Weaving Fitness into Urban Design

By Mihir Desai

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As the space of the city is hijacked by the air-conditioned car, the elevator and escalator; the focus of urbanism in favor of the pedestrian, the cyclist, the free runner, and the explorer is compromised. In modern society, often the fitness debate revolves around how people can keep themselves healthy to endure the everyday city by consuming healthy diets, a gymnasium membership, a yoga program, or a tummy tuck-in device. The city life cannot provide a healthy life hence; a particular space where a citizen can ‘get fit’ is produced i.e. the space of a gymnasium, jogger’s park, heath spa etc. As Foucault would say, the society thus creates a certain idea of ‘health’, which generates the space of the gym, jogger’s park and spa. Such a produced space for fitness generates a sub-culture of ‘gym-goers’, ‘yoga-doers’ and ‘health joggers’. These bodies are formed in the city, which otherwise cannot produce a method of urbanization which integrates fitness within its design. Instead of creating heterotopias of fitness where one ‘has to go’ to get fit, what if our cities where inherently designed for the pedestrian, the cyclist, the free runner and the explorer. What kind of urbanism would induce fitness in a society? Let us look at a few ideas and imaginations, which re-think the space of the city towards an urbanism for healthy physical living:


The Walkable City

If the pedestrian must have the first priority over a car on the street, we should ensure how walkability can be engineered in a city. One must design contextual public amenities within a comfortable walking radius of a neighborhood to ensure streets are active with eyes on the street around the clock. Horizontal walkability, which the street affords, should seamlessly merge into vertical walkability, which opens up new ground planes for the city to claim space for play, leisure, wending, commuting etc. The question then asked should be ‘What kind of architecture and program can help this kind of walkability to be possible?’ Is it possible to have streets in the air? Is it possible to have streets inside public buildings? Thus expanding the definition and territory of walkable spaces in public forums will help boost public ground area available for citizens to walk in a city.

The Cycle City

In order to promote green transport and public health, through cycling, a city should commission a survey to map footfall at the regularly visited destinations. Such a survey would help to understand how many citizens visit which public amenity, at what time, on an everyday basis. An effort should be made to ensure that these hotspots are connected to neighborhoods and other public amenities via lanes, which enable a cyclist to reach these destinations in a hassle free commuting experience. A city whose markets, schools, libraries, malls, bus stops, railway platforms, metros stations are connected to housing fabrics via surgically inserted bicycle lanes, shall help include fitness for healthy living by re-thinking the idea of commuting, by re-imagining the city as a thin network of ten minute bicycle rides juxtaposed on existing road networks of a city.

The Play City

Usually, building complexes in the main city and suburbs would be composed of three things: the building footprint, the open space left for residents and the parking space for their cars. In recent years as the ownership of private cars has increased, the open space inside building complexes gets consumed for car parking, depriving residents of their open space which is used for play, walk, gardening etc. Today’s development control regulations ensure that haphazard parking spaces should be organized in a manner, which can accommodate as many cars possible on the ground plane of a redeveloped or newly constructed building. In some cases this leads to the creation of a podium, which displaces the idea of the ground plan to an elevated height, disconnecting it from direct access to the network of streets formed in time. In cases where a podium cannot be proposed, the building footprint in raised on stilts and car parking elevators are installed to accommodate two cars in the place of one. These elevators being very bulky and space consuming, the amount of usable open space inside a building complex is reduced. Apart from challenging the DCR one also needs to ask the question, “How does one expand the idea of play space from the building complex, to the street or to the nearest playground?” One needs to start looking at the city and its vestigial spaces, which are often left vacant. Citizens must form committees and explore their neighborhoods in search negative spaces, which can be programed to activate spaces of play, gathering, meeting etc. Why can we not re-imagine the space under a flyover bridge to be used for recreation? In a neighborhood deprived of public ground area; can people use the terraces occasionally for play? Can dead streets be activated by retrofitting them with urban furniture? Can we re-think the space of vertical circulations inside buildings and design them as spaces where people gather and play? Parkour, an interesting form of free running in the urban realm, continuously questions our definitions of what is a place to walk, play, run and jump in a city, which transcends the notion of boundaries. Play space is everywhere in the city and as citizens we must claim them for our well-being.

The Green City

Nature in the city has a direct impact of the physical health of its citizens. A city must hence form its own contextual way of understand what nature means in its territory, map it and study their ecological importance for the well being of the population. A city should ensure that its residents are continuously exposed to natural edges, ecological hotspots in its territory when they commute from one palace to another. A city development plan in favor of its ecology and citizens wellbeing must ensure that natural edges must not be privatized so that the public at large can access them for recreation. Green spaces encourage people to come out, play and walk. Patches of natural landscapes which are left defunct, or landscapes at the edge of the city limits should also have a ‘use value’ for recreation to prevent market forces from encroaching them under the guise of development. Doing so also equips citizens to create a place for these landscapes in collective memory and protect them. By doing so, a city can release these spaces for recreation, play and leisure on an urban scale, in favor of the pedestrian, the cyclist, the free runner, and the explorer, ensuring that physical well being and fitness is a product of day to day urbanism. What are the other ‘such’ cities we can imagine?


Mihir Desai is a recipient of the golden merit award for ‘Asian Contest for Architecture Rookies’ and has represented India at the 4th ACARA held at Vietnam. He is currently pursuing his bachelor’s thesis at Kamla Raheja Vidyanidhi Institute for Architecture and Environment. He can be reached at mihir7desai@gmail.com