Active environments - the big issue
Posted: Tue, 02 Feb 2021 17:01
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
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.