About one-third of youths and two-thirds of adults in America are overweight or obese. Although we have attributed our bulging waistlines to many factors, such as diet and genetics, the designed environment rarely receives the finger pointing. Our automobile-dependent suburbs and sedentary learning and work environments help us average more than 20 hours per day indoors. Designers have an opportunity—if not a responsibility—to encourage healthier lifestyles.
One solution may be found in the worldwide parkour, or “freestyle,” movement. Founded in the 1920s and further developed by French athlete David Belle in the 1980s and ’90s, parkour regards buildings and urban environments as playgrounds and obstacle courses to be traversed in the most efficient manner possible. Acrobatics are often involved, but equipment is not; even shoes may be considered excessive.
Architecturally, parkour defies established mores about recreational spaces. Although the sport has dangerous elements, the fitness opportunities it proffers and its tangible connection to architecture deserve attention.
Several projects demonstrate the potential of urban freestyling. MountMitte, a parkour mecca in Berlin, is an urban playground on steroids: a multidimensional, multifaceted obstacle course complete with zip lines, barrel runs, and suspended cars. This 1,000-square-meter (10,764-square-foot) adventure park by German design firm Inhaber + Bau KristallTurm will pique the interest of even the most sedentary teenager or adult.
In the Ørestad neighborhood of Copenhagen, Plug n Play by Denmark-based Kragh & Berglund Landscape Architecture & Urban Design weaves a collection of activity spaces into the fabric of the surrounding neighborhood. On its website, the Danish Architecture Center promotes this local treasure: “The underlying idea is to enable users to readily establish, develop, and test new forms of culture and sport in the area. Moreover, users should be able to ‘log in to’ the various activities with ease and without any obligations.”
Interior environments are also fair game for unconventional play. For the Illoiha Omotesando fitness club in Tokyo, Japanese design firm Nendo created a two-story climbing wall that uses custom-made picture frames, mirrors, birdcages, and other traditional furnishings in lieu of faux rocks and plastic handholds. Nendo states that it hoped to “provoke people who have not been interested in this sport to give it a try.”
The firm hits it home: Designating areas that adhere to a strict vocabulary for exercise may alienate potential newcomers to athletics and sport. Rather, by assimilating recreation space into the broader physical environment, architects can encourage physical activity—and reinvigorate their own designs.
Our obesity epidemic has reached a perilous threshold, and we need new solutions. Like the parkour movement, it’s time for architecture to bring exercise into the foreground of everyday spaces—and to the forefront of our lives.