Master´s Thesis 2021 Matter Space Structure

Regina Carlén

Using Architecture to Promote Physical Activity

Designing activity space to encourage Sweden’s most sedentary, with a special focus on
high school girls


Background & Context
To overcome obstacles is tough but wonderfully satisfying.
Physical Activity

The cost to society of unhealthy lifestyles amount to many billions each year, but of course the largest cost is for the individual where unhealthy lifestyles increase the risk of a range of diseases such as cardiovascular disease, cancer, type 2 diabetes and depression. “Many of today’s major public health problems are related to our lifestyle. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 70 percent of all disease in the world by 2020 will be caused by factors related to lifestyle. We also know that increased physical activity in adults would have a major positive effect on the health of the population.” (Riksidrottsförbundet, R&D report 2017: 1) Not to mention the fact that the body feels good from physical activity. This appears as a clear indication that it is time to start valuing the health promotive functions of physical activity and plan for improved and more inviting activity spaces.

The recommendations today from The Swedish Research Council for Sport Science makes it clear that to reach the positive health effects from being physical active, young people should spend at least 60 minutes a day of physical activity of moderate to high intensity. This includes activities such as cycling to school, playing on breaks or entering organized sport during free-time. In addition, to be more strenuous active 3 times per week. (Centrum för idrottsforskning 2016)

Looking in to physical activity and youth in more details, we see today that boys in grade 5 (13 years of age) achieved the highest levels of physical activity, while girls in second year of high school (grade 11, 17-18 years of age) are the least active, where only 14 percent are sufficiently physically active. Furthermore, both boys and girls in second year of high school spent nearly 80 percent of their waking time in sedentary activities. (Centrum för idrottsforskning 2016)

LOA-fonden highlights the reasons for having a not only performance focus, but rather focus on social values to attract young or new user groups. Interpretation of statistics from: Framtidens idrottshall, by LOA-fonden (2020-09-02)

Through interviews it has been revealed that there are many obstacles that stop youth, especially teenage girls, from being enough physical active. This includes pressure to study and succeed in school, a sedentary leisure time in front of screens and social media and dropping out of organized sports even before starting high school. The reason for dropping of sports can be because of things like high costs, difficulties to reach the activity easily without a car or that the focus where too much on competitive sport with too few social qualities. Existing norms and culture among the people in the closest surrounding also contributes. The peak in number of members in organized sports are today when children are 11 years old, after that the decline is distinct. (Riksidrottsförbundet, Idrottsrorelsen i siffror 2018)

Usage of Activity Spaces

The Swedish Sports Confederation highlights current situation concerning usage of activity spaces in their Research & Development Report from 2017.

“It is also obvious that the variety of sports facilities in Sweden is better adapted for men than for females. Leisure surveys and user surveys show that women prefer swimming and indoor activities such as aerobics, yoga, dance and strength training. These activities are often organized by private actors, who often also own / operate the facility where the activity takes place.”

(Riksidrottsförbundet, Fo U-rapport 2017:1)

Correspondingly, the author argues that a future challenge is to plan and design new facilities for spontaneous activity that attract both girls and boys. In addition, to investigate which initiatives can increase equality at existing spontaneous sports facilities. (Riksidrottsförbundet, Fo U-rapport 2017:1) The many activities hosted by private actors tend to be expensive and are therefore not accessible for everyone.

Investigations from Stockholm City shows that girls in high school age think that the city should primarily invest in gyms and to a large extent also at adventure pools and swimming pools, exercise tracks / ski tracks, outdoor gym and beach bath. Boys of the same age prefer football pitches in the first place but agrees with the girls on their wishes as well. (Åkesson, Blomdahl, Elofsson, Vilka idrotts-, motions- och rekreationsanläggningar vill Stockholms stads invånare att staden ska satsa på?) Even in the strategically report about outdoor recreation it is shown that exercise tracks come high on the list of wanted facilities among young people of upper secondary school age and among adults in Stockholm. To be able to offer safe exercise tracks of a high standard is therefore urgent. (Stockholms stads strategi för det rörliga friluftslivet, 2018-2022) Another suggestion could be to prioritize the facilities that currently are used equally between boys and girls.

