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19.04.2022 - Ausgabe: 2/2022

The Stuttgart Master Plan for Urban Physical Activity Spaces

By Valerie Sporer, Dr. Katrin Korth, Dirk Schelhorn und Prof. Dr. Philipp Dechow

© Dr. Katrin Korth, Prof. Phillip Dechow

"The world is becoming morbidly sedentary" was the headline of the Süddeutsche Zeitung on 05.09.2018 about the findings of the 2018 WHO study on physical inactivity, in which data and studies from 168 countries with 1.9 million participants were analysed for the years 2001 to 2016. All over the world, 28 percent of the world's population do not exercise enough. Physical inactivity is one of the major health risks and above all a problem of the large industrialised nations. The situation has been exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic. In the wealthy countries, the proportion of inactive people is 37 p.c. Besides the USA, New Zealand, Brazil and Argentina it is Germany which is strongly affected. Here, the proportion of people who do too little physical activity has risen sharply, especially in the past 15 years with 42 p.c. of adults who do too little exercise, women even slightly less than men.


Lack of physical activity has various causes. In addition to our distance-intensive and at the same time sedentary lifestyle with long and time-consuming commutes, low-motion, predominantly sedentary work situation with low physical strain and a sedentary leisure time behaviour, the main reasons lie in the high-fat and high-carbohydrate diet. The described framework conditions interact with specific social conditions such as income and social status, education and health literacy, employment and working conditions. Urban and open space planning issues also play an important role. If, moreover, unfavourable urban planning and traffic aspects are added, such as the lack of or insufficiently connected attractive open spaces, inadequate footpath and cycle path systems or urban development geared to automobile travel, the risk of health impairments increases. Typical illnesses of the industrialised nations, such as cardiovascular, neuropsychological and muscular diseases or back, knee and hip complaints do not only represent an impairment of the individual's state of health, but can also lead to loss of income if the ability to work is restricted in the long term. Ultimately, they represent a considerable economic risk. Lack of physical activity is an issue for adults, but it already begins with children and adolescents. Today, the central concomitants of childhood and adolescence are isolation, domestication and mediatisation, as well as a timed and condensed daily routine with little free time. Play and physical activities are increasingly shifted inwards or reduced. For fewer and fewer children and families, physical activity is no or only a small part of their leisure time behaviour. As a result, the motor skills of children and young people have been declining for years. They can no longer throw balls, balance, hop or climb properly. This situation is worrying because children who exercise regularly are not only physically fitter, but their mental development is also enhanced. So converting urban spaces into exercise-friendly areas as part of the social and physical environment is thus an important determinant of health and healthy living.  

Public urban space is the largest, freely usable space for physical activity and sports. It can be anything: walking paths, a bicycle course, a running track, a playing field for ball games or a fitness studio. One can use it freely and flexibly - when and where one wants to. Physical activity in public urban space includes both everyday exercise and physical activity in leisure time, as well as necessary and voluntary physical and sporting activities.

The pandemic crisis in particular showed how important open spaces in the immediate surroundings are and how important their quality is. There is a clearly measurable connection between the quality of urban structures, public urban space and its frequency of use by people walking or cycling. Where urban spaces are designed attractively and, from the perspective of walking people, where there are incentives that encourage physical activity, where social interaction is possible, where there is (traffic) safety for walking and cycling people, there people also like to become physically active.

Despite the many positive aspects, the urban conditions for exercise and sports are often unfavourable. Missing or unattractive open spaces, incomplete foot and cycle paths or a lack of incentives and offers restrict the possibility to exercise. The pressure on public urban space is high in most cities and continues to increase with increasing densification. In addition, restrictions on use have been imposed in recent years. Many public spaces are subject to restrictive regulations and exclude certain user groups. However, the main obstacle to independent physical activity in urban spaces is the dominance of private motorised transport. 

Large traffic roads have a pronounced separating effect, parking search, traffic causes, traffic safety problems and public urban spaces dominated by stationary traffic leave little room for people and physical activity. Seeing to attractively designed public urban spaces focused on pedestrians is therefore more than just promoting physical activity. It is a prerequisite for social experience and intergenerational togetherness.

An exercise-friendly urban space is a multifunctional urban space. It considers paths for walking and cycling in an interlinking way and offers selective and coordinated incentives for both exercise and sports, thus creating incentives for behavioural change and encouraging playful exercise and sporting activities. In a multifunctional urban space, the focus is equally on everyday physical activity and physical activity in leisure time. In addition, social interaction is promoted. Multifunctional urban space is distinctive and designed with a variety of incentives. It encourages people to exercise in an independent and safe way in the midst of the relevant urban space and enables free accessibility and different perspectives - for both children, young people, adults and older people.

This is where the "Stuttgart Master Plan for Urban Physical Activity Spaces" comes in. It is a joint project of the Office for Urban Planning and Housing and the Office for Sports and Physical Activity of the City of Stuttgart. The aim of the master plan is to think of Stuttgart's urban space as a space for physical activity. This especially applies where sports and exercise seem less attractive, for example due to dense development. In order to achieve this goal, public space should be designed in such a way that it subtly and in the long term invites for more physical activity in everyday life and leisure. Because exercise requires attractive urban spaces. Especially in places where people spend time and move around on a daily basis, where routes are travelled more than once a day and squares serve as meeting places, an attractive stimulating design can transform these places into urban spaces for physical activity and thus significantly increase the amount of time spent on practising sports, the result of which is promoting good health. In this way, urban space is accessible to all and brings physical activity to the people - as something quite natural and incidental. Urban exercise areas should be permanently considered in all future planning processes. This is about more than just installing exercise equipment.

The Stuttgart Master Plan is not a design manual. A city-wide plan would not be able to do that. The objective of the master plan is rather to show the basics of urban planning whose design is focused on physical activity, to analyse the existing situation in Stuttgart, to survey and prioritise needs, to develop specific guiding themes adapted to Stuttgart, and to make basic suggestions and ideas for design and to identify potential areas for promoting exercise. The ideas of the master plan and the discussion of the types of space are explicitly intended to encourage the planners in the administration to actively think about the topic of physical activity from the very beginning.

With the Stuttgart Master Plan for Urban Physical Activity Spaces, the state capital has developed strategies to promote physical activity in public spaces and to ensure it in the long term.

Above all, the master plan provides impulses for further planning activities within and outside the city administration. It serves as a strategic instrument for urban planning, sports planning, open space planning and social planning. This is because the promotion of physical activity and sports is a cross-cutting issue that touches almost all areas of urban life. This approach now focuses on the urban conditions and the public urban space. The interdisciplinary approach allows to use the spatial and topographical characteristics of Stuttgart, to formulate visions for an active city and thus to strengthen the city's image and the image of the state capital Stuttgart.


Spatial categories

A key focus during the development was the examination of spatial categories. Urban spaces for physical activity are not a defined term. Some places that are already well suited for physical activity are not perceived as urban spaces for physical activity in the public perception, simply because their design naturally works on its own. Some spaces only require a small impulse to be appropriated in a different way.

Every city has a specific character. There is a close interplay between urban space and city dwellers, in which dwellers act as social actors and create spaces (social, legal, built). Their concrete actions depend on economic, legal, social, cultural and spatial structures. Built spaces in turn determine urban life. They are determined by characteristic building styles, landmarks, built structures and uses, or possibilities of use. Spaces change when usage requirements and design change. Within this interaction, spatial types have developed in every city that determine the urban characteristics.

The following spaces were identified suitable for exercise in Stuttgart: city squares, forecourts, remaining spaces, street spaces, intersections and traffic squares, public transport stops, parks and green spaces, heights and half-heights, spaces for children and young people, stairways and steps, the river Neckar, the Green U and sports facilities. Today, it is almost standard practice to install physical activity facilities in parks. However, the approach of the master plan was to explore areas and spaces that are not yet in the focus of physical activity offers. The so-called residual spaces have great potential here, a special feature in Stuttgart that results from the specific layout of the city. Another special feature are the stairways and steps. More than 500 stairways, dating back to the time of the winegrowers, characterise Stuttgart's urban space and create short and at the same time exercise-challenging connections in the topographically diverse city. The use of bus stops for physical activity, on the other hand, has been discussed among experts for a long time, but often fails due to responsibilities and fundamental concerns.

Guiding themes and spatial priorities were defined on the basis of the space types. The overarching goal is to define a network of places and spaces for physical activity and sports that:


  • enable citizens to have an active everyday life and leisure time in their city and the surrounding area,
  • should not be viewed separately and in isolation, but should allow for functional and creative integration into the urban fabric and thus into people's everyday lives,
  • have multiple uses, are cross-gender and multi-generational and allow many types of physical activity and encounter,
  • create added value for the cityscape and city life, providing the possibility of getting together and of joint activities to promote social cohesion,
  • utilise and thus strengthen Stuttgart's spatial and topographical characteristics,
  • positively accompany the current transformation of the city away from the car-oriented city,
  • have a high recognition value,
  • and positively shape the image of Stuttgart.



Guiding themes

The possibilities and ideas presented in the master plan are based on nine guiding themes.


Be on the way: 

Physical activity in public urban spaces, regarding both everyday activity as well as physical activity in leisure time, requires coherent and accessible path systems with special destinations, differentiated path designs with inviting, multifunctional design points, wide paths, places to stay at for walking people, an interplay of sun and shade, greening and networked offers for lingering. If the public urban space on the way between the home and the bus stop/ place of work/ place of shopping/ place to stay is designed in a way that promotes physical activity and encourages lingering, it will be appropriated by both walking and cycling people. People are on the move.


Get outside and do it!

Successful physical activity promotion should be focused on the living environment. For children, young people and older people, the living environment is the most important point of reference in the urban space, alternating between opportunities for action and lingering. A living environment that promotes physical activity enables people to take part and directly encourages them to exercise. Cycling also begins on the doorstep.


Create multidimensionality: 

Public urban spaces always offer several options for use: Bus stops are waiting areas and at the same time places for physical activity and communication, activity islands provide opportunities to linger, exercise miles integrate rest areas. Multi-dimensionality includes places and offers that are designed to be open to use, that are greened or surprising, offering incentives for physical activity for children, adults and older people. They combine active action with passive or passive-active watching and promote an urban space that is inviting and attractive. 


Attracting attention: 

An exercise-friendly city needs urban spaces that create visibility, consciously attract people and stage special highlights. What is needed is an attention-grabbing network densely distributed throughout the city that attracts attention and thus supports image change. This helps to promote physical activity, activate groups that otherwise tend to be less visible, and strengthen the togetherness of young and old.


Topography as an opportunity: 

For everyday exercise, topography is a challenge, for urban activity it offers opportunities, because topography can be deliberately staged. Stuttgart's topography provides special identification opportunities that are image-building.

Linger and exercise: 

As many and as differentiated as possible opportunities to linger are a contribution to the promotion of physical activity. Spaces designed to promote physical activity are places of communication and enable participation in social life.


Make use of what is available: 

Using the existing always offers options for trying out something unfamiliar. Exercise-friendly urban space does not have to reinvent itself; it can make use of what is already there and, through reinterpretation, consciously invite people to use it as an urban space for physical activity.


Seeing landscapes in a different way: 

Everything that surrounds us and is seen in a certain, predefined or traditional way can also be seen in a different way. With this understanding in mind, designs are encouraged that allow and explicitly call for different ways of perceiving and understanding.


Enabling the temporary: 

Many places currently seem to be unchangeable in their design. Fundamental redesigns are expensive or are not scheduled for several years. Temporary designs can help bridge the time until then. The possibility of trial and error creates openness, is cost-effective, changeable and adaptable. Trial and error must therefore be allowed under certain conditions for private individuals in the residential environment, for offers on certain streets. Retailers can be encouraged to temporarily change the public space with play actions and participatory games.

On the basis of these guiding themes, fundamental possibilities for physical activity in urban spaces were identified and initial ideas were developed for exemplary locations. These ideas were developed in an interdisciplinary way in cooperation with the different offices of the city administration. In addition to the two offices mentioned above, also the Office for Gardens, Cemeteries and Forests, the Civil Engineering Office and the Public Order Office were involved. Urban exercise as a cross-cutting issue requires interdisciplinary and networked action and a common understanding of what exercise-oriented urban and open space planning can be. Parallel to the Master Plan, the Office for Sports and Physical Activity has developed a catalogue of recommended offers and equipment, so that the multitude of urban planners and external planning offices have yet another tool at their disposal for planning. 

There is a great need for public spaces in the city to be designed in a way that promotes physical activity and recreation, and there is a great deal of interest among citizens in urban spaces for physical activity. Due to the fact that the need is greater than the current supply, the Master Plan has also made a basic prioritisation according to socio-spatial indicators*.

The master plan shows the framework conditions for ae health-conscious and exercise-oriented design of the state capital of Stuttgart and, with its adoption in the municipal council, forms a framework for political action and the action of the administration in its various offices. It formulates a guiding principle and refers to various levels of urban planning, where it needs to be implemented and concretised. It conveys a basic planning attitude with an integrated and open approach to urban space. This is one of the greatest opportunities and at the same time the greatest challenge in implementation. A target horizon for 15 years up to the year 2035 is recommended for the implementation of the exercise-promoting state capital of Stuttgart.




Jan Gehl: Leben zwischen Häusern (Living between houses), Jovis Verlag Berlin, 2012

Masterplan für urbane Bewegungsräume, Landeshauptstadt Stuttgart (Master Plan for Urban Physical Activity Spaces, State Capital Stuttgart), 2020

WHO Study on Physical Activity and Health, 2018

*The authors have developed the master plan for urban physical activity spaces for the state capital Stuttgart



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