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Vital Cities

Edited on

20 June 2018
Read time: 5 minutes

With recent changes in our life styles, opportunities to be physically active are decreasing. This phenomenon is especially apparent in urban areas where sedentary lifestyle is the new norm amongst the working age population. While there is a body of empirical evidence showing associated health risks, it has also been proven that anyone who increases their level of physical activity, even after a long gap, can obtain health benefits irrespective of their age. In other words, it is never too late to start.

To promote a healthy and physically active lifestyle in the urban environment, a group of cities have joined forces and created the VITAL CITIES network. The network was formed as part of URBACT, a European exchange and learning programme, with the purpose to facilitate social inclusion and combat inactivity. Participating cities entered a dialogue and learning process to find out how to redesign and reconstruct public spaces and turn them into a low threshold sport facilities close to people's homes.

The result of the process is a set of innovative tools and methods to be used in urban design and planning to reshape public spaces linked to sport and physical activity. The findings and conclusions of VITAL CITIES are relevant for the different governmental levels, including the European Commission.

Vital Cities

The concept

The trend of decreasing physical activity shows a strong correlation with gender and socio-economic status. The strategy to invest in large sport facilities with special attention to equity, deprivation and vulnerability have only been partly successful in European cities. Participation in organised sports is still decreasing and engagement in physical activities is simply too expensive for many.

Therefore, a new angle has been explored: instead of bringing the inactive citizens to the sports facilities, public space itself should be turned into a low threshold facility inviting all citizens to use it. Opportunities for physical activity need to be created close to where people live and the design of the wider urban context have to encourage participation.


Within these domains the project concentrated on the following themes

when designing for PA in deprived areas:

  1. Implementing community-based actions to redesign public space
  2. Implementing IT-based actions to redesign public space
  3. Better orchestrating the services coordinated by the city to promote healthy life style and contribute to social inclusion
  4. Establishing innovative physical (not IT) equipment to promote sport in public spaces
  5. Organisation of innovative events to promote healthy lifes tyle


The process

As a first step, each partner city went through a systematic self-review process and identified development challenges in their own target area or topic. As part of this exercise, they questioned their policy development and implementation practices in relation to providing infrastructure for physical activity. Cities focused on policy and planning including monitoring aspects, socio-spatial profiles as well as financial and management issues.

Building on the self-analysis exercise, 10 Deep Dive visitations (micro-consultancy sessions) took place. Each participating city nominated local experts with relevant experience and knowledge who would visit host partners and assist them in developing solutions to their issues. After interviews, and site visits experts provided an external perspective on the target area and made suggestions for its improvement.At the end of the process, a Deep Dive report was drawn up by the visitation delegation of 2 or 3 cities which summarised the results of the workshops and the recommendation for action plans.

Integrated Action Plans (IAPs) were drawn up by URBACT Local Groups, which bring together key stakeholders interested in designing for the improved conditions for physical activities and design. IAPs were designed as integrated local strategies to tackle the particular problems of physical activity levels of the population specifically in the field of social and built environment and governance. They integrate the lessons from the Deep Dive Process and differ for each participating city according to their needs. During the lifetime of the projetc, cities have implemented a number of small pilot activities such as delivering new PA activities on public spaces and working on their media presence.

Another outcome of the process was developing a feasibility study for the creation of a label that would be funded on the VITAL CITIES principles. The label would represent the commitment of cities towards the common goal of the network and become an internationally recognised brand.


Lessons Learnt

The VITAL CITIES network of the ten partner cities identified and agreed in the need of policy changes, which are to facilitate physical activity promotion in deprived ideas. The lessons cities learnt throughout the process can be grouped into 5 main categories:


  1. The necessity to establish more inclusive governance

The Integrated Action Plans which were some of the key outputs of the process contain a number of area based strategies. Partner cities acknowledged that achieving the objective of these strategies requires improving their governance mechanism on a horizontal as well as vertical level. The horizontal dimension of governance means cooperation arrangements between different fields (sports, public health, economics, environmental). It is important that different departments adopt promoting PA as a priority and consciously focus on collaboration.

The vertical dimension refers to a well-established system that provides the operational framework for neighbourhood level decisions to be channelled into city level strategies and thereby ensuring their timely implementation. The action plans need to be closely related to the formal planning system and make links to spatial strategies.

In terms of community engagement, the importance of clear communication and active participation was highlighted. Following-up with participants after engagement exercises can foster a continuous interest in the cause and prevent consultation fatigue.It is also recommended to let communities have a say in practical decisions such as budgeting.


  1. The need to enhance monitoring

In the Baseline Study, it was stated that there is a lack of systematic monitoring and evaluation of the outcomes of sport or physical activity-based projects.This is partly due to the difficulty in defining and measuring outcomes; the spontaneous nature, or short-term duration of such projects and limited funding.

