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18.02.2022 - Ausgabe: 1/2022

Sport in the city – why providing more opportunities for physical activity will also benefit society as a whole

© playfit GmbH

For many people, sport and exercise are part of their everyday lives and key to a long and healthy life. However, many others tend to be sedentary, and the level of daily physical activity among children is also steadily decreasing. It is the constant state of change our world is in, especially technical progress, that is the cause of this problem. Yet this process is also affected by the prevailing circumstances and the way we coexist and interact with each other today. Since the lack of physical activity can also have an impact on the development of society as a whole, beyond the health consequences for the individual, it is important to take action against it. In order to encourage every single member of our society to exercise more, there should not only be a wide range of sporting activities on offer at private or club level, but also an environment close to people' homes that inspires and encourages them to engage in physical activity. This means that our cities and municipalities should be designed to be sports- and activity-friendly. 

If you look at the development of the mean daily physical activity of a member of our society on the basis of scientific data, you will find that these figures are constantly declining. This is not only a bad sign, but it also shows the benefits of our tremendous technical progress. Just 100 years ago, most people had jobs that involved long hours of hard physical labour.  It was hardly possible to do everyday things from home, technical devices, cars or public transport were a rarity – almost every little thing involved walking and physical effort. If you compare the everyday life of an average person in Western Europe in the 1920s with that of today, there is one thing in particular that we have gained today: time. Working days are much shorter, many once tedious everyday tasks are now taken over by machines, and there are no longer many occasions for which you necessarily have to leave your home. Not to mention that the basic living conditions have also improved significantly, so staying at home is a more pleasant experience today. 

Such are the positive aspects, but like so many things, this development also has its downsides, and these include the lack of physical activity that is directly associated with technical and digital progress. In general, the demands of everyday life no longer take a physical toll on us. In today’s service economy, most people do sedentary work, and many of the remaining physically demanding tasks are now taken over or at least made much easier by machines. We usually use the time saved for a variety of sedentary, often digital, leisure activities or for what seems to be the ultimate luxury of our time: doing nothing, also known as chilling out or hanging out. Combined with an increasingly extensive and always available food supply, the lack of physical activity is taking its toll on society's health development. Whereas 100 years ago it was the hygienic conditions in homes and cities combined with an unbalanced and often inadequate diet and hard physical work that most affected people's health, today it is the very effects of our own progress. Physical inactivity makes us ill and damages our health, especially in the long term. 

Of course, today’s medical progress makes it easier to deal with the negative consequences, but basically the problem can only be solved by incorporating additional activity into everyday life to offset the lack of exercise.  This sounds easy enough, but in reality it is difficult or even impossible for many people to implement. They lack motivation and inner strength, because while 100 years ago people were physically exhausted after work, today many are mentally exhausted. Whether it's just “one’s weaker self” or more substantial fatigue – our mind significantly affects our exercise behaviour. However, the mind can also be influenced, but we have to do more than just point out the benefits of exercise to each and every individual and hope that, through insight and willpower, he or she will turn from a couch potato into an active sportsman or sportswoman. Or to put it in simple terms: we don't have to get people to do sport, but rather bring (active) sport to the people.

Our cities and municipalities, where a large part of the population lives, usually boast a wide range of sports clubs and private sports providers, such as gyms. You can choose from a variety of sports and sports classes – anyone who is searching actively is sure to quickly find what they are looking for. But that requires an active search. And even if people do manage to find an offer, they often stop engaging in this new activity and quit after a short while. When they realize that they can't keep up in the sports club or that they are the only person lagging behind in the fitness class, or simply lose interest. While the aforementioned offers are certainly good and important, they are not sufficient to effectively combat the lack of physical activity on a large scale. It is important to engage with people in their everyday lives, in their immediate neighbourhood. People must be able to engage in sport and physical activity without having to prepare in advance, quickly and close to their homes. There must be places that inspire and encourage people to exercise, that are easy to find, reach and use without restrictions. An urban design that actively promotes sport and physical activity is the basis for all of this. It must be possible to do sport in many places and there must be opportunities for young and old and for big and small alike to exercise. People should be able to practise many different types of sports and exercise, and there should be enough facilities and opportunities for a large number of people who wish to engage in physical activity. 

A sports-friendly urban design requires more than just providing modern and well-maintained sports facilities for club sports and opportunities for individual sportsmen and women to go for walks, jogs and bike rides. There should be versatile and appealing sports facilities in many places, which can be used and accessed by all interested parties. Be it for fitness and motor control exercises, ball sports, (non-motorised) wheeled or roller sports, yoga, dance, parkour, ninja sports, slacklining – there are many different types of exercise, all of which are effective and beneficial, and it is the variety that makes the range so comprehensive. Of course, there should also be safe and appealing trails, footpaths and cycle paths for the group of individual athletes mentioned first. There should be enough space to practice one’s sport, plenty of options away from busy roads and ideally many routes should lead through green spaces and parks. Such green spaces are also very important for our cities and municipalities for various other reasons, such as climate protection and air quality. It is perfectly possible to incorporate sports and exercise facilities in many of these areas. However, it is important that these spaces are properly maintained and that their use for fitness activities is not restricted or prevented by other uses or local regulations. Public spaces that are of high amenity value and can be used for sports and exercise not only benefit the general population, but also increase the attractiveness and quality of life of the entire municipality. 

