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12.08.2022 - Ausgabe: 4/2022

Pluralised sports landscapes in urban society

By Prof. Dr. Sebastian Braun and Dr. Stefan Hansen (Humboldt-University of Berlin)
© dikushin / stock.adobe.com

The sports landscape in Germany, especially in metropolises and conurbations, has changed dynamically in recent decades. Already for a long time, there have been many different types and forms of sports that are related to each other in social, temporal and spatial terms, which overlap and also compete with each other. Some of the various aforementioned forms of sports will be presented below and, against this background, exemplary questions regarding spaces for sports and physical activity in modern urban society are outlined from the perspective of the sociological dimensions of sports.


Varied sports and exercise arrangements 

Anyone observing sports and exercise cultures in Germany over the past decades quickly gains the impression of an enormous expansion and pluralisation of sports and exercise cultural phenomena (cf. e.g. Baur/Braun 2001; Bette 2010; Cachay/Thiel 2000; Thiel/Seiberth/Mayer 2018; Weiß/Norden 2013). More and more social groups are becoming active in sport in a variety of contexts at all possible times of the day and also at night (Preuß/Alfs/Ahlert/ Friedrich 2012). This quantitative dynamic is also significant in qualitative terms for urban development; because over the past decades, the sporting interests and motives of the population, the landscape of sports providers and the locations that can be used for these activities have also increased correspondingly (for Berlin, e.g. Senate Department for the Interior and Sport Berlin 2018).

Sports and exercise in Germany have long been much more than just physical exercise in which established sports are practised with the aim of competitive comparison according to a defined set of rules and on standardised sports surfaces within the framework of association-organised club sports. Instead, many new forms of sport and movement have developed around the traditional canon of sports - from climbing and parcours to yoga, calesthenics and crossfit, skateboarding, beach volleyball or ultimate frisbee - which take place in usable or newly staged spaces and organisational forms. For example, sports scenes and activities have developed around adventure, leisure or health sports, which are offered by a variety of organisations - gyms, football, climbing and badminton halls, leisure pools, sports clubs, schools, clinics, hotels, etc. - or are informally and self-organised - beyond formalised membership and customer roles - in forests, parks and public spaces (cf. e.g. Braun 2018; Schmidt 2015).


Appearances and forms of sports

The indicated plurality of structures and actors in the urban sports landscape can be ideally classified on the basis of different appearances and forms of sports. Heinemann's (2007, pp. 54-60) differentiation of so-called "models of sport" provides a helpful blueprint, with four of these models being highlighted as examples in the following:


Traditional competitive sports

The central reference model of Heinemann (2007) is the model of "traditional competitive sports" (p. 57), from which other models increasingly contrast. This model, which Heinemann (2007) also calls the "traditional model of 'English sports'" (p. 57) (cf. also Eisenberg 1999, for example), focuses on performance comparison at different performance levels and is based on a comprehensive set of sports-specific rules that specify how physical activities may be performed (Heinemann 2007, pp. 57-58). Sports-specific performance comparison according to the rules of (inter)national sports federations exemplifies everyday types of this competition-based sports model, which is practically implemented in urban contexts, e.g. on standardised football pitches with perimeter running tracks, in indoor swimming pools with defined swimming lanes and on defined handball and basketball courts in sports halls. Heinemann (2007) emphasises that in this model, the comparison of sporting performance takes place without any further thoughts of exploitation: "Sports in this model is unproductive; it thus acquires a specific meaning (e.g. compared to everyday and work activities) on the basis of which it will not be practised under (e.g. commercial) considerations of utility and existential constraints; it remains largely without consequences and refers back exclusively to itself in its results." (Heinemann 2007, p. 58). 


Professionalised show sports 

This model loses its "unproductivity" (Heinemann 2007, p. 56) in the "professionalised show sports model" (Heinemann 2007, p. 58), which also seems to be ever-present in urban areas. Especially in sports such as football, which meet the criteria of media formats such as television, a variety of economic and political interests have differentiated themselves in the exploitation of the sporting event, which significantly influence the social actions of athletes, coaches, advisors and diverse stakeholders in business, the media and associations. (cf. e.g. Haut 2014).


