Activating architecture has become part of the current dialog within environmental design professions [1
]. The concept of activating architecture is grounded in the notion that physical environments, in this case urban sport environments, should engage the user both physically and psychologically. This concept is connected to an emergent health discourse: new buildings and landscapes have significant health-related responsibilities. The physical attributes of an environment can stimulate the movement of users, increase self-awareness and capacity, and contribute to higher public health goals. Residential urban environments have a significant impact on how physically active people are [2
]. Research has shown that physical inactivity is one of the leading risk factors for lifestyle-diseases. It is estimated that physical inactivity causes 6–10% of premature mortality worldwide [3
]. Lifestyle diseases such as obesity, type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular disease continue to rise in Western countries [4
]. This has increased the demand for designers and developers to illustrate how new urban spaces and facilities for physical activity and sport contribute to public health outcomes.
Urban design, transportation systems, and urban spaces are known predictors of physical activity [6
], which can be conceptualised through the ecological model of active living [7
]. This theoretical framework illustrates interdependent factors that influence physical activity behaviour across the four domains of active living: recreation, transportation, household, and occupation. Physical activity in each of these domains relies on different factors, such as individual skills, the social/cultural environment, the built environment, and the policy environment. It is difficult to change human behaviour when the built amenities do not support this behavior change [8
These concerns have caused the architectural profession to expand their focus from spatial experiences, impressions, and “gut” feelings to include how physical environments can support public health [9
]. However, this new approach is often based on traditional design strategies grounded in intuitive concepts and aesthetic considerations rather than scientific evidence that establishes clear relationships between the intent of the physical environment, and physical and behavioural outcomes [10
]. It has been argued that the design profession must move towards a more “evidence-based” practice, with more explicit use of empirical evidence [11
]. With influences from health science it is expected that designers will embrace additional sources of evidence to strengthen their design decisions in creating environmental conditions for specific user groups [12
]. The interdisciplinary collaboration is mutually relevant for researchers whose objective is to increase the general activity level of the population [13
Urban public spaces have become the focus of this discussion, particularly the inclusion of design elements that activate the end-users. Often the starting point for these efforts are classic sport facilities, such as football fields, skate spaces and street basketball. On paper, the strategies to transform and activate these settings tend to use trendy materials, such as rubber asphalt and flashy colours, according to the current fashion in landscape design [14
]. These types of spaces primarily appeal to boys and young adult males, a generally active group, making it easy for designers to activate these settings [16
]. These projects designed for a specific purpose are more likely to attract boys and young adult males who are already physically active, while nonspecialized spaces with an open use are more likely to attract those who are less physically active [17
]. Recent research has focused on the activity level in parks, but the published outcomes do not point to specific design guidelines to attract different user groups [18
]. In general, these studies have not explicitly stated any recommendations for architects and designers to follow to enhance physical activities among less active groups such as young girls, women, and older adults.
When a space is designed for a specific user group, it often has certain physical attributes that determine whether the intended user group will occupy the space, i.e., location, safety, lightning or seating [20
]. Teenagers (14–20 years old) are generally more mobile, and do not want to spend time at certain urban public spaces if they are not engaged or entertained [21
]. They will seek alternative spaces according to their needs. On the contrary, seniors are less mobile and for them soft values such as lightning, planting, accessibility and feeling safe are more important [22
This study investigates the use patterns of two new urban public sites for sport and recreation, and how these sites reflect the needs of the intended user groups. The specific aims are to examine (1) how sport and recreation facilities in urban public spaces are used; (2) how the initial design objectives (the intent) align with the final outcomes (the reality); and (3) to investigate the specific design elements the architects incorporated to ensure the initial design objectives were met. It was hypothesised that the use of transparent evidence during the planning and development process would enhance the performance for the end users [10
]. In order to rely on evidence, the information must be transparent, accessible and understandable, so others can make critical judgements about applicability to their setting. The context for this investigation is two newly built urban spaces for sport and recreation: Lüders parking roof and Guldbergs Plads in the suburbs of Copenhagen. These two spaces are similar in size and purpose of use, but the intended user groups differ.
The overall aim of this study was to investigate how two urban public spaces for sport and recreation were aligned with the initial objectives (the intent) and to what extent the spaces reflected the needs of the user groups (reality). The SOPARC observation data showed that both sites have a diverse user profile. The intended user groups of Lüders parking roof were families with young children, while Guldbergs Plads was aimed at adults unfamiliar with physical activity. The user groups were not defined more specifically than this, so it was difficult to point out the adults unfamiliar with physical activity compared to adults used to physical activity. At first glance, the total numbers suggest both design processes can be considered successful. More in-depth analyses, however, gave a varied picture showing a discrepancy in initial objectives and actual use. The parking roof data revealed that male adults and boys used the parking roof more than women, girls and adolescents. Almost no children were observed in sub-area A, most likely because children could not reach the three-meter raised red bar. This is a clear example of a facility not aligned with the initial objectives; to design facilities that attract families with small children.
At Guldbergs Plads, most users were active male adults and male adolescents, but only a few were observed using the blue poles for physical activities, and no adults or seniors were observed using the poles. This is in contradiction to the initial objective that targeted adults unfamiliar to physical activities. The architect explained that the target group were “scared” of failing and making fools of themselves. To avoid this the architect had described wide swing seats to make them suitable for overweight users. Through the construction phase, this request vanished, and the swings were assembled with small, narrow seats meaning they went unused by the intended users. This is another example of obstructions in delivering the initial objectives to end users. The architect expressed the loss in translation with his own understanding of the requirement: Some functions were lost along the way, since the history is forgotten through the development process.
