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An open and active city does not materialise by itself

Cities cannot become open and active spaces by themselves. And citizens are unlikely to spontaneously use their cities as outdoor gyms, walking or cycle paths unless they have the right conditions to give them a little push in the right direction.

In Thursday’s plenary session at the MOVE Congress 2014, Open City – Active City from an urban perspective, two experts from very different sectors came to similar conclusions that could give urban planners, local governments, sports facility designers and the average citizen food for thought.

Roberto Pella, member of the EDUC commission of the EU’s Committee of the Regions (CoR), put the spotlight on public institutions as being a starting point to putting more funding into providing cycle paths, green spaces and open facilities, as well as renovating obsolete and unsafe facilities. But this also means raising awareness among these key stakeholders about the vital link between sport and health:

“National authorities – and I mean governments and representatives of sport institutions – are bodies that somehow don’t have enough insight into the fundamental will to invest in sport and physical activity at the community level,” he said.

“In Italy, 83% of budgets at the regional level are focused on health. But if we were really to invest in improving our citizens’ health, we should take part of this budget and allocate it to health enhancing sport and physical activity.”

Activating these important stakeholders is a challenge that organisations at the grassroots level are taking on themselves, which he praised:

“Key actors in sport and physical activity are working together every day, fighting against the red tape and they need to ask that the European plan to re-launch investments is focused on physical activity.”


Don’t underestimate the factors involved in creating active cities
The second keynote speaker, Remco Hoekman, a senior researcher from the Mulier Institute in the Netherlands, said that while he agreed governments and local authorities were essential links in the chain, there are many aspects of urban planning that need to come together to make cities more open and active.

“The physical environment does influence the behaviour of the individual. But there is not one factor or set of factors that can account for what people do,” he said.

To redesign neighbourhoods to make them more inviting for citizens to be physically active means engaging the transport sector, which can reduce or slow down traffic and improve paths for pedestrians and cyclists. It also means tackling social issues that can make public playgrounds or parks safer spaces for children. Or it could involve a creative workplace installing “piano stairs” to make it fun for workers to choose an alternative to taking the elevator.

Very importantly, he emphasised, the citizen should be at the centre of this planning and be able to contribute their own ideas.

“You have to place facilities in the right context,” he said. “It is not enough to put a facility into a neighbourhood. You have to cater for the desires of the neighbourhood.”

An exercise bike bench located in a park outside an elderly home was just one example of looking outside the box while serving a sometimes forgotten part of the community in the right place – it took some time to catch on at first, but it worked.

Good ideas are often underestimated – but maybe they can be the key to unlocking active cities.

By Rachel Payne

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