Active Environments

Welcome to our partnership with David Morley Architects.

One of the key proven investments we need to make to increase levels of physical activity is improving our 'environment' to encourage and allow greater levels of movement. It is one of the key foundations of the new Sport England strategy.

We are delighted to be working with the team at David Morley Architects to create discussion around this important topic. This is a collaboration that needs all of us to join the conversation! We look forward to hearing from you.

Andy Reed

Director - Sports Think Tank

Malham Close, Beaumont Leys, adjacent to Barleycroft School

Active environments - the big issue

Posted: Tue, 02 Feb 2021 17:01

Active environments - the big issue

It has now been a week since Sport England published its new, 10-year strategy, which vows to tackle inequality and create a nation of "more equal, inclusive and connected communities" through physical activity. At the heart of the strategy is the realisation that people with the most to gain from being active are, sadly, often the least able to take part.

To achieve positive change and to tackle the inequalities we've long seen (women, individuals in lower socio-economic groups, people with disabilities and those from BAME backgrounds are far less likely to be physically active), the strategy sets out a plan: for the entire sports and physical activity sector to change as an ecosystem, so that people of all backgrounds can access the opportunities they need to get active. Appropriately called "Uniting the Movement" the strategy correctly recognises that no single entity – in this case Sport England – could achieve such an ambitious goal alone. In short, the strategy calls for a whole system approach to achieve change.

"Lots of us care about making life better across society, which means ours is a collective purpose: we're part of a much bigger team"
– Sport England, Uniting the Movement

The strategy identifies five big issues that it wants the entire physical activity ecosystem to join forces on. These are:

1. Recovering from the pandemic

2. Connecting communities

3. Focusing on positive experiences for children and young people

4. Strengthening the connections between sport, physical activity, health and wellbeing

5. Active environments

For Sport England to include active environments as one of its five core issues is particularly pleasing for us at David Morley Architects. As designers working in the built environment, people might expect us to say that, of course. But what pleases us is not any supposed potential and opportunities it might offer to go and build "the new active environments". Rather, what excites us is the recognition that environments matter.

In the strategy, Sport England divides environments into three areas: dedicated sports facilities (pitches, courts, pools), community spaces (parks, schools, community halls) and the wider built environment. Doing so, it also acknowledges that there's no such thing as a neutral space. This is important. Our surroundings – be it rolling countryside or an inner city housing estate – can have a positive or negative impact on not just whether we move, but how, when, and where we move.

For us, active environments will be at the heart of any successful attempt at making people more physically active – including the plans laid out by Sport England last week. Why? Because no matter how a person decides to be active, they will need an environment to be active in. A purpose-designed leisure centre, a home, the countryside, an urban street – these are all environments in which activities are possible.

"The environment is where we all meet; where we all have a mutual interest; it is the one thing all of us share"
– Lady Bird Johnson

As architects, it is easy for us to be enthused about the places of the future and what they might look like. What the Sport England strategy will allow us to highlight, however, is that the places that already exist are just as important. As a practice, this is an area of conversation we have spent a lot of time in recent years.

Active environments aren't something that we have to wait for. They are all around us and already there for most of us. The challenge – or opportunity – is to find them. And to gain the confidence to use them.

Take the Jubilee River near Maidenhead, a man-made flood alleviation scheme which opened in 2002. Consisting of an 11.6 km stretch of naturalistic river and habitats, the scheme reduces the risk of flooding by diverting water from the River Thames. During the past 10 months, as the pandemic hit and purpose-built sports facilities closed, it has attracted an amazing number of people to use it as a source of relaxation, pleasure, socialisation – as well as for sport, fitness and wellbeing.

It's a perfect example of a piece of infrastructure which wasn't designed to accommodate the ways in which people are now using it to get active – far from it. And yet, through people adapting the river to their needs – and/or adapting their activities to fit the space – it has become a hugely important asset for enabling physical activity.

What the Jubilee River – and people harnessing the environment for their exercise – shows is that the absence of purpose-built facilities isn't necessarily the tallest barrier for physical activity. Instead, it could be an issue more to do with the right mindset.

It was at Jubilee River that I witnessed recently, during the brief period of snow we had, a lady in a wheelchair successfully tackle the physical barriers between her and exercise. There she was, on a slippery, snow-covered river bank, making her way down to the water. She successfully negotiated all obstacles – physical and environmental – and got her fix of cold immersion. Inspiring.

