Well thought out architecture motivates exercise

Architecture can motivate citizens to move and thus nudge public health in a positive direction.

Informal activity environments are therefore gaining traction in northern Europe – at street level and in the built environment. Senior lecturer in sport science, Karin Book from Malmö University explains how architects can make activity areas attractive to citizens. 

Sport, movement and an active everyday life no longer need to be synonymous with membership of the local sports clubs. In many northern European cities, informal activity environments are popping up to get citizens moving. This can be in the form of skater parks, street sports facilities, outdoor fitness and multisport areas. The common denominator is that the environments are open to all. Some places are open around the clock, all year round.

One place this trend has been noted is Sweden.

“The general physical activity level of Swedes is decreasing. Some people don’t get any activity at all. Fewer people are attracted to sports clubs, and those who are end up leaving much sooner. Therefore, municipalities and planners have an increased awareness of integrating movement into the everyday environment. Once, physical activity meant football, but we have become aware of activity in a much broader context,” says Karin Book.

She is an associate professor of sports science at Malmö University, with a doctorate in cultural geography with particular interest in urban planning and development for sport and physical activity.

“We are seeing public places being developed so that they create activity. That space is being created in the infrastructure to promote active transport on foot, by bike and by scooter. And that it is linking up with people’s interest in exercising when it suits them, with varied activity environments in buildings and at street level,” explains Karin Book.

Attention to border zones

She has been an advisor on a number of different projects to ensure that as many people as possible feel attracted to being active in the open training environments. It is by no means everyone who will intuitively throw themselves into public exercise with the whole city as potential observers. According to Karin Book, men make more use of open environments than women. But across gender, it’s really difficult to activate people who are not usually active.

“Observations show that a dominant group – often men – occupies the informal activity environments and defines how the sites should be used. After that, it can be really difficult for other groups to use the site in a different way, so if you want great diversity in users, the architecture and layout must be designed to accommodate many different activities,” explains Karin Book.

“It is also important to pay attention to the surrounding environment – or border zones as I call them. Fences and other barriers prevent many people from entering the activity areas, so perhaps the outer sections of the street sports centre should be designed with open architecture by which people are led into the building through an activity. That could be basketball baskets on both the outside and inside of the building or an outer wall on which you can climb,” she suggests.

Keywords in the architecture of the future

Inside buildings, too, architecture can be used to motivate people to move. Karin Book explains that there is a trend to add activities in the lobby that extend out to the street. Stairs are placed centrally, while elevators are kept out of the way in less visible places.

“As cities become more densely populated, with less space to build on, we will see more solutions that integrate sport and movement into the built environment. There will be an increased focus on the efficient use of building stock and integration, because it is easier to be active if it can take place in a building you are already in,” says Karin Book.

She talks about different sports facilities spread across floors in the same building instead of separate facilities for different sports – and sports parks on the city’s roofs are also gaining traction.

“Multifunctionality, openness and innovation are important elements if we want more exercise and movement, and if we are to develop activity environments that support the ambition,” says Karin Book.

Characteristics of the good activity environment:

  • Accessibility
  • Flexibility
  • A meeting place for all
  • Inviting and comfortable border zones
  • Movement areas – spontaneous sports and organised training
  • Green and sustainable

Karin Book, Senior lecturer in sport science from Malmö University.