Going to the beach in Tel Aviv, the capital of Mediterranean cool, is always a pleasure. Many people, lovely weather, blue water. Could you ask for more? Well, a few years ago the city has added a new element to the scenery: outdoor fitness parks. Today, when you go swimming in Tel Aviv, you can also use one the many public gyms that were placed along the city's waterline. Children and families, young and old, fit and... umm, less-fit.
Tel Aviv is of course not the only place that has outdoor gyms. Many other cities have been tapping into the trend: outdoor fitness parks are popping everywhere. Unfortunately, these parks do not always succeed in their task: getting the public to be more active. When not planned right, outdoor gyms can end up as metal white elephants in our public space.
Having designed several outdoor fitness parks, I present here a few steps to create a successful outdoor gym. As an example, I take the case of the Oosterkade, a fitness Park in Groningen, the Netherlands. We have designed it this year, and it's been attracting many users every day, throughout the day. The lessons learned from creating this park can help you plan a better park in your city. So, let's move!
1. Know Who You Plan For
Planning an outdoor fitness park is similar to designing any public place. The key is always to have in mind who you plan for. Is the park located in the city center and serving a broad range of people, or does it intended to be used only by, say, senior residents in a suburban community?
I can't overstate how important this step is. Many companies just neglect the user part. They pitch their parks based merely on looks and price. I've seen proposals (and sadly, real parks) so irrelevant to their surrounding, that I'm sure the designer has never visited the location, let alone spoke with the local residents.
2. Ask the People
So you know for whom you're planning. Now go and talk to them. Don't fool yourself to be able to predict what people want to have in their neighborhood. You'd be surprised how many creative ideas locals can come up with. Reach out, knock on doors, and invite people to meetings.
Unfortunately, many municipalities remember the participation phase only after making the design. They first pay planners and architects, only to then send a letter to residents with the proposal. That's too late and too little.
When planning the Oosterkade, we first met the residents and local stakeholders: students, families, users of a nearby marine, and business owners. In a series of meetings, we planned the park together. They got to sketch their wishes on a map and discuss with neighbors about collective dreams. We asked them WHAT they wanted, and later we figured out the HOW to do it.
Since the goal of the project was to build a fitness park, we made sure to ask active groups from the area. We consulted with the local gym staff, for instance, since they were enthusiastic to use the new park with their clients.
3. It Can't Be Only a Gym.
If your job is to build an outdoor fitness park, and all you offer at the end to users is a fitness park, then you probably going to fail. Outdoor gyms can prosper only when they are part of a public space that offers several options to people.
The Project for Public Spaces calls this concept "The Power of 10+". According to them, places thrive when users have a range of reasons to be there. Outdoor gyms are no exception. They get successful when there are many people around doing other things. Just like any great park: people like to see and be seen. Practicing alone in an empty gym is discouraging.
In our project, we've decided to add several active elements to the park to attract different groups of people. We wanted the hardcore sportspeople to have a place to practice. But we also wanted a place that works for the casual trainers, families, elderly, and children. In a relatively small space, we were even able to fit in a basketball hoop and a playground..
Also, we made sure that the elements can be used in multiple ways:
- The horizontal bars are used to play and as fitness equipment.
- The hopscotch court is not used only by children: I've seen trainers doing push ups and jumps.
- The central calisthenics equipment was placed on a rubber surface so that children will also be able to climb on (and safely fall from) it.
4. Make It Beautiful
Until now we spoke about the functionality, but public spaces should also be interesting and intriguing. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and it's hard to satisfy everybody. However, I have a rule when planning public spaces in general, and fitness parks and playgrounds in particular: make it interesting.
Unlike other public spaces, when planning active parks it's easy to get away with crazy designs. Normally planners don't use creative designs for public spaces. It's an easy way to keep everybody satisfied, but it creates boring and monotonous cities. That's why I urge you to add a bit of color.
For the Oosterkade, we've decided to use vermilion orange across the entire park. The park is located by a marine and vermilion orange is used as a base color for painting ships. A continuous line connects the different elements in the park. The design invites different users to use the entire park, unlike contemporary designs that separate functions (sports field, playground, sitting area).
5. Find the Best Company for the Project
Lastly, you need to implement the park. In this part of the process, I like to be able to choose from a variety of companies and elements. The type of equipment naturally depends on the design and the environment it will sit in, and can range from steel, through wood, to concrete. Look for high-quality products, and try then yourself. In the Oosterkade, Groningen municipality has contracted several companies. We wanted to use stainless steel equipment and to be able to choose their color.
To sum up, planning an outdoor fitness park is not much different than making other public spaces. You must involve the residents and think out of the box. At the end of the day, everybody can place fitness equipment in the public space, but making public gyms interesting is a whole different task.