Even today, however, it is very difficult to create such open spaces in many places if they do not already exist. It is always possible to redevelop existing areas, modernize them and make them more attractive. Old sports fields can be turned into new ones, a neglected off-leash dog area into an appealing outdoor gym. But what can be done when there is already a shortage of space, especially in city centres? Making a city or municipality more sports- and activity-friendly often requires creativity and commitment. The latter is also required when it comes to preserving existing sports areas and maintaining them as permanent sites. Creativity is key, especially when turning spaces into exercise areas that were not previously intended as such.  

There are now a number of positive examples of various cities temporarily closing individual streets to car traffic and making them available to residents as play, meeting and exercise areas. Of course, these examples cannot replace sports areas as such, but they do complement a range of existing facilities and show that we should look at existing spaces from a wider perspective and from different angles in order to see their potential. In high-density urban areas, for example, this literally means looking high and low and identifying multi-purpose spaces. An exercise area on top of an old car park, a football pitch on the roof of a hypermarket or yet another disused car park that now houses a skate park and fitness areas. These are just a few examples that have already been put into practice. The sky is the limit as far as creativity goes/ Creativity knows no bounds/ There are no limits to creativity, as long as everything is feasible/ viable from a structural perspective. Der Kreativität sind keine Grenzen gesetzt, solange alles aus baulicher Perspektive auch umsetzbar ist. Fenced-in exercise areas in schoolyards can be made available to the general population outside school hours without major problems. Eingezäunte Bewegungsareale auf Schulhöfen kann man ohne größere Probleme auch außerhalb der Schulzeiten der Gesamtbevölkerung zur Verfügung stellen. Even many small open spaces can be designed as exercise areas - whether with a handful of fitness equipment, a trampoline, a basketball hoop or simply a freely usable sports or rolling surface/ roller sports area. Selbst viele kleine Freiflächen kann man als Bewegungsareal gestalten – ob mit einer Handvoll Fitnessgeräte, einem Trampolin, einem Basketballkorb oder einfach nur einer frei nutzbaren Sport- oder Rollfläche. Many things are possible and the more offers there are in the municipality and in each individual district, the more sport you get in the city. Vieles ist möglich und um so mehr Angebote es in der Kommune und in jedem einzelnen Stadtteil gibt, umso mehr Sport bekommt man in die Stadt. However, more creativity also means that the possible creation of sports and exercise options should be taken into account in various other building plans and projects. Mehr Kreativität heißt aber auch, dass man bei verschiedenen anderen Bauplanungen und -projekten eine mögliche Schaffung von Sport- und Bewegungsoptionen mitberücksichtigen sollte. In addition to inclusive and climate-friendly design, multifunctionality is a factor that should be given more attention in inner-city building and design projects in the future. Neben der inklusions- und klimagerechten Gestaltung ist Multifunktionalität ein Faktor, der bei innerstädtischen Bau- und Gestaltungsprojekten zukünftig mehr beachtet werden sollte. After all, the inner city must function as a place to live in the long term and one must make optimal use of the increasingly scarce space. Denn die Innenstadt muss als Lebensort dauerhaft funktionieren und man muss den immer knappen werdenden Raum optimal nutzen.

Of course, the creation of more sports and exercise facilities also costs money from the public purse, which, as we know, is never too lavishly filled. Natürlich kostet die Schaffung von mehr Sport- und Bewegungsräumen auch entsprechendes Geld aus den öffentlichen Töpfen, die bekanntlich nicht allzu üppig gefüllt sind. Therefore, the added value for society as a whole should always be considered when equipping these spaces. Daher sollte man bei der Ausstattung dieser immer den gesamtgesellschaftlichen Mehrwert betrachten. Sport in the city promotes the health of the population, creates better social interaction and makes many people fitter, happier and more resilient. Sport in der Stadt fördert die Gesundheit der Bevölkerung, schafft ein besseres soziales Miteinander und mache viele Menschen fitter, fröhlicher und belastbarer. Healthy and well-balanced people are less likely to be ill, can work longer and more effectively, and this also benefits the economy and developments in society as a whole. Gesunde und ausgeglichenere Menschen sind seltener krank, können länger und effektiver arbeiten und das kommt damit auch der Wirtschaft und der gesamtgesellschaftlichen Entwicklungen zugute. More money for sport and exercise in the city is therefore not just promotion, it is an investment. Mehr Geld für Sport und Bewegung in der Stadt ist also keine reine Förderung, es ist eine Investition. One from which all sides can benefit or, as they say, a win-win situation. Eine, von der alle Seiten profitieren können oder, wie man so schön sagt, eine Win-Win-Situation. However, the first step has to be taken somehow. Es muss allerdings irgendwo der erste Schritt getan werden. Let's hope that it will happen and that in 100 years we will be able to talk about a turning point in our time when the average amount of physical activity in our society has increased again. Hoffen wir, dass es gelingt und wir in 100 Jahren von einem Wendepunkt in unserer Zeit sprechen können, an dem der durchschnittliche Bewegungsumfang in unserer Gesellschaft wieder zugenommen hat.


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