A key premise is that knowledge of how site attributes impact the use of urban public spaces for physical activity is essential to develop and make the appropriate design decisions. According to the interviews, the architects tried to make the public spaces available for a wide user group, and a way to secure this is by using interdisciplinary collaboration. Architect and theorist John Habraken pointed out that there is a gap between the initial objectives and the factual use of facilities [31
]. He also questioned whether architects base their solutions on interdisciplinary knowledge as a means to strengthen the basis for design decisions. Today it is too easy for architects to decide what kind of interdisciplinary expert knowledge they incorporate into new projects based on their own “expert” intuition [31
]. When looking at the ecological model of four domains of physical activities, one can conclude that good design cannot change the behaviour of people by itself, but other factors must also be taken into consideration. Therefore, there is an urgent need for a rigorous method that can both systemize and priorities the kind of interdisciplinary expert knowledge necessary to enhance the use of new facilities.
In a review of facilities built for exercise and movement, Wikke and Skoubøll provide examples of how successful research has been integrated into designing indoor facilities for yoga, pilates and fitness; however, no such examples exist for outdoor spaces [32
]. To our knowledge, a large number of urban, public sites are primarily designed using professional experiences and casual subjective knowledge (expert intuition). We hypothesized that this design approach poses a high risk of designing sites with mere aesthetics and low user-friendliness.
Designing to activate certain end-users is a challenging task, especially groups with limited activity experiences in a public setting and low self-esteem. For the same reasons some groups use urban spaces more frequently than other groups [34
]. Traditional methods to inform the design process are widely used, mostly due to a lack of transparent knowledge in the design profession making it difficult for architects to learn from similar projects and bring this knowledge into their own design process. In addition, there is a lack of time and resources for conducting interdisciplinary collaboration. According to the ecological model of four domains of physical activities, good design determines physical activity behaviour but other factors relating to policy, environmental context, demographics and individual values, beliefs, and traditions should be included as parameters in the design assessment. This broad perspective, however, puts demands on interdisciplinary knowledge that exceed what a single specialist can comprehend and deliver. The interviews revealed that the architects had not used any systematic interdisciplinary collaboration. In both projects, the architects had invited sport specialists to inform the design process, but other aspects e.g., accessibility and safety, were not taken into consideration. Studies have shown that less programmed public spaces with open-ended facilities are more likely to attract users who are less physically active [17
], so both sites would have gained by drawing on disciplines other than sport science, such as environmental psychology.
It could be claimed that the initial objectives were not aligned with the local residents’ needs. The Foundation for Sport and Cultural facilities (LOA), who partly financed the parking roof, has a funding policy to support multi-functional facilities based on evidence. The funding strategy also supports new innovative projects that create extraordinary spaces and extraordinary design with an overall purpose to inspire and develop traditional sport architecture and urban planning. This leads to projects appearing as “ahead of their time”, but as a consequence can be out of sync with both owners’ and end-users’ needs. The initial objectives for Guldbergs Plads were apparently not based on any previous research, but a political decision to solve public health issues amongst the inhabitants of Nørrebro.
In the research paper Active use of urban park facilities—Expectations versus reality the authors stress the demand for political involvement to change the planning process of new spaces for physical activity. Lindberg and Schipperijn highlight that the planning process should embed the newest available evidence-based knowledge in future planning of facilities in urban green spaces [27
]. The research paper Translation active living research into policy and practice suggests ten strategies that may help translating active living research into policy and practice. One of the strategies includes interdisciplinary research teams [13
]. This finding supports the hypothesis of this study that the use of transparent evidence in the planning and development process will enhance the performance for the end users. The analyses in our study underpin the need to develop rigorous methodological approach to optimize the conditions for successful construction of future spaces for sport and recreation. The method should draw on knowledge between interdisciplinary fields. There are only a few examples of evidence-based design used to reconcile specific architecture with certain forms of movement [35
], and some research has been carried out on playgrounds specifically [36
]. An explanation for limited research is that the topic is placed between different disciplines, such as architecture, sport, design, physical culture and environmental psychology. Therefore, a broad interdisciplinary scientific approach is required.
Architects do not traditionally conduct systematic evaluations of their finished projects. Typically, they visit the sites and observe the use of the space. If the space is occupied it is assessed as a success regardless of the specific use of the space. The first observations of Lüders parking roof were conducted after the initial opening of the space. We were aware that the publicity of the opening could lead to an increased number of visitors. A comparison of the use during various seasons also revealed that there was a big drop off for Lüders parking roof compared to Guldbergs Plads. From fall to spring there was a drop of 12.4% for Guldbergs Plads and a dramatic drop of 80.5% for Lüders parking roof. JAJA architect indicated in the interview that they often visited their own projects to make self-evaluations. During the first SOPARC observation in the fall of 2016, shortly after the opening, a lot of people visited the parking roof, but according to the observation notes, these people were just observing the new space out of curiosity. The news interest will have a positive effect on the architects’ self-evaluation, but not necessarily over a longer period.
This study used two methods to analyse the two spaces: SOPARC and semi-structured interviews of the involved architects. SOPARC does not examine user satisfaction with the two spaces, but only answers two questions: who and when. Therefore, it could have been interesting to conduct an additional interview or questionnaire that investigated how and why the users were active in each space. The semi-structure interviews provide reliable, comparable qualitative data, but the risk is that the open-ended questions can be difficult to analyze. Furthermore, it is difficult to guarantee the reliability of the participant’s stories, as the research process focused on events and outcomes from the past.
Furthermore, this research paper did not focus on cultural and social differences, such as age, ethnicity and socioeconomic factors at the two spaces, but these may affect the generalisability of these findings. In future studies it could be interesting to include these parameters.