Interestingly – and perhaps a bit disappointingly – while people are already finding ways to using the existing infrastructure around them to get active, there might be a bit of work to be done to ensure the importance of active environments is fully appreciated among the sports sector itself.

During its online launch of the strategy, Sport England ran a number of live polls among its web-based audience. One of these asked the audience to pick – in their view – the most important of the five "big issues" identified in the strategy.

The audience – estimated at around 4,000 viewers and consisting of those working in the sport and physical activity sectors – ranked active environments as the least significant. For us, this is both baffling but also exciting, as it makes clear how important it is to share our view on the environment's importance.

We see the environment – both built and natural – being the one thing that connects all of the five "big issues".

By utilising, adapting, being empathetic towards and – in some cases – adding to our environments, we can:

1. help the sector recover

2. connect communities

3. provide opportunities for young people

4. strengthen the connections between sport, physical activity, health and wellbeing

Active environments - the big issue

Could the reason for people not picking active environments as the most important issue be down to them having a different view to what an "active environment" is? Is it because they see an active environment as something that is going to require designing and creating – and therefore as something that is a long way away? Is it because they see it as something that would need wholesale change to achieve and, therefore, significant planning and funding?

If so, the task we face is to begin having a dialogue on what active environments actually are, what they look like and why we can – if we look for them – already find them everywhere around us. We need to focus on helping more people enjoy their environments in the ways they wish to. We also need to explore and discover the mindsets which could help with people searching, recognising and, ultimately, utilising the possibilities that already exist in their own environments.

As architects who've worked in this area for a significant period of time, we see ourselves as perfectly placed to facilitate some of these conversations. Therefore, we will be looking to ignite discussions and spark exchanges around the topic. For this, we look forward to developing our partnership with Sports Think Tank, which we are announcing today.

"We want people to age well...and add life to years"
– Jenny Harries, deputy chief medical officer, England

There is a good reason why Sport England has picked active environments as one of its big issues. It is now down to the likes of us, as specialists in this area, to do our bit in helping them deliver the change they seek.

If we do this successfully over the coming years, we might find that a follow up questionnaire, on the importance placed on the five big issues, will see active environments move off the bottom of the rankings and become THE big issue. An ever-present consideration and the foundation for every positive physical activity experience.

After all, what the Sport England strategy and all other efforts to increase physical activity seek to do is to improve lives. By getting people moving and creating active environments – be it through purpose-built facilities or by discovering methods to use the spaces around us – we ensure that, as well as adding years to life, we are adding life to years.

Active environments - the big issue

Tags: Active Environments, Featured, Physical Activity, Sport England, Sport England Strategy

Comments (4)

1. James Hope-Gill said on Fri, 05 Feb 2021 07:39:

Really keen to engage in this about shareable skateable spaces within urban areas.

2. Rob Wilks said on Sat, 06 Feb 2021 00:15:

I passionately believe that the development of active environments presents a real opportunity to encourage significant behavioral change and my experiences working in second tier local authorities in rural/semi rural areas over the last 15 years has given me a good insight into some of the opportunities and blockages that exist. That is the angle from which I write this and I accept that local context really matters and that there are many factors aside from those few I highlight which may be more relevant for those reading this.

I voted for active environments in the recent Sport England strategy launch (it could have just as easily selected others as they are spot on) as I truly believe that if we get the approach right, the difference that can be made to encourage active behavior and improve local facilities can be significant.

Some reflections:

1. From a person with a passion for enabling physical activity and movement, I found stepping into the the planning and regeneration worlds a shock and very challenging to navigate at first - the language, processes, technicalities, policies and different responsibilities depending what tier authority, were difficult to understand. Affecting change took a long take time, persistence and fortunately, an appreciation from colleagues who I worked with, that the view I was coming forwards with could help and add value to their priorities.

Reflecting on this does make me think - is this how others feel when people from different professions step into the physical activity and movement space or vice versa? The need to listen, simplify our message and find a shared purpose is essential. There is a knowledge gap - both from the planning system and physical activity system and greater collaboration, learning, training opportunities are needed to help improve understanding and realise areas of shared purpose.