By focusing on how to attract new user groups, sport facilities should provide good social spaces and therefore it’s also a better place for the regular user. Interpretation of statistics from: Framtidens idrottshall, by LOA – fonden (2020-09-02)

Today there is a huge difference in the usage of public space. In the age 8 – 18, 80% boys make use of the public and only 20% girls. Today, it is mainly young boys who use public spaces for spontaneous sports. (Riksidrottsförbundet, Fo U-rapport 2017:1)

So, what is lacking in order to welcome girls in to our public space? White Architects did a research called ”Places for girls”, which showed that girls asks for the following qualities: Space to make impact, an intimate scale, to see without being seen, to create shelter, adding more character and hang out opportunities. The design and content of these places do not meet the girls’ needs today. (White Arkitekter 2016) With this in mind it seems like just updating existing places for spontaneous sport might not be the solution to get more youth girls and others physical active. There are other solutions required as well.

Recreation Facilities

Today there is a shortage in Sweden of sport facilities, places for sport, recreation, physical activities and everyday activities. The Swedish Sports Confederation emphasises several reasons, for example that urban regions have had a strong population growth for a long time, where the densification of buildings and a change in land use has led to previous areas for recreation is being exploited and converted to housing, places for work or retail space. At the same time, existing stock of sport facilities are today obsolete, outdated and many areas are worn-out. There is also a lack of infrastructure such as communications and parking spaces next to the facilities. Uncertain economic conditions, tight municipal budgets and rising maintenance costs limit the possibility of new and reinvestments. Changed habits with more desire to move more and a raised popularity for new sports among the population also contributes to the shortage. (Riksidrottsförbundet, R&D report 2017: 1)

Lack of resources and knowledge is today dominant among central actors. In Sweden, it is traditionally the municipalities that have been responsible for the majority of the facility expansion. The state previously invested large resources in the sports movement, but nowadays only certain point initiatives are made, above all added operational support to the sports movement. Here, Sweden differs from the rest of Scandinavia, where both the resources and the knowledge at national and regional level are large and absolutely crucial to support the expansion process. As an example of a consequence, many municipalities have chosen to invest in new attractive, large and expensive so-called multi-facilities with many sports areas with PR and event capacity, instead of renovating existing facilities. This has contributed to the number of diverse sports facilities have decreased in number. (Riksidrottsförbundet, R&D report 2017: 1)

”Several researchers have also shown how the public expansion of sports facilities in the 2000s has been significantly affected by powerful special interests (political, membership-oriented, commercial) through networks and partnerships, which have indirectly controlled which sports facilities were built and what design they have taken.”

(Riksidrottsförbundet, R&D report 2017: 1)

The major growth in number of sports facilities in Sweden took place during the so-called “Folkhems” period, 1930–1985, with the purpose to provide a user-oriented policy and expansive development of public sports facilities. The national political ambition was to get more citizens physically active by increasing through spreading of the supply of sports facilities and through stimulating club sports. Today we can see that many of our existing football pitches, tennis courts, electric light tracks, ice hockey rinks, swimming pools and gymnastic halls were added during this period. (Riksidrottsförbundet, R&D report 2017: 1)

To conclude, the existing stock of facilities is in need for renovation to meet new demands. There is also a great potential Sweden have in the existing stock of facilities, but also a shortage in the understanding of their value. Facilities connected to sport associations is extra interesting because of the rarely seen widely spread network of organisations and sport clubs grounded in mainly voluntary commitments, that are not connected to any business or school which is more likely to bee seen in other countries. Finally, there seems to be a great potential to use city planning as a tool to deal with this issue.


