urban planning & infrastructures

Interview with Dr. Andrew Smith, Professor, University of Westminster

Dec 11, 2019

A more progressive option is to ensure urban public spaces are places that encourage physical activity. The installation of green gyms in many parks and squares has been successful and cities are now looking for other ways of ensuring that public spaces are designed with activity in mind.

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Why is it important for cities to place sport as a priority in their urban development strategy?

Sport provision can fulfil a number of key policy objectives: most importantly the need to encourage physical activity and shared social experiences. Levels of obesity and loneliness are two of the biggest challenges facing cities today. Sport is also very popular, high profile, and attracts lots of positive media attention, so it is also used in place marketing / city branding. However, it is increasingly difficult to differentiate a city as a venue for elite sport, and there is a poor track record of stadium-led development, so cities are perhaps better advised to focus more on participatory sport and grassroots initiatives.

What is the potential value of sport- city zones for the economic, social and promotional development of a city?

Several cities have developed dedicated ‘sports city zones’ which are often clusters of venues used to stage major events. These can be used to help win future bids and stage more regular events, but the more interesting / advanced versions offer opportunities for amateur sports participation and training. Some even feature tourist attractions – halls of fame, interactive sports museums and themed retail experiences (e.g. ESPN zones). Places like Sheffield in the UK are trying to develop zones that are less based on the consumption of sports events / experiences but more on the production of sport – i.e. hosting sports companies and sport organisations. This means hosting sports education, sports science, sport medicine, sports administration etc., as well as more conventional sports companies such as the manufacturers of sports equipment and clothing. The sports industry is growing and some cities rightly see it as an opportunity to develop a concentration of related organisations and companies – in the same ways that cities are also developing clusters related to creative industries or technological enterprises. In terms of social development, the challenge is to ensure that the employment, facilities and venues in these zones are accessible to a diverse range of citizens. These zones can also attract spectators, participants and attention from outside the city, increasing tourism arrivals and helping to promote cities as attractive places to live, invest and visit.

What are the challenges that cities face when adapting public spaces for sport?

There are various dimensions to this. Many cities are keen to stage sports events in urban centres, not just in specialised stadiums / arenas. There are multiple examples: motor racing (F1 in Singapore, Valencia), equestrian events (Longines Global Champions Tour), track and field (Manchester’s Great City Games), and winter sports – even ski jumping – have all been staged in urban squares and parks. Some new franchises have chosen to focus exclusively on staging their events in urban public spaces – such as the Formula E motor racing series. This allows them to reach new audiences and get more visibility. Even when sports are still staged in purpose-built arenas, various activations are often installed in public squares and parks – including fan zones, sponsorship activations and various outreach activities.

For cities, these kinds of projects provide spectacular imagery and media coverage, but there are lots of associated practical and political challenges. There is considerable push back against the use of public spaces for sport events – particularly when these are ticketed and involve the introduction of barriers and invasive security arrangements. It is very costly and difficult to arrange for streets to be closed to traffic, and the provision of sports events need to be balanced against the needs of other users / uses of urban public space. In some cities there are worries about the over-commercialisation of public spaces (with corporate logos dominant) and the various sponsorship, retail and hospitality that comes with many sports events tend to exacerbate this problem.

A more progressive option is to ensure urban public spaces are places that encourage physical activity. The installation of green gyms in many parks and squares has been successful and cities are now looking for other ways of ensuring that public spaces are designed with activity in mind. This includes ‘active travel’ (walking and cycling), but also trying to reverse the age-old policy that various activities are banned from public spaces. Many public areas in the UK have signs saying ‘no ball games’ or regulations that ban skateboarding, cycling and other types of active leisure. Some enlightened municipalities are trying to remove these to ensure that people are encouraged to play and use urban spaces in a more active way.

What’s the best way to integrate “sport areas” in urban environments?

I think there are two key considerations here.

One is to better integrate elite sports facilities / arenas by ensuring that they are economically, socially and physically accessible. This is partly a design consideration, but it is also about how facilities are managed. New arenas need to be built with community use in mind – offering educational, community and social facilities. There are ways of allowing local people to use sport facilities on the (many) days when high specification venues are not staging events. We need to ensure that local people can access volunteering and employment opportunities in sports venues. In many cities, the emphasis needs to shift from passively watching sport, to actively participating in sport.

The other dimension is to ensure sports provision is integrated into people’s daily lives. That means investing more in neighbourhood parks, providing routes so that people can commute to work by cycling / running, encouraging work places to install showers (so that their staff can exercise before, during, or after work), and installing gym equipment in everyday landscapes. There perhaps needs to be less emphasis on formal sport, and more on active lifestyles. One worrying trend is the increased monetisation of sport provision in some cities (e.g. in parks) – with citizens asked to pay for things that used to be free (football pitches, etc.). There needs to be more provision of places to play and the (temporary) provision of ‘play streets’ – where roads are closed to traffic for certain periods – may help to ensure that informal sport participation is encouraged (particularly amongst children).

According to your opinion / research, which cities are at the forefront of creating public spaces that promote sport in the city? Why?

I’m perhaps a little biased, because I live in London, but there are lots of really good projects happening here.

The City of Westminster in London is doing a great deal of good work via its Active Westminster strategy https:// activewestminster.org/about-us/strategy. This strategy aims to shape the built and natural environment so that being active becomes the default choice.
The Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park has been designed in a way that encourages activity – with the public able to access affordable swimming and cycling facilities. The public spaces also encourage cycling, walking and running; and many of the venues can be booked for community events.

The creation of events like RideLondon (an annual cycling event)– which has both an amateur participatory dimension
and an informal recreational dimension – alongside an elite sport event is another good example. Anyone can sign up, and there are times when the streets are closed to traffic for recreational cycling. These types of initiatives link elite sport events to grassroots physical activity – and that has to be the way forward. Initiatives like ParkRun and other freely accessible / community organised events help to turn public spaces into active spaces. These projects also enable people to meet and socialise – which is known to improve mental, as well as physical health.

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