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The Urban Sports Park concept – how to turn niche sports into something that attracts a wide range of users
By Veith Kilberth, landskate GmbH
Fitness park, youth leisure park, multigenerational park, family park, sports park: more and more frequently, you come across various labels for park concepts that provide “free, open and outdoor” facilities for informal, self-organised sport. A closer look reveals that it is partly a potpourri of very different types of sports that are all offered together in one area. The types of spaces can often be divided into three categories: (1) sports areas that, in a modified form, offer the same activities as in a club, only self-organised (football / street football, basketball / streetball, volleyball / beach volleyball, etc.), (2) spaces for self-organised functional sports (cycling, fitness, jogging, etc.), and (3) spaces for urban sports (skate park, parkour, pump track, calisthenics, etc.). Not only skate parks, but also facilities for similar sports seem to be booming and are increasingly and largely conceptualised as urban sports parks in the above-mentioned park areas.
However, how can sports facilities for otherwise rather niche sports, such as skateboarding or BMX, cater to a wide range of users? In order to illustrate the potential of urban sports parks, some important aspects are highlighted below and explained taking the planning of one of the largest urban sports parks in Germany, the “Begegnungs- und Freizeitsportzentrum ‛Am Eisteich’” (Meeting and Leisure Sports Centre ‛Am Eisteich’) in Hof, as an example.
The term “urban sports” covers activities such as skateboarding, BMX bike riding, stunt scootering, inline skating, WCMX (wheelchair skating), and parkour under one umbrella term. Unlike the terms “trend sports”, “action sports”, “fun sports”, etc., “urban sports” underlines the reference to its urban origins and practising in an urban environment, which characterizes these types of sports as urban sports in the narrower sense.
Urban sports parks differ fundamentally from playgrounds and sports complexes in terms of practical use. While playgrounds in the densely populated city provide a protected space for playful physical education, especially for children to develop their motor skills, sports complexes are standardised functional spaces that mostly offer areas and facilities for sporting competition or functional sports. These physical activities follow certain ideals of exercise, are goal-oriented and geared to objective evaluation standards. Urban sports parks are, as far as possible, modelled on urban architectural elements and have been generally and specifically optimised to accommodate various urban sports. Apart from safety requirements, the design of these facilities is not subject to any standardisation, as they are (play) spaces for “creative performance”. Unlike sports complexes, their main focus is not on directly and objectively comparing athletic performances, but on demonstrating styles, mostly influenced by and rooted in subcultures, in the form of riding styles, tricks, and making your way through the terrain. Simply having fun and reveling in the joy of movement is more important than achieving an objectively assessable result. It is essential to understand that, from a socio-cultural point of view, urban sports parks are not training grounds for competitions in functional spaces. They are definitely an alternative to traditional sports in that these flow-like movements have a positive effect on the athletes themselves (on their bodies) and are presented to the outside through styles and tricks. What distinguishes urban sports from functional and competitive sport is above all the joy of individually engaging in these specific forms of exercise as an end in itself. This sets urban sports fundamentally apart from the rationale behind functional sports (fitness, jogging, etc.) or competitive sports. Be it with a skateboard, BMX bike, stunt scooter, inline skates, WCMX wheelchair or as a parkour practitioner - in the end it is always about making the most of the terrain, based on your own skills and individual style. The more leeway and flexibility allowed by the type of facility, the wider the range of creative uses possible, which reflects an increased cultural imprint that must be taken into account in the planning.
Under the title “Begegnungs- und Freizeitsportzentrum ‛Am Eisteich’”, the planning and consultancy firms Landskate from Cologne and seecon from Leipzig were commissioned to transform an area on the Saale River in need of redevelopment into an informal sports facility and a meeting place people of all ages. The landscape design provided for the renaturalisation of the ice pond, and the sports areas and pathways were to be integrated into a park concept as areas of high amenity value.
In a multi-stage participatory process involving all interested parties, user groups and organisations, the sports areas were identified and specifically planned. On the 13,500 m² site, areas were earmarked for a street skate park (1,300 m²), a skate bowl (300 m²), a BMX bowl (350 m²), a pump track (650 m²), a multi-use games area (450 m², synthetic rink for ice stock sport and streetball) and an outdoor fitness & calisthenics facility (140 m²).
In order to maximise the benefits of urban sports parks for the general public, the various facilities in Hof, on the one hand, have been thematically arranged to cater to the needs of a wide range of users. On the other hand, the planning of the individual areas took into account the three social criteria that are – or at least claim to be – met today in many places, especially as a key requirement for the planning of skate parks:
1. Many different user groups (diversity)
The urban sports facilities were designed to accommodate as many different urban sports as possible.
2. For all ages (intergenerationality)
The areas were designed according to the motto “for young and old alike“ as “safe” spaces, providing visual connections and opportunities to rest and relax right next to the sports areas.
3. From beginner to advanced (interperformativity)
Each facility has been designed to cater for different skill levels, making it suitable for beginners and recreational athletes as well as seasoned athletes.
Not only do the individual areas each feature smaller elements to provide low-threshold access and encourage users to take the first step on their fitness journey - even the equipment in the outdoor fitness & calisthenics facility was chosen to accommodate every skill and fitness level - but also the different facility types provide terrain structures that can be used with varying degrees of flexibility, in the sense of a genesis of movement. As a basic introduction to the world of urban sports, the two pump tracks - compact closed-loop tracks consisting of speed bumps (small hills or waves) and banked turns in relatively close succession – allow for an easy start, even for children on training bikes. The riders pump along the track to gain momentum by dynamically shifting their weight. What fascinates users is not so much the wide range of creative uses and the stylistic expression, as is the case with street skate parks, skateboard and BMX bowls, but rather the thrill and adrenaline rush they get as the speed increases. Users can first familiarise themselves with the terrain using sports equipment they are already familiar with, such as training bikes, BMX bikes or stunt scooters. After their first attempts at pumping and gaining momentum on the kids pump track, more advanced riders can move on to the large pump track, where they can perform their first jumps and experience seconds of weightlessness. The BMX bowl, in particular, allows wider jumps and takes riding to a whole new level, adding more and more stylistic expression and variance in the movements. Finally, the skateboard bowl and the multi-directional (multi-lines) street skate park provide a terrain structure that allows riders to perform a wide variety of stunts and tricks and express themselves and their individual styles.
Another distinctive feature of urban sports parks is that they are much more than just sports facilities. On average, people spend many hours there, and there are many places to sit and linger, making urban sports parks particularly vibrant places that encourage social interaction and have a high amenity value
All in all, the combination of different types of facilities in an urban sports park allows a wide range of users to have access to, learn about, and use niche sports on a large scale, provided that these three social aspects can be taken into account in the planning of the individual areas.
Kilberth, V., Mikmak, W. & Isbrecht, S. (2021). Urban Sports Anlagen-Konzept Stadt Köln. Köln: Amt für Kinder, Jugend und Familie (forthcoming).
Size: 13,500 m² total area
Planning and consultancy firms: Landskate, Cologne (sports areas) and seecon, Leipzig (landscaping)
Start of construction: July 2021
About the author:
Veith Kilberth is a former professional skateboarder and a graduate sports scientist. He holds a PhD from Europa-Universität Flensburg and is co-owner of Landskate GmbH, a Cologne-based company specialising in the planning, design and construction of skate parks, www.lndskt.de.
Mr. Kilberth is the author of the first scientifically based book on the design of skate parks: “Skateparks – Räume für Skateboarding zwischen Subkultur und Versportlichung” (Skate Parks - Spaces for Skateboarding between Subculture and Sportification), which has just been published by transcript.