minimum recommendation of the WHO." Since the last survey (2009-2012), the proportion of young people who are less physically active has increased significantly.[3]  Hence this development has increased in both directions since the beginning of the pandemic.


Free spaces in the “lockdown"

In the first lockdown from March 2020, parks and squares replaced the closed gyms, the sports halls and courts and thus compensated for the inactive clubs. Conceived mainly as places to relax and stay, parks and squares thus also accommodated all those uses for which otherwise specialised areas are actually available. According to initial estimates, the number of additional uses is currently at 30 per cent. This rush was reflected in a lack of space and crowding, as well as in strong signs of wear and tear. As a result, some urban open spaces reached their breaking point. In Berlin Friedrichshain, the Boxhagener Platz had to be cleared and closed at Easter 2020 due to overcrowding. With about 150 people, the spacing rules could no longer be observed in this area.

This is now repeated in the second lockdown since October 2020. Outdoor sports as the only way to keep fit again leads to high usage pressure: on the park paths, walkers, joggers and cyclists have to avoid each other, the calisthenics stations are always busy, corona-wise pairs try to motivate each other in 'fitness tandems', playgrounds are full with parents and children etc.... As a result, it is difficult to maintain the required social distance in such places. The existing path frames are often too narrow, and there is no shelter when the weather breaks. The available seating is also quickly occupied. In the meantime, even generously sized parks such as Berlin's Tiergarten, the baroque hunting green of the Hohenzollerns or the Tempelhofer Feld are often overcrowded.

At the same time, there will be a cross-generational increase in the groups of people who are now even less able to provide enough exercise in their daily lives: adults who no longer find time for sports in the additional stress between jobs and childcare; older people whose fixed sports groups in the protected space of the gym drop out without a replacement; young people and children who can no longer play in their teams at the club and whose motivation to leave the seat in front of the screen at home is dwindling. Their daily 'activity' often seamlessly transitions from homeschooling to 'Netflixing'. As a result, the number of those who do not exercise enough according to the recommendations will also increase.

So what to do? Reposition

It will not be that easy to build significantly more sports and exercise facilities in our parks, to widen the paths, to enlarge the playgrounds and - even more important - to provide an as low-threshold 'participation offer' as possible: Even before Covid-19, the inner-city parks and squares were subject to heavy usage pressure (see above), i.e. actually integrating these measures without enlarging or creating new open spaces is out of the question. Hence, a new design concept is necessary.

We are constantly rebuilding our cities and adapting them to changing conditions - currently these are requirements from the fields of health care and environmental quality, among others. Our squares and parks take on important balancing functions. Programmes for modern urban redevelopment will have to start here.
 Health care and protection against harmful environmental influences have been among the most important motives for urban development and open space planning since the beginning of the 20th century. The Volkspark movement, Erwin Barth's Berlin squares and Martin Wagner's plans are just a few examples. In this context, a fixed repertoire of open space types and programmes has been developed over decades. When taking current changes into account, it is necessary to examine how this canon can be expanded and updated. However, there is a number of starting points which have been identified:


1. Activate existing places 

Use transport infrastructures


It is pleasing to see that movement-oriented activities allow to newly discover or rediscover open spaces and to tap their existing potential. This also includes areas which at first sight seem less attractive, such as transport infrastructures or industrial wasteland. Under motorway bridges, for example, there is space for the 'I5 Colonnade Bike Park' in Seattle, the 'Underpass Park' in Toronto or the 'Family Park under the Zoobrücke' in Cologne. Stimulated by individual appropriation, the commitment of civic actors or also by planning authorities, these places are now used as open space and upgraded at an overall level. This type of open space also includes converted railway lines, such as the popular Highline in New York.

Less well known is the 'I5 Colonnade Bike Park' in Seattle initiated by a group of mountain bikers. They discovered the fallow space under the Interstate 5 motorway bridge - an inhospitable place avoided by the residents of the surrounding neighbourhoods. Independently and without permission, the bikers adapted the space to their requirements and sports use. The public perception and connotation of the site changed with the use and revitalisation of the area. It is now also used by local residents and neighbours as an excursion destination. As a result, further upgrading measures are being initiated that will improve the quality of the open space and thus further expand the spectrum of users. 