On the way to attract young girls to be active, a welcoming place and facility is essential, preferably with a great warm-up and test area and with a couple of different activities placed together. It’s shown that a place where a mixed age group can enjoy to be active lowers the threshold for a low-active person and also for the high school girls in general to use for physical activity or recreation. It’s beneficial if the setting supports an open and social culture around the activity where you can meet friends and have fun together. Additionally, to have a well-designed and scenic place with a close relationship with nature tends to attract a wider range of user. (Pigers Idrettsvanor, LOA-fonden 2017)

Inspiration: Rebuilding of existing unused areas that makes nature accessible within a dense city. Brooklyn Bridge Park’s, a revitalization by 1.3 miles of Brooklyn’s piers and post-industrial waterfront. Now 7 000 people live within a 10-minute walk to a park. Image showing Brooklyn Bridge Park, by Alexa Hoyer (2020-12-07). Source:

To be physical active through life is highly expected for the ones already set the habit in a youth age, therefore actions to improve the amount of physical activity among youth is well spent resources. Public sites for sport, recreation and everyday activities are used by private persons as well as the organized sport community. At the same time, not everyone is attracted by sports, which complicates the discussion about how to support the low-active persons to be more physical active?

Other things highlighted in research to support teenage girls to be more active are: Supporting social structures and meetings in connection with activity. To make nature areas accessible and place activities in well-designed and safe environments. To lower the threshold for the new user. To reduce competition focus. Building for mixed ages. To offer more activities that today are already appreciated by girls. To offer a wide range of activities near schools or where the girls live. By letting architecture support the non-physical structures linked to activity. Such as supporting a well-functioning organization, ensuring that there are role models and inspirers, placing the activity accessible and visible but at the same time not exposed is also important. (LOA-fonden 2020)

The exploration is also about what happens if you decide to listen first! How could interviews with potential users and experts in the field contribute to the process and influence the final result. It’s shown that there is often a lack of participation from both users and potential users regarding how the sports facilities should be designed. This is shown to be an issue, even despite the fact that the municipalities often “speak” in terms of broad democratic support and public responsibility, and that many sports associations today run facilities or parts of facilities for the municipality, or even have represents in the facility councils along with the municipality’s facility managers. (Riksidrottsförbundet, Fo U-rapport 2017:1)

By lowering the threshold for girls to become more active, one could speculate whether our environment would also become more pleasant, adapted and attractive to other groups in society. Inspiration from the Gates Foundation:

”At the core of every problem we’re trying to solve, from poverty to disease, are the undervalued but powerful lives of women and girls. We can’t achieve progress if half the world’s population continues to be left behind, and their potential and talent continues to go untapped.”

(Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation 2020)

Public Health

Public health is a key issue that needs to be improved, together with many others of course, in order to reach a situation where everyone can live healthy in our future cities. It is a part of the Agenda 2030 with the ambition to reach a sustainable situation for our planet. The connection to architecture and public planning is fascinating because it creates the physical framework that we live in every day.

Interestingly, there were shown to be quite difficult to find research from Sweden about what specific architectural qualities that do support and promote a healthy living environment when it comes to promoting physical activity that is not connected to mobility or commute. Maybe it does exist, but is very difficult to find. Hence, this thesis took its staring point in the seeking for more knowledge.

Many sports have their own recommendations for how their facilities should be designed, often focusing on the areas where the competition takes place. But what about the spaces around the competition area? Then one might think of all the new spontaneous sport facilities that have been built at different urban places as a great alternative to the competitive areas. But research is showing the opposite, that there are only a few types of user groups that these places are used by.

At the same time the growing trend of entering private gyms or paddle board centres is obvious when walking or driving through any city today – trend that also is wide spread among high school girls, even though there sometimes are quite expensive activities. Maybe because they hold these less competitive sport focus, provide sessions just for fun, to be done in smaller groups and a flexibility where you do not have to sign up for a specific time every day. The demands from school or work can be an obstacle for youth that wants to be active in a club at a pre-settled time every day. And the norms that social media sends out do not make the relationship to physical activity, body shape norms and expectations on performance easier. It easy to forget that it is okay to only compare yourself with yourself. A thing that might be easier in the nature, where every wall is not covered by mirrors.

By seeking good reference example in the Nordic countries and explore what a public version of an activity space could be, this thesis endeavours to fill a gap between overall strategies and the actual design of the physical space. To search for solutions in all scales with the aim to define what a public version of an activity space is, with well-designed recreation that invites young females.