Revitalizing Urban Communities Through Sports
Building more inclusive, sustainable, and globally engaged communities and cities can be done in many different and complementary ways. Admittedly, it can only be done well if we recognize the integrated and multi-faceted nature of our urban systems – by marshaling the cooperation and resources of various levels of government, different departments within governments, cross-sectoral actors, and by paying attention to as many of the different dimensions of our societies as possible (economic, environmental, social, cultural, health and well-being, etc.).
One of these dimensions that is often overlooked is that of sports and active recreation. The opportunity for everyone in society to participate in these is a fundamental component of healthy and inclusive communities. According to the World Health Organization, physical inactivity is the fourth leading risk for mortality in the world. Beyond the evident positive physical and mental health implications, improving levels of physical activity would substantially reduce the direct and indirect economic and fiscal costs of poor health, which increase as societies become older and healthcare costs rise. According to one study, cutting inactivity by a fifth could save €16.1 billion and prevent 100,000 deaths in Europe annually.
Moreover, sports and active recreation also contribute to less tangible but important components of what we consider social cohesion, such as connectedness, social networks, trust in people, acceptance of diversity, respect for social rules, and civic participation. These positive impacts become increasingly salient in the context of growing physical inactivity and sedentariness, and demographic change.
Since physical activity in childhood is a significant determinant of healthy habits in later life, and because there is a big drop in physical activities in adolescence and pre-adolescence, focusing on youth sports and active recreation is fundamental. In transatlantic communities, there are declining rates of physical activity among youth. In the U.S., less than half of children between 6 and 11 meet the U.S. Surgeon General’s recommendation for physical activity. Across the Atlantic, 83 percent of 11-15 year-olds in the EU are estimated to be inactive. In the United States and Europe, there are significant differences in participation levels between gender and socio-economic groups. Moreover, in the United States family income is the single strongest determinant of a young person’s participation in healthy physical activity, and in Europe statistics show a similar correlation between activity level and socio-economic standing.
Giving everyone, especially youth, the opportunity to be physically active in an equitable and inclusive way is critical and will only become more critical given current trends and developments. In parallel, efficiently using or re-using urban infrastructure and public space in a way that enables and encourages physical activity also contributes to making cities more sustainable and resilient. Beyond the entertainment value that people derive from watching or taking part in it, sport has an important role in advancing urban and societal transformation.
While it is common to hear that cities need to have a bigger part in addressing the policy challenges of our time, and this is surely true in many contexts, in the case of sports and active recreation they have the competencies in place to assume a leading role. Actually, local solutions are key. The bigger challenge is leveraging the resources, generating capacity and knowledge, and applying good practices to effectively shape and influence rates and quality of sports participation and active recreation.
In Southeast Michigan and Western New York in the United States, the Ralph C. Wilson Junior Foundation, in coordination with the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan and the Community Foundation for Greater Buffalo, is working to do just that. Based on the framework of the Aspen Institute’s Project Play (Sport for All, Play for Life: A Playbook to Get Every Kid in the Game) and the local and regional analysis carried out for southeast Michigan and western New York, cross-sector local stakeholders are collaborating to improve access to sports for all children and youth in their communities, regardless of location, income, or ability.
The German Marshall Fund’s Urban and Regional Policy Program is contributing to this endeavor by leading a study tour approximately 40 such stakeholders from both states to explore and learn how their peers in two European cities work and operate in these areas. Participants will embark on a week-long visit to the Ruhr region in Germany and Barcelona with the goal of inspiring and informing new ideas on policy and practice.
While they face similar challenges, the important differences between the U.S. and European youth sports systems lend themselves to interesting explorations of diverse approaches and methods for seeking to improve equitably and sustainably the health and wellbeing of urban communities. While each system and context has its strengths and weaknesses, seeing and understanding the different ways in which local authorities can interact with schools, non-profit organizations, sports associations, and professional clubs to enable and promote physical activity, or how abandoned space and unused infrastructure can be creatively reconverted into recreational space, are just some of the ways that transatlantic peer learning can help inform and inspire local endeavors.
More broadly, understanding how youth sports fits into a broader societal vision for change, or how sporting events can be leveraged to transform a neighborhood or city, can also inspire collaborative local efforts on a more strategic level. Participants in the study tour will be visiting the Ruhr region, the heart of Germany’s former coal and steel industry, where the industrial landscape has been repurposed into a connected network of over 400 kilometers/248 miles of green walking and bike trails. They will also visit Barcelona, where the hosting of the 1992 Olympic Games was used not only as an excuse to reinvent parts of the city physically, but to catalyze an economic, urbanistic and social transformation that turned it into its modern and attractive self, leaving some to claim that it took a qualitative leap of more than 25 years in just six.
 Boykoff, Jules (2014). Celebration Capitalism and the Olympic Games. Routledge.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.