Martin Bransby 25 June 2021

We need to put fun back into urban design – and councils are key

We need to put fun back into urban design – and councils are key image

In 2009, Volkswagen famously achieved viral marketing success with a clever video campaign known as ‘The Fun Theory’. Filmed in Sweden, it presented several short videos showing people making positive lifestyle choices because of one simple incentive: fun.

If you’re familiar with the campaign you may recall the Piano Staircase, where crowds of people were motivated to walk up a flight of stairs instead of using an adjacent escalator. This was achieved simply by turning the ‘traditional’ stairs into a musical piano.

Of course, it wouldn’t be realistic to convert every set of stairs into a piano in order to encourage active lifestyles. The video did however reinforce a very valid point; that people will change their behaviour, for both individual and collective benefit, if they are given impetus to do so.

We’ve seen this point made clearly over the last 18 months, albeit in different circumstances as a result of the global coronavirus pandemic. With a threat of contagion, we all quickly became accustomed to social distancing, wearing masks, and washing our hands more frequently.

While responding to the virus hasn’t exactly been fun, it resulted in some noticeable changes to our use of public buildings and public spaces, particularly in busier towns and cities.

New one-way systems have meant changes to building entrance and exit points, creating slightly longer walking distances. Many streets and roads have closed to vehicles while pavements have been widened to allow pedestrians more space. As peak transport times have become sporadic and a little less predictable, cycle lanes have been widened, and more green interventions have taken place.

Another change has been a greater focus on the built environment’s relationship with outdoor spaces. We’ve seen the introduction of more street-facing vendors on busy throughfares for example. Outdoor seating areas for bars and restaurants have grown, while entire streets have been reconfigured to bring the inside outside, allowing for al fresco dining. Time will tell if such changes will endure.

Having to walk a little further within and between buildings, spending more time outdoors, or choosing cycling instead of driving, all has a positive impact on health and wellbeing. If people respond well (and quickly) to stimulus that encourages such positive change, it begs the question – what else could be done to create a more exciting and transformative public realm? And how can we create better spaces that are geared towards improving both physical and mental wellbeing?

Design techniques for new leisure centres and sporting facilities can give some clues as to which areas we should focus on more stringently. The newly opened Tameside Wellness Centre in East Manchester is a prime example. There are many reasons you might choose to visit the Centre in addition to its main offer of a gym, swimming pool and spa. Whether that’s to attend a workshop or community meeting, to enjoy good coffee with wifi access, or join activities in a number of multi-purpose studios.

The Centre has been designed to incorporate both leisure and non-leisure facilities so that alongside typical services, visitors will find GP referral rooms next to a soft play area for children, a ten-pin bowling zone, community meeting rooms, and a main social space with separate areas for arts performances, a cafe, and a library. The roof of the Centre has been designed to accommodate a sensory garden and has extra space for outdoor activities including an outdoor cinema. With just a little extra investment for such an initiative, more use of the building is encouraged and across a space that rarely gets used, making it much more efficient and allowing for better programming with the added outdoor accessibility.

This kind of design is about dangling carrots. One-off visitors arrive at the Wellness Centre in one context, but the building layout encourages them to consider other activities or uses too. Passers-by meanwhile will see activities taking place through the large expanses of glazing. The message they should take away is that it’s ok to participate, in fact it is welcomed.

It is important that we are always encouraged to think beyond the development site. Whether building a leisure centre or otherwise, we should be connecting boundaries and purposes together better. The problem is whilst all buildings can extend visually beyond their site, development of external spaces can only extend to the edge of their site boundaries.

Local authorities play a pivotal role in this sense. While many councils are once again having to tighten their belts, now is in fact the time that the Government should be investing more ambition into their public spaces – encouraging developers to deliver more active spaces that connect the dots within and between buildings – to encourage and promote healthier lifestyles.

As we seek to recover from the effects of the pandemic, council leaders have it in their gift to become adventurous and creative – they have an opportunity to put more fun into urban design. A good place to start would be by adopting Sport England's 10 principles of Active Design.

It’s just common sense that if you can encourage more people to keep moving and to stay active for longer periods of time, they are less likely to experience health issues that might see them visiting their GP surgery or requiring other NHS interventions.

Good health is a consequence of good social design. Volkswagen demonstrated an awareness of this more than a decade ago with their viral campaign. Yet they are, after all, a car manufacturer and have had their fair share of controversies since.

A car manufacturer’s video may go viral and be etched into our memories, but it is a longer-term vision – driven by the public sector - that will take bravery and gusto to truly put the fun and broader purpose back into urban design. It may mean doing things differently and putting some radical plans into place, but ultimately active spaces can have a real benefit to the public and should be given a much greater opportunity to be explored.

Martin Bransby is a director at Pozzoni Architecture

Photo: Tameside Wellness Centre by Pozzoni Architecture

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