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Give inclusivity a sporting chance by designing better recreational spaces

January 09, 2023

By Alicia de Haldevang

How truly inclusive design adds value for community sports and play areas.

Last year was an action-packed year for football, with England’s Lionesses stealing our hearts in the summer, and an exhilarating finish to the men’s FIFA World Cup. These tournaments will have inspired young people of all backgrounds to take up the game, and sport in general, with many building their passions in community spaces.

So, when creating shared sports areas for communities, how can we use design to be more inclusive? All too often we see community sports pitches in less desirable locations, catering to only one type of sport, and with few or no provisions for the people that use them. We need to do better.

Working in community development, we always apply a sustainability lens to how we design. When we talk about ‘sustainability’ though, we’re not only referring to environmentalism, measuring our carbon footprint and cutting emissions, but to a wider concept that extends beyond our natural environment.

In our view, sustainability should be considered in terms of three pillars: environmental, social, and economic. In the face of devastating impacts from climate change, each needs to be embedded in our design thinking. This is also becoming a legal requirement for future investment opportunities in the UK.

Is it time to think outside the box?

But back to the game – how do community sports areas fit into the sustainable design puzzle? All our sustainability measures need to work from a human experience and the communities for whom we are designing. There are 11 criteria when we carry out a rapid Health Impact Assessment for a site, and a sports field or play area could fit into four of them: access to health and social care services and other social infrastructure; access to open space and nature; social cohesion and inclusive design; and climate change.

As sustainability and social value consultants, we’ve been questioning how we allocate space for sports and the fact that often planners are drawing up two football pitches to suit one space, often by default.

When this happens, we must ask: who are these plans designed to serve? Are we thinking about if and how they’ll be used, and do they contribute to a development’s green space allocation by their mere presence? As an industry, planners fall short in this pillar of sustainability by providing the same social infrastructure time after time without considering its users.

Supporting safer spaces

Designing with both communities and end users in mind always results in better places. This concept may seem straight forward, but research and books like Invisible Women have exposed the gender gap and show the industry is far from designing places that serve everyone. Urbanists and data suggest that urban planning and design are not gender neutral, and inequality is consistently reinforced by design all over the world.

In the UK specifically, more money has been spent on dog poo bins than facilities designed for girls. Women and children use urban infrastructure such as pavements more than men, yet infrastructure funds are often pointed towards improving roadways rather than ensuring wide, connected walkways. And this means that at night, cities will often lose their female population, with women self-imposing curfews for their safety.

Back to football and campaigns such as Make Space for Girls, which show how young girls don’t just want sports pitches or linear playground areas. Instead, they want better lighting, wider entrances, subdivided sports pitches, grouped seating areas, swings, and quality toilets.

Research by Make Space for Girls also shows most boys would prefer trampolines, outdoor gym equipment, swings, and play/adventure areas, so who are we really providing for when we include two football pitches in a community design scheme?

Girls don’t just want sports pitches. They want better lighting, wider entrances, subdivided sports pitches, grouped seating areas, swings, and quality toilets.

Instead of always adding two football pitches, let’s remove one and change the free space into a more inclusive alternative. From badminton to rounders, volleyball, and hockey, more flexible pitches offer so much more, to so many more.

Encouraging healthy behaviours isn’t relegated to just sports, we also must remember that movement like play, swings, nature trails, running tracks, and athletics all count as exercise, so these need to be built into our play areas. Engaging directly with our communities by simply asking what they would like to have can help us supply the equipment which will be most enjoyed.

The location of these areas is equally important. We need greater surveillance, fewer dark spaces, placement away from imposing wooded areas, with more lights, and circular pathways. All these features can increase security and safety. As two women in our late 20s and 30s, we personally wouldn’t want to play in some allocated play areas we see on some masterplans, let alone if we were 8-year-old girls.

Changing the graphic on a plan might be seem like an unsubstantial task, but the real-life consequences could be the difference between only offering access to one demographic or creating an inclusive space.

Importantly, it’s not about designing anyone out of our spaces but ensuring users can and want to access the same places safely and easily.

Climate change and our green spaces

When we asked our team for memories of their childhood parks, we got a range of flashbacks: concrete blocks with bad lighting, no shade, and metal climbing frames; playground facilities but with groups of older boys on them; fenced off playing areas; dark corners. Grounds that were hot in the summer and a swampland in heavy rainfall.

Recent flooding and heatwaves in the UK have shown us the impact of climate change on our spaces and public health, and the importance of measures to mitigate them. How we design our places to include solar shading, green corridors, water, safety provisions, protection from insects, humidity, and heat stroke will help our communities become more resilient.

One solution or size doesn’t fit all, but we can learn from well-designed areas which already exist and highlight those exemplary places where we’d want our children, friends, and family to spend their time. 

To be inclusive, spaces need to be safe.

Where we place our sports grounds, play areas and parks is crucial in designing for climate change. Better design is all about asking the right questions. Can everyone get there? Are there enough trees to combat the midday sun, or a sudden downpour? Will the surrounding swales become a bog near the swings? If there is an incident, will users be able to get help quickly? Can people with disabilities access the same places to play and rest? Would you want your family or friends play there without supervision?

All necessary questions which need to be asked at the earliest moment in the planning stage.

And can we please think about toilets? The number of public toilets in the UK is crashing by the decade, leading to a major public health crisis. A recent study by Make Space for Girls again shows female participants and researchers are calling for more toilets.

A full sustainability lens or cookie cutting solutions?

Looking at the bigger picture, this really isn’t about football pitches or play areas at all. It’s about how chopping and changing of graphics within sport provision doesn’t just stop with sports – we can do that with biodiversity too. Supplying a green space that covers a mandated percentage of a site appears as ‘cookie cutting’ sustainability -changing one image for another, without thinking about the sustainability impacts, benefits, or reasons behind it. A plan throws up a multitude of challenges and potential solutions, and perhaps to some people, play areas and sports fields are not top of the priority list.

Masterplans are obviously just concept designs—but if we don’t consider who we’re building for and where, and aren't specific about embedding sustainability into a scheme at this stage, will we really change it later?

By taking a full sustainability lens to our designs at the beginning of the process, we can support better equity, health, and climate resilience for future communities, making our spaces better for everyone. 

  • Alicia de Haldevang

    As a sustainability consultant, Alicia is passionate about the steps our companies, clients, and communities need to take to fight climate change.

    Contact Alicia
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