Parklife: how exercise can help us rethink the value of London

London is full of free places to exercise (Yui Mok/PA) (PA Archive)
London is full of free places to exercise (Yui Mok/PA) (PA Archive)

It’s Saturday morning in Osterley Park, Hounslow, and the 411th Osterley parkrun is up and running. Though some might jog or walk the five-kilometre course.

Parkrun is a popular community event, where runners of varying abilities congregate each Saturday morning to run. It was founded in 2004 in Bushy Park, London, and now takes place in more than 2,000 locations around the world.

Today, there are similar schemes, some geared exclusively towards children. One, ParkPlay, also takes place on a weekend morning, and involves two hours of games led by a “playleader”. In Osterley Park, the session is held by George, a secondary school PE teacher. The concept is beginning to take off.

Gyms may be beyond many of us in challenging economic times, but there’s plenty to do outdoors, especially in warmer weather. Still, there are concerns some outside spaces might yet be impacted by the desperate need for more housing alongside a burgeoning population.

Thankfully, some architects and developers are becoming increasingly aware of the importance of bringing parks to the people, especially in tight city settings where space is limited.

One example is the Pudding Mill Lane site in Stratford, adjacent to the DLR station, which is being designed for the LLDC by Gort Scott, 5th Studio, and JCLA. This scheme forms a key piece in the Olympic legacy plan, taking back some industrial wasteland for a new generation of residents.

Gort Scott director Jay Gort said: “It’s not just a case of creating high-quality public spaces. We’ve thought carefully about how we build the network of roads and paths in the site so that they’re all playable – pedestrian spaces in which people of all ages can walk across the estate without worrying about vehicles.”

The various types of play space on the site will be knitted together via ‘play loops’ - safe and well-considered routes for the movement of children and young people of all ages.

All very well of course, but how do you know what younger generations actually want?

Gort added: “Engaging the younger members of the public isn’t always easy. A series of walkarounds and design workshops were held to balance out the perspectives being shared.”

An approach that considers the future, as well as the now, is hugely important. Many will consider shops, transport, schools, and green spaces when settling down and embedding themselves into a community. Pubs, restaurants and other social spaces are important too. It’s about ensuring a multi-generational balance.

The new Battersea Power Station development is very telling, with sports brands and gyms aplenty and its strapline of, ‘Eat, Drink, Shop and Play’.

We can’t always rebuild in such a dramatic way as at Battersea Power Station. We need to be creative with existing sites, too, and work to much smaller budgets. Table Tennis England has done an excellent job with its ping pong initiative, which fills empty shopping centres with exercise sites.

Sam Fox, head of research at retail estate manager and investment business Ellandi, said these schemes are practical in a changing landscape: “Not only does encouraging people to be more active have a positive impact on their health, but it also aids the performance of shopping centres.

“Research across our portfolio suggests shoppers who include leisure activities as part of their trip visit 20 per cent more frequently than average. In addition, nearly half of those aged under 30 that we interviewed wanted more leisure facilities within their local centre.’’

London is changing. We need more ParkPlays and park runs, but we also need to think differently about why people live here in the first place. Turning London into one big sports centre won’t solve all our problems, but it’ll certainly help.