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15.04.2021 - Ausgabe: 2/2021

Sport in the park – exercise opportunities for recreational athletes

© Play-Parc Allwetter-Freizeitanlagenbau GmbH

Parks and green spaces have been among the most popular leisure and recreational facilities in cities and municipalities for more than 200 years. The idea of bringing nature and landscape into the usually densely populated urban areas has produced a large variety of parks worldwide.  They are often referred to as the “green lungs” of cities - a function dating back to the times of coal-fired heating and industrialisation, but one that is still maintained to this day. Regardless of whether they are small green spaces or large landscape parks, they are all of great significance to the urban population. They are meeting places, leisure areas, recreation areas, venues – and also sports and exercise areas. Even though parks were originally intended to be places where nature could be observed, nowadays it is possible to do sports, play and exercise there in many designated areas.

Doing sports in the park is not a recent phenomenon. Friedrich Ludwig Jahn, the famous “father of gymnastics”, opened the first open-air gymnasium in Prussia on 19 June 1811 in Berlin’s Hasenheide Park, which is still used today as a public park (“Volkspark Hasenheide”).  Although the German “father of gymnastics” did not necessarily have sports as such in mind, but rather pursued nationalistic and paramilitary purposes with his gymnastics movement, gymnastics and fitness training have remained primarily as his legacy. The first football match on German soil also took place in 1874 on a meadow in Braunschweig, the “small parade ground”, as it was called. Of course, designated sports areas such as stadiums only came into being once the respective sports movements became bigger; a lot of things started on public green spaces. 

However, society and culture have changed over time. Although outdoor sports and exercise have been quite common since the late 19th century, sports in parks have been very much restricted in many places for a long time and are still today in some places.  Many people are all too familiar with signs such as “Keep off the grass”. However, today’s urban parks and green spaces must serve multiple functions, providing both natural and botanical areas for contemplation, as well as green spaces for sports and recreation. It should, however, be noted that a regularly mown green lawn has almost nothing to do with nature. The question is: what is the point if you have to keep off the grass. Therefore, in the future, wildflower meadows will probably be created instead, benefiting nature and biodiversity. These should of course be protected and still provide opportunities to observe and connect with nature.


Open green spaces as important leisure and exercise areas 

However, areas for leisure, play, sports and exercise are also important elements of any park and green space. These include, on the one hand, simple but well-maintained green spaces that the park users can use as they please, as long as they do not cause lasting damage and remove their waste. Be it ball games or badminton, picnics or sunbathing, yoga or jugger – everyone is allowed to let off steam or relax there, as long as they show consideration for others.  Open exercise areas are essential for a large number of individual athletes as well as for many city dwellers seeking relaxation and inner balance to offset their daily stress.

A few years ago, the “Sport in the Park” project was launched, which has so far been implemented by numerous German municipalities. It offers non-binding and free exercise opportunities in public green spaces or other public places. For example, yoga, Zumba, Tai Chi or gymnastics. Anyone who wants to can take part – registration or club membership is not required.

When the project was launched in 2016, for example, seven federations received funding for seven schemes from the Sports Federation of North Rhine-Westphalia. The success of these “pilot” events led to applications for 16 schemes being submitted by 16 federations in 2017. In 2018, as many as 25 city and district sports federations in North Rhine-Westphalia offered “Sport in the Park” in a total of 33 municipalities. The interest as well as the variety of “Sport in the Park” offers have also increased in the following years – and the upward trend continues. These sports programmes have also been successfully implemented in cities such as Stuttgart and Munich (Fit in Park). The pioneer for these outdoor sporting activities is probably China, where many people have been practicing such forms of sport in the often huge metropolises for many years. Of course, the coronavirus pandemic has slowed down the development a little in this country, but it can be assumed that the programmes will be resumed and used a lot in the future.


Sports areas for everyone  

In addition to green spaces as multifunctional leisure and sports areas, permanently installed sports and exercise areas are key elements of a modern park. There should be diverse and challenging playgrounds as well as sports facilities for various recreational athletes. 

For recreational team or group sports, these naturally include, for instance, mini football pitches, basketball courts or disc golf courses.  Skate parks and pump tracks are ideal facilities for roller or wheeled sports athletes to burn off their energy. For individual recreational athletes, it is important to have fitness areas that appeal to both experienced active athletes and the casual exerciser. In addition to calisthenics facilities or the modern obstacle course – a kind of Ninja Warrior facility, but with different levels of difficulty – classic fitness trails are, of course, a good way to provide many active people with individual sporting opportunities. It also possible to combine the above-mentioned options. Planning should take into account both younger and older users. A participatory process involving for instance, surveys of park users can help to install a suitable and widely accepted facility. Individual exercise stations can also be distributed across the entire park area, similar to the classic keep-fit trail, provided that the distances between them are not too long. However, diversity is the most important aspect of planning. Simple exercises, sit-ups, coordination exercises, push-ups, back workout exercises, leg exercises, slacklining, balance exercises, gymnastics and endurance equipment – there are numerous ways to ensure a varied and challenging design. When arranging equipment, the respective user group should also be taken into account. Many people who do calisthenics usually like to be watched and love to draw attention, while casual exercisers, especially older ones, prefer not to be seen directly. This should be taken into account when installing the equipment. The following applies to all sports areas in the park: instruction signs describing how to best use the equipment safely are obligatory, preferably with many visual graphics to convey important information to users who speak a foreign language.

For many people, physical activity in parks and green spaces has become an integral part of everyday life. This will increase even more in the future. Inner-city infill development in particular will further add to this significance, because many other exercise areas are steadily disappearing or being pushed further and further to the outskirts of the cities. For this reason, today’s parks and green spaces should provide sufficient opportunities to engage in sports and exercise so that they will remain popular places to spend time in urban space for the next 200 years.




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