Using technology and collecting data more efficiently has proven to help understand who participates in PA and what is the barrier to those who do not. Birmingham has provided a great example by gathering a series of data and maps that provide a strategic demographic understanding of the city. The audit shows the footprint of the existing wellbeing service delivery and helps to highlight opportunities such as the abundance of green space that could be utilised to create ‘wild’ routes in the city.

In many cases, the necessary data already existed in some shape and form but was often held by different organisations. Bringing these sources together and managing them in one place allows for a deeper analysis of the available information.


  1. The need to improve social inclusion

Social inclusion related to increased PA is the most common issue for the VITAL CITIES partners and the one which partners found most problematic. Firstly, social inclusion had to be defined in such a way that permits measurable indicators (e.g. income, employment, education, gender, ethnicity, religion, culture, migrant status and social capital etc.)

As part of different governmental programmes and other projects a number of actions were carried out in target areas with the aim to facilitate inclusion and social cohesion. However, partners were unable to report many tangible results in overall participation in PA. With regards to the VITAL CITIES topics, partners could rarely demonstrate with data the eventual link between social status and physical inactivity.

It was concluded, that when looking at physical activity promotion in general, and in the case of socially disadvantaged groups, the main difference is the “how”. It matters greatly how targeting is done, how interventions are delivered and how much the reports to reach the respective target group can be increased. There is a need for more intensive support at all stages, including project time duration, funding and capacity-building needs.

The key question is how to change people’s mind-set towards physical activities, achieving behaviour change. Organising social activities and building connections within the area (reach out to schools; the local community etc.) are some of the tools that can help motivating people to participate. Rebranding as part of the regeneration programme and publicising success stories is also a positive measure that targets the image of the area.

Raising awareness about existing PA activities and facilities is another crucial step. Reaching out to target groups has to be done with sensitivity, keeping in mind that no one likes being labelled as `disadvantaged`. Communication, in persion as well as through social media is key to success in order to increase outreach. Incentives such as rewards for participation or PA related beenfits ast work are also promoted as positive tools.


  1. The need for improving facilities

The target areas of the VITAL CITIES partners are mostly public spaces in proximity of housing estates, urban green spaces (parks and forests) and waterfront areas. These areas suffer from a number of issues such as the lack of green spaces, increased car traffic as well as neglect and vandalism which can make them feel unsafe and unattractive. Due to the broad definition of PA, there is a need to apply multiple interventions to different aspects and features of the built environment (streets, public space design, public transport, road network etc).

Many cities for instance are going through a bike revolution. However there is still so much to learn about maximising the economic benefits of cycling and perfecting the infrastructure for users. Some countries in the EU, like the Netherland and Belgium have already systems put in place like the bicycling ‘nodes’ network’ that could be explored by other partners.

The right type of intervention is to be identified by thorough analysis and people’s involvement. It is important to think about the wider infrastructure (paths, lightning, road and pedestrian access) as well as the equipment that is installed onto public open spaces. Accessibility needs clear organisation of urban flows and continuity of the street pattern, linking open spaces and the core areas of the city. Routes which integrate active travel means, public transport and well as cars create vital artilleries for the city. Connectivity is also crucial for those who are involved in activities such as skating or water sports. For new equipment, recycled materials which are sourced locally can be ideal low cost solutions.


  5. The need for shared responsibilities

As already stated in the governance chapter above, there is a need for new governing spaces that allow for social innovation and experimentation between public, private, voluntary and academic sectors. Urban projects require moving beyond binaries of ‘top down’ and ‘bottom up’ governance and create a cooperative environment where stakeholders share problems and address them together. A collaborative approach - `co-production`- can catalyse grassroot initiatives which otherwise may have a low capacity and increase awareness and involvement in shaping public spaces.

Regarding PA promotions in terms of facilities and activities, the involvement of the community has far reaching benefits. It increases the liveability of the neighbourhood, contributes to safety and decreases criminal and anti-social behaviour and as an overarching result people identify with their neighbourhood and public space and feel ownership towards. Where communities are actively involved in the management of their open spaces (e.g. , municipalities benefit from reduced maintenance costs.

One of the key recommendations for creating a collaborative environment is being strategic about forming connections with partners. Expectations towards all parties should be clear and it helps if their motives are understood from the beginning. An agreed vision should be established, expressing what people think their particular neighbourhood should be like in a given period of time and that the planned activities are designed to serve the achievement of the agreed vision. The strengths of the area (e.g. heritage, tourism destination, great food venue) can be built on and used for branding.

Author: Twan DE BRUIJN