Sport On! How to get people moving through urban design

Article By:

Practice Leader—complete communities | Associate urban designer

Today’s technology gives us speedy automation and virtual interaction, but it’s also taken a toll on our physical movements and activities. In other words, as we continue to embrace high-tech conveniences, the importance of staying healthy and active becomes a significant concern.

Fortunately, sport remains one of the most popular healthy lifestyle options. Governments worldwide recognize the importance of investing strategically in sport and nurturing high-performance sport to raise the nation’s profile globally. Also, governments that invest in active living and prioritize sports infrastructure in the planning of city networks and recreational amenities can tackle today’s health problems such as obesity and heart disease more efficiently.

As an urban designer, two questions come to mind in projects of this nature: In designing a sports facility, how can we achieve optimal use and future-proof it, so it does not become an economic liability for the city? And in dealing with projects that do not include or prioritize the spending on sports infrastructure, how can we incorporate sport innovatively and affordably, and beyond the spatial norms of a sports facility?

Portugal’s University of Porto published a research paper on the relationship between sport and urban design. I found three aspects stand out: First is the integration of sport in a multifunctional, compact and urban environment, regarding spatial considerations like sports typology, economic feasibility and positioning in the city. A sporting facility, incorporating flexible-use, smarter connections and program mix, has the potential to stay relevant to our changing lifestyle needs. Second is sport as an urban meeting point. It means incorporating sport into a public space to be a social meeting place, which enriches the pedestrian experience, encourages public interaction and participation and blends sport with community culture. The third is the city itself as a sports space for an individual. When individualization and self-regulating lifestyles move away from the traditional model of a sports complex, the private sector and the public realm become appealing options. Nowadays, participation in sports' clubs is making way for fitness studios, active transportation networks and informal fitness gatherings such as tai chi and yoga in plazas and parks.

In Singapore, the government has been investing significantly in sports infrastructure, with an estimated $1.5 billion set aside for phase one of the Sport Facilities Master Plan. This budget is part of supporting the projected population of 6.9 million by 2030. Overseen by SportSingapore, which is the national council for sport, the master plan lays the foundation for a multifunctional, compact sporting landscape that serves as a shared space for people to interact, build community ties and rally behind the national teams. Among the many objectives, there are three critical spatial concepts. The first is how we create innovative, affordable and accessible public sports facilities that can integrate with the Park Connector Network. The second idea looks at placemaking that provides common spaces for the community to bond, participate in sports and rally behind local sporting heroes. The third looks at enabling the effective and efficient use of resources through intensifying land-use, rationalizing sports facilities, and unlocking the value of other publicly funded facilities by making them more accessible. Some of the many critical roles of SportSingapore are therefore to facilitate and collaborate with sports groups, various city departments and grass-root representatives, and to seek innovation by learning from international counterparts. 

In Copenhagen, you can find a unique public sports park called Superkilen. Designed by BIG, Topotek1 and Superflex. This park is intended to celebrate the city’s contemporary and diverse culture. The design team programmed the park into three colour-coded zones with various sport and recreation activities. The red zone or red square includes an exciting children’s playground made up of play equipment that represents different countries, and also the local market. The black zone or urban living room provides a variety of multi-cultural street furniture and long white lines that rise and fall on the ground and over rolling terrains. The green zone or green park consists of plains and hills suitable for sports, picnics and sunbathing. One innovative aspect about Superkilen is rather than confining to standard International Federations facilities, the design places certain sports facilities at strategic locations and deconstructs the way we play games. One can skate, play basketball or sit on a single court without any game lines on the ground. Others can play table tennis on a metal table or train at boxing sandbags right beside a cycling path. It’s casual, imaginative and fun!

Sport also teaches resilience and prepares people to learn to innovate and adapt in a rapidly changing world. In the Dutch village of Koog aan de Zaan, there is a community playfield located under the A8 motorway bridge. The area was primarily an unused space for 30 years until collaboration between the government and the community brought about this unique project called A8ernA. Completed in 2005, it contains an area for teenagers consisting of a graffiti zone, a skateboarding park, a break dance stage, table-tennis tables, a small football pitch, a basketball court and benches for couples. It even has a mini-marina and a marketplace. Personally, A8ernA provides an exemplary solution of introducing sport and recreation to unusable, underutilized and unattractive spaces (i.e. decommissioned railways and empty surface parking lots).

I suggest that a little push is all it takes to promote sport in communities. We can find opportunities to walk, jog or train for marathons in the simplest network of pathways within most urban places. Today’s daily urban quality will continue to recognize sport as an essential infrastructure for nation-building and general well-being, and a catalyst for innovation and adaptive re-use. Perhaps someday we will see Winnipeg’s surface parking lots transformed into multi-purpose sports facilities at street level with interchangeable courts for badminton and basketball, all-season fitness playgrounds for all ages, or indoor convertible arenas for street soccer and hockey rink, equipped with roof-top or basement parking lots. Sport in the parkade anyone? 

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