Temporary reuse of wide roads and urban motorways 

The Minhocão ('Worm' - actually 'Via Elevada Presidente João Goulart' - is a 3.4 km long elevated road in São Paulo, Brazil. It was built between 1969-1970 to relieve São Paulo's city centre from motorised traffic. The four-lane elevated road runs at different levels on an existing, formerly prestigious boulevard through a dense inner-city neighbourhood and is used by about 78,000 vehicles every day. Due to the use of the existing road space, the route runs in places with only a very small distance in front of windows and facades. Accordingly, the elevated road has been closed to traffic on Sundays and public holidays since 1976 due to the heavy emission loads. Since the 1990s, traffic has also been prohibited during the week between 21:00 and 06:30.
 Once the 3.4 km viaduct is closed to traffic, it is transformed into a place for leisure, exercise and sport. However, there are no specifications for its use. The appropriation is correspondingly diverse. The four-lane roadway runs without interruption through its entire length and, with its smooth, seamless flooring, motivates above all to do sports that involve linear movement - whether on foot or on rollers. The topography of the roadway, such as the gentle ups and downs, provides the relevant energy and speed. In addition, many events take place there, such as plays performed at the windows of the neighbouring buildings for spectators on the street as well as dance evenings, photo shoots or the mobile sale of drinks and snacks. 

The Minhocão shows that temporarily closing and repurposing wide streets or urban highways offers a lot of potential and is a sensible and at the same time very cost-effective intervention. Moreover, this kind of repurposing can also trigger a reflection about our forms of mobility. However, it is also clear that the only temporary opening reduces the creation of better amenity qualities regarding seating areas, shade or vegetation.



2. Develop new open space potential

Buildings with urban movement spaces on the roof


Building uses can be combined with public spaces and offers for play and sports use. A good example of this is the 'Scolen y Sydhavnen' in Copenhagen - a five-storey school with a heavily terraced public roof that can be used as a schoolyard, playground and recreation area. The neighbourhood garage 'Park 'n' Play' in a harbour conversion area in Copenhagen, which also has a very attractive roof playground and green facades that promote physical activity, has already been published more frequently in Germany. Both buildings mark the centre of the neighbourhood. 


Mixed-use buildings

A special potential lies in the mixed-use, hybrid buildings: all of the following examples take on the role of centre formation in the respective neighbourhoods - such as 'SESC 24 de Maio' in Sao Paulo, the 'Sports and Cultural Centre St. Blaise' in Paris and the 'Streetmekka' in Viborg. With their low-threshold and publicly usable mix of sporting, social and cultural offers, they are a destination and contact point for many different social and age groups. As the different uses are usually realised at the same time, the attractiveness, density of offers and visitors increase: the 'SESC 24 de Maio', for example, attracted around 10,000 people every day before the pandemic. 

At the same time, the buildings are organised in a very compact way, both indoors and outdoors, and require very little space in comparison due to the stacking of the different uses. This is certainly a great opportunity to establish such facilities even in densely populated city centres.


Conversion of sports grounds 

Standardised inner-city sports facilities represent a large resource of space. Their conversion into multi-use open spaces with an extended range of exercise and recreation facilities as well as an opening for non-club sports seems obvious. 

It should be noted that around 230,000 sports facilities in Germany are in need of renovation or refurbishment. [4] The German Federal Ministry of the Interior (BMI) is providing around 110 million euros for this purpose. So there is a great opportunity here to react to current requirements by reinterpreting the facilities and at the same time to better integrate them into the fabric of urban open spaces. Unfortunately, the BMI funds have so far not been linked to the implementation of such overarching open space planning goals.

In contrast, an example from Mexico shows the opportunities that lie in a more open approach to the redevelopment of sports facilities: The football pitch 'La Doce' is located in Valle de Chalco, a poorer neighbourhood on the outskirts of Mexico City. Due to its inconvenient location in a dead-end street as well as its neglected condition, the place was considered very dangerous, especially in the evening, and was avoided despite the lack of public open spaces. After the redesign, the square now opens up to the neighbourhood with a new public pathway. Along the path, next to the football field, further new recreational areas have been created: A pavilion houses administrative and sanitary rooms, a boxing area and a large multi-purpose room. Workshops, courses and events are organised here all day. In the meantime, the place is used by the whole neighbourhood and is highly appreciated as a public meeting place for all generations. However, the higher frequency of use contributes to better social control and safety.
 This collaborative project is a good example of how a new community open space and social centre can be created beyond the sports facilities. The project is supported by 'love. fútbol', a non-profit organisation that works to restore derelict football pitches and thus create links for public sports and open space use.