2. Developing or refreshing key strategic documents and evidence base was a significant aspect of building better and consistent engagement with planning teams regarding active environments. Local plan policies hooking into physical activity, open space provision, play and sport facilities via playing pitch, open space, built facilities and green infrastructure strategies and active design is vital. They are things that take a lot of time and money to develop but from my experience, they form the bedrock to which further conversations, resources and action can be built around.

How these documents are developed is important: co-designed with colleagues with direct involvement of the physical activity system has to be the norm. My question is how can this be taken further - how can communities simply feed in to the development of these documents for which so much opportunity hinges on? Or is there a different approach that could be considered altogether?

3. Taking strategy into action is my next reflection and over the last 5 years I have seen the benefit of working more closely with planners, planning policy and regeneration colleagues to develop approaches and projects. Being a champion for physical activity at an early stage in the process, taking a holistic view and applying the previously mentioned strategies along with active design principles at every opportunity. In my current role, the leisure and recreation team are consulted on residential planning applications above 10 units and are also involved in pre application meetings. It feels our value to achieving better outcomes and better environments is being recognised. We have also demonstrated the ability to solve problems for planners and it feels this has helped further build trust and value in working in a collaborative way. S106 funding is now an enabler for change, it can leaver in further resources and is the tip of a thread that connects the process to communities. Of course there is then the debate about how new facilities, open space, cycle routes or other infrastructure is maintained - that’s an extremely relevant point, especially in today’s climate, but one for another day.

My question is how can this approach be the norm in every LA? Our approach isn’t perfect, but I do know of many examples whereby colleagues in similar positions have almost no engagement in the planning process. If we don’t have this as a minimum, how do we ensure active environments are rightfully considered within these discussions and how will the opportunities around them be maximised.

4. The different roles that 1st/2nd tier authorities have in the planning system is confusing and hard to engage with, especially for those not traditionally involved. Approaches and priorities do not often align as well as they could do - for example health, transport and education.The design of solutions needs to happen together otherwise there will always be a disconnected and inconsistent outcome. Ultimately it is communities which end up missing out or left to live with the consequences of this disjointed approach especially where two planning authorities are involved.

5. Finally I would reflect on some recent discussions my team are involved in regarding town centre regeneration programmes and the development of local walking, cycling and leisure facility infrastructure as part of them. These projects don’t come around everyday, but when they do, they present an opportunity to really consider a more system wide approach to designing in movement as a central feature to these developments. Discussions are in the early stages but it’s great we are at the table and have a voice...let’s see what we can create together!

I hope my reflections are a useful contribution to this initial discussion and I look forward to reading the thoughts of others as this discussion gathers even more pace over the coming weeks and months.

3. Trevor Smith said on Tue, 09 Feb 2021 13:46:

Totally agree that the environment comes first, and we don't always need to redesign environments. We just need to know them. I wonder how many people are not stepping outside to exercise in these difficult times because they are not confident that their environment is safe or welcoming or suitable for activity. Or maybe they simply do not know what is, literally around the corner. Good local responses could be to target and dispel that lack of confidence

4. Nigel Green said on Tue, 09 Feb 2021 14:08:

A great article Andy. From my point of view I thought that the question about the 'most important issue' was not appropriate as all five were important and as you say, without active environments we cannot be active. You also clearly state the importance of helping people to, find their local active environments, connecting with them and appreciating enjoying their chosen physical activity. In the current climate we have many more people who are realising the value of engaging in physical activity and who are now valuing physical activity. We need to ensure that access to a range of physical activity environments within local communities is a priority.

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We would love to share resources and case studies in this valuable policy area.

Sport England have already done some important work in this area

Modern-day life can make us inactive, and about a third of adults in England don't do the recommended amount of weekly exercise, but the design of where we live and work can play a vital role in keeping us active.

We know sport isn't for everyone, but embracing a lifestyle change to be more active can have real benefits including:

Improving physical health
Increasing mental wellbeing
Building stronger communities.
As part of our drive to create an active environment, Active Design wraps together the planning and considerations that should be made when designing the places and spaces we live in. It's about designing and adapting where we live to encourage activity in our everyday lives, making the active choice the easy choice.

Watch our film below and see how you can encourage people to choose the active option by building an infrastructure that creates opportunities for all types of physical activity.