Placemaking as a solution tackling physical inactivity

The link between HEPA’s promotion of physical activity and the design of built environments is that the streets and squares that make up the public realm provide a valuable platform for daily exercise. However, exercise is just one of several aspects relevant to the healthiness of settlements. The need to rethink these environments to help us lead healthier lives began to be apparent towards the end of the 20th century, and the urgency to do so has been increasing ever since. Many high-level, international organisations whose mission is to combat the explosion of illnesses that result from contemporary lifestyles send out consistent messages about how we can and should lead healthier lifestyles, each one focusing on the aspects of most relevance to its specific concerns.

The project “Placemaking for Physical Activity Toolbox” (PPAT) seeks to bring together the experience of experts in grassroots sport and placemaking sectors and develop a new concept of promoting physical activity and sport in urban settings. Although significant efforts have been made to cope with the issues of urban spaces and physical activity (such as cycling lanes, sustainable transport, walking trails), we feel more effort is needed to create an approach that will be suitable and applicable for the grassroots sport sector as the key driver of sport for all activities that promote health enhancing physical activity. In addition, PPAT will present the interested representatives of the placemaking sector a tested approach – how to design their urban interventions with relevant engagement of grassroot sport organisations.

The relationship between levels of physical activity and the physical environment in cities has been subject to many different studies, often focusing on specific subsections of cities or key aspects of the built environment that might influence levels of activity, such as parks, cycle paths and public transportation systems.

The options for physical activity are not limited to indoor facilities, i.e. sports facilities, indoor pools, or fitness centres. There are also outdoor options, where our activity level to a large extent is determined by the environment we move in. Bike lanes are an invitation to ride a bike, for example. Footpaths encourage walking rather than using the car, and safe school routes make it easier for parents to decide whether to let children walk or bike to school rather than drive them. All in all, beautiful, exciting and safe environments encourage movement, and hence, the design of the urban environment is essential for citizen’s level of physical activity. A growing part of the population chooses to live in the city, and thus, city planning plays an increasingly important role for general public health.

In WHO’s publication “Towards more physical activity in cities” there are a number of studies, in which the built environment has consistently been shown to affect the level of physical activity among the population; thus, there is much scope to use the setting of the city to increase opportunities for physical activity.

In light of this, WHO and other bodies have recommended that the discipline of urban planning should consider the needs of the population in terms of physical activity, and this has been strongly reflected in the well-defined concept of a “healthy city” (WHO)

What is placemaking? Placemaking is a collaborative process in which people come together to create vital public spaces that bring health, happiness and social connection to their communities. Looking at familiar places through new lenses can reveal new possibilities for parks, neighbourhoods, streets, downtowns, waterfronts, plazas, markets, public buildings and other shared places.

Making a place is not the same as constructing a building, designing a plaza, or developing a retail project. As more communities engage in placemaking and more professionals and developers get to call their work “placemaking”, it is important to clarify what the meaning of the process is. A great public, active space cannot be measured by its physical attributes alone; it must also serve people as a vital community resource in which function always trumps form. It is when people of all ages, abilities, and socio-economic background can not only access and enjoy a place but also play a key role in its identity, creation, and maintenance that true placemaking occurs.

Encouraging more physical activity through city-making requires that such efforts are part of, or aligned with, the city strategic political priorities. A thorough understanding of the current state of each individual city is required: what are currently the most significant barriers to promoting physical activity? What other priority challenges could be effectively coupled with efforts to promote physical activity? In which areas would interventions have the biggest impact? While acknowledging that cities are at different stages of development or face different challenges, there is often a need to prioritise, according to the local context. (Who, Gehl)


BG Be Active Association Bulgaria Plovdiv, 9 Sofia Str. [email protected]


This project has been funded with support from the European Commission. This website reflects the views only of the author, and the Commission cannot be held responsible for any use which may be made of the information contained therein.

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