Sports facilities that motivate people to exercise without great effort  

This brings up another issue: The standardised design of sports facilities often does not seem very inviting to people with movement deficits: DIN-compliant sports fields with typical ball catching fences, equipment and line markings immediately make the idea of sports competition clear. However, these are not the best conditions to start with physical activities and to overcome one's own insecurities or expected inadequacies. 

On the other hand, it has been shown that courts and facilities are particularly stimulating for exercise and sports, some of which deviate significantly from the standardised design: These can be brightly graphic colour designs of walls and sports surfaces, which sometimes completely contradict the actual use of ball games. Very popular and highly frequented are, for example, the colourful basketball court 'Pigalle Duperré' in Paris or the round basketball court on 'Israels Plads' in Copenhagen. In addition, typical dimensions and court layouts, such as tennis courts that are too small or basketball hoops that are too low, encourage people to play creatively and in different ways on the spaces available: 'basketball football' or 'tennis football' are played, for example, at the 'Stadium Charlemange' in Paris. It seems that the more ambiguous or alienated the sports and movement offers are, the more likely people will feel attracted to them for whom movement and sports in open spaces are not - or not yet - routine. The upcoming renovations of our sports facilities could make an important contribution here with appropriate reinterpretations.


3. New creation of open spaces 

When creating new open spaces, there is an opportunity to consider the need for urban fitness spaces as early as the design stage starts. Multifunctional plazas such as the highly frequented 'Israels Plads' in Copenhagen and the 'Landhausplatz' in Innsbruck are well suited to do so. However, the question is still how this can be convincingly integrated into the design of green open spaces. The difficulties described above, include the relationship between areas that are open to use and those that are intended for a specific purpose, and the preservation of a generous landscape impression characterised by vegetation.

4. City-wide concepts

In some cities this issue has been recognised as a field of action at the urban planning level: The city of Hamburg has been advertising with the label 'Global Active City' since 2018. The designation identifies offers for an active and health-conscious lifestyle. It is certified by the 'Active Well-being Initiative'. Cities that want to call themselves 'Global Active City', like Hamburg, must successfully undergo an independent, detailed review of their sports and physical activity strategies.

The city of Stuttgart is currently drawing up the 'Master Plan for Urban Movement Spaces' in order to compile concrete approaches to solutions. The focus is on two goals: guidelines for the design of urban spaces that support 'everyday movement' and urban movement opportunities and, in the medium term, a gradual enrichment of the fabric of public spaces. The measures are to be implemented across all departments. The basis for this is an extensive citizen survey conducted in spring 2019, the commissioning of a planning team and the organisation of the specialist day 'Urban Movement Spaces' on 11.10.2019 in Stuttgart City Hall to create a joint information stand for all those involved. 



Cities and municipalities are key actors at the interface of open space, health and sports. They usually have a differentiated portfolio of open spaces. In addition, they can identify upcoming developments at an early stage and control their implementation in terms of planning and licensing. However, there are a number of obstacles in this process, which must be taken into account. In addition to a lack of resources in the administration, there are some isolated-acting departments and offices involved, such as the urban planning, green spaces, transport, sports and health departments. On the one hand, the relevant interdepartmental cooperation is of great importance. On the other hand, those involved often lack practice, so that a phase of joint 'attunement' becomes necessary. Without this cooperation, however, the project initiatives often result in 'isolated' and 'hemmed-in' places, hence a patchwork of individual projects.
If cities and municipalities succeed in embedding areas for exercise and sports in an overarching urban context and transporting them into comprehensive, networking master plans, a characteristic added value arises with the projects: beyond the target group, it is possible to address a broader urban public.



Municipal budgets are often insufficient for the maintenance and preservation of existing open spaces. The integration of new open space offers is therefore dependent on the activation of additional budgets and funding. In addition to questions of urban development and open space planning, the development goals described above also touch on neighbouring topics such as health care and sports and exercise culture. For such cross-cutting tasks, urban development funding should be supplemented with other suitable programmes. In the medium term, especially tailored funding programmes at state and federal level would also be helpful.

In addition, other actors also benefit from a good sports and open space infrastructure, especially the sports and leisure industry. Despite their comparatively large turnover, they hardly contribute to the financing of this infrastructure. According to the current position paper of the Advisory Council on Environment and Sports, the companies organised in the Federal Association of the German Sporting Goods Industry (Bundesverband der Deutschen Sportartikel-Industrie e.V.) generate an annual turnover of about 35 billion euros. [5]

The budgets for advertising and marketing are correspondingly high. In the meantime, they are partly invested in temporary, 'powerful' events in the urban context, e.g. for street soccer, skating conventions, etc., and urban locations are also used temporarily for this purpose. 

