Thursday, February 24, 2011

Can Street Furniture Bring Street Fitness? Find out at Openfile Toronto

Being fortunate in the past to have served as an editor at Spacing Magazine, I have come to notice installations of new objects in public space much more than I would have previously. And this tendency doesn't just apply to public art, or to public typos. In the fall, the installation of some public athleticism--ie. new outdoor gyms in Toronto--also caught my eye.

At first, these gyms appealed to the (very strong) nostalgist in me, bringing back the afternoons I once spent jogging around woodchip-lined Calgary fitness parks in the 1980s and 1990s. (Oh for the days when I could do a chinup!)

Then, I started wondering... why bring the outdoor fitness "park" back after so many of them from the 80s seem to be decrepit and abandoned?

Could this be part of a wider trend to remove "sedentary" street furniture like benches and bus stop shelters and replace them with more sporting types of equipment?

Today Openfile Toronto published my brief look at some of these questions. An excerpt:

Over the past year, new outdoor gyms have been installed in four Toronto parks: Woodbine Beach Park; Julius Deutsch Park (formerly Cecil Street Parkette) and Sally Bird Park, both in the Annex; and Glen Ravine Park, near Eglinton Avenue East and Midland Avenue. All are public; all are free. The largest, arrayed around the Woodbine Beach playground