Expressive sports 

Parallel to these traditional forms of sports, various sports models have established themselves that are less or not at all oriented towards the principle of performance, competition and sports-specific rules. In the "expressive sports model" (Heinemann 2007, p. 58), the focus is on the individual and his or her interpretation of physical activity. According to Heinemann (2007), "sports is reduced to a certain type of unproductive physical activity" (p. 58). This individual interpretation of exercising can be based on classical forms of sport (e.g. playing badminton in the park) and also be organised in a competitive manner (e.g. city marathons), but they are not determined by these characteristics. Young sports scenes sometimes even consciously distinguish themselves from them (cf. e.g. Alkemeyer/ Boschert/Schmidt/Gebauer 2003; Beal 1995; Bindel 2008; Schmidt/Alkemeyer/Flick 2004; Wheaton/Beal 2003). This goes hand in hand with the special possibility of stylising one's own person as a skater, course runner or climber (Peters 2016). "Virtuosic or “smart” movements, aesthetics and experience, style, fun, action play a more important role here than victory and defeat, competition and contest, just as sports as a whole are no longer 'just' sports, but embody a whole lifestyle." (Gugutzer 2017, pp. 305-306). 


Functionalist sports 

Also diverse forms of the "functionalist model of sports" (Heinemann 2007, p. 58), which is oriented towards a specific, functional benefit of practising sports, are part of the general lifestyle of the actors. Sports as a medium rich in variants for health promotion, health maintenance and therapy has long been an established element of various social fields of action (in company health management, tourism, inpatient and outpatient rehabilitation, etc.); and "health" has long become a central motive of sporting activity (Thiel et al. 2018, pp. 105-135). However, questions of body shaping and styling through sports and exercise activities, among other things, as a possibility of "everyday (self-)optimisation" (Duttweiler 2016) should also be highlighted with regard to this model (cf. e.g. Gugutzer 2017). Digital infrastructures, such as specific training equipment (EMS training etc.) or forms of communication (social media) are used (cf. e.g. Braumüller 2018). In addition, we find sporting practices such as yoga or Thai Chi, whose increasing spread can also be interpreted as a reaction to the acceleration dynamics in modern society (cf. Rosa 2014). 


Further questions 

The plural forms of sports and physical activity that characterise modern urban society are combined with differentiated expectations and also divergent demands of different actors and groups of interest on urban sports and physical activity arrangements and their design. This can be seen, for example, in discussions about the sovereignty of interpretation regarding the use of public space for sports and physical activities (cf. e.g. Eichler/Peters 2015) or about the use of public resources for the organisation of major sports events such as the Olympic Games (cf. e.g. Könecke/Schubert/Preuß 2016). In Berlin - to pick just one metropolis - the multi-layered debates about the use of the former airport site "Tempelhofer Feld", about a bid to host the Olympic Games, about a new stadium for the Bundesliga football team Hertha BSC and possible uses of the Olympic Park Berlin are exemplary for this. They all make clear how diverse the structures of expectations for sports and physical activity arrangements can be in urban society.

Public space that can be made available for these purposes does not only compete in Berlin, but in many cities in Germany with other possible uses such as residential, economic or consumer spaces (cf. Kähler/Grunert 2018). At the same time, the various appearances of sports each require suitable and usable spaces: while standardised covered and uncovered sports areas are important for the more classic, competitively organised club sports, professional show sports require sports buildings that attract spectators, such as stadiums and multifunctional arenas. In contrast, multifunctional sports facilities that offer as much design freedom as possible, functionalities specific to sports types and forms, and special atmospheres are relevant for youth sports scenes (cf. Kähler/Grunert 2018).

Against this backdrop, a number of questions on the design of sports and physical activity spaces in the pluralised sports landscapes of urban society can be suggested, which can also be read as an invitation to urban planners to embed sociological sports perspectives in their relevant work: What expectations and needs do selected stakeholder groups in civil society, politics, administration and business, such as locally based sports clubs, day-care centres, schools, businesses, neighbourhood management, local politics, public order offices, etc., have of locally surrounding sports and exercise spaces? How and in what way are the people living there and their sporting interests, which diverge according to life situations and lifestyles, reflected in the (further) development of corresponding sports and physical activity spaces? Which instruments of participation can help to enable appropriate planning of spaces with heterogeneous sport and physical activity needs? And how can divergent interests be aligned and coordinated in such a way that the focus is on the highest possible coherence of different goals and measures and the resulting longer-term effects in the interest of the common good? 

The list of questions could easily be extended. What they have in common is the indication that it seems basically important and appropriate to systematically consider relevant actors and structures in urban society issues that affect the pluralised culture of sports and exercise in the broadest sense.

Further information: 

Prof. Dr. Sebastian Braun, University Professor at the Humboldt University in Berlin and Head of the Department of Sociology of Sports at the Institute of Sports Science there. 

Dr. Stefan Hansen, Research Associate at the Humboldt University of Berlin and in the Department of Sociology of Sport at the Institute of Sports Science

Further information at www.sportsoziologie.hu-berlin.de



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First published by: vhw – Bundesverband für Wohnen und Stadtentwicklung e. V.- Forum Wohnen und Stadtentwicklung 03 / Mai – Juni 2019 (page 115 – 118)

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