However, with the current turn to 'being outdoors' - forced by the pandemic or through our own conviction- in particular the sports and leisure industry should have an interest in a contemporary and future-oriented self-presentation in the future: this certainly includes a credible embodiment of the key themes of urbanity, locality, diversity and sustainability with the corresponding investments in public open spaces and sports facilities.

In conclusion - the green sector should seize the momentum: The value of public open spaces is currently more recognisable than ever - many more citizens are using them regularly with growing appreciation. It is also foreseeable that this trend will not reverse in the medium term. However, the limits of this development are also becoming apparent, i.e. all levels must react to the new usage requirements and burdens on public open spaces, parks and squares. The communication about this and the knowledge of how to do it is up to us.




Contact restrictions: Berlin’s Police closes Boxhagener Platz, berlin.de (28.03.20), retrieved 10.06.20

Empty city centres, fuller parks, Tagesschau.de (30.03.20), retrieved 10.06.20

How the virus is changing our everyday lives, ZEIT ONLINE (22.04.20), retrieved 10.06.2

Report of the German Health Insurance DKV 2018, fact sheet p. 3

Robert Koch Institute (RKI) AdiMon topic sheet Physical activity (07.2020)

https://de.statista. com/statistik/daten/studie/150745/ umfrage/


From grey to green - green infrastructure, by Ulrike Böhm, Cyrus Zahiri, Katja Benfer (eds.), published by Dorothea Rohn 2017

Urban move - urban spaces, by Ulrike Böhm, Cyrus Zahiri, Katja Benfer (eds.), published by Dorothea Rohn 2020 



Authors of mentioned project examples:

Israels Plads Copenhagen: Cobe Architects, Sweco Landscape Architects, Morten Straede Art

Landhausplatz Innsbruck: LAAC
 Pigalle Duperré Paris: Ill-Studio

Stadium Charlemange Paris: NP2F Architecture

La Doce Mexico City: all arquitectura

Game Streetmekka Viborg: Effect Architekts, Bogl Landscape Architects

Centre Culturel et Sportif Paris: Bruther Architects, Louis Choulet Landscape Architect
SESC 24 de Maio Sao Paulo: Paulo Mendes da Rocha with MMBB Architects
 Scolen y Sydhavnen Copenhagen: JJW Architects

Garage Park 'n' Play Copenhagen: JaJa Architects

Family Park under the Cologne bridge Zoobrücke: Lill + Sparla Landscape Architects



[1] According to the current position paper of the Advisory Council on Environment and Sport, the pressure on inner-city open spaces is increasing: "The increased orientation towards comfort, consumption and experience sustains an extensive range of goods and services. Demand and supply change in shorter cycles and force the development of new types of play. This increases the pressure to find suitable spaces even

more intensively - not only outside, but also within the cities. Inner-city parks and green spaces are often insufficiently dimensioned or unsuitable, uninteresting or simply too urbanised. Nevertheless, where it is possible, more and more "informal" sports spaces are being created on urban green and open spaces alongside standardised sports facilities." p. 8 

[2] Not even half of the respondents are still sufficiently physically active: the proportion reaching the minimum activity recommendations through physical activity during work, transport and during leisure time drops from 60 percent in 2010 to 43 percent in 2018. DKV Report 2018, fact sheet p. 3

[3]  According to KiGGS Wave 2 (2014-2017), "26 percent of adolescents achieve the WHO physical activity recommendation (at least 60 minutes of physical activity per day). With increasing age, the proportion of adolescents who reach the WHO physical activity recommendation decreases. 9 percent of adolescents are physically active less than two days per week for at least 60 minutes per day." From RKI AdiMon: Population-wide monitoring of obesity-relevant influencing factors in childhood and adolescence. 

 [4] According to the position paper of the BMU Advisory Council on Environment and Sport: "There are well over 230,000 sports facilities in Germany, the majority of which are in need of renovation and have a correspondingly high consumption of energy and resources. The Advisory Council "Environment and Sport" assumes a refurbishment and modernisation backlog in the double-digit billions." p. 12

[5] According to Statista 2018, the global turnover of manufacturers of sports equipment is around EUR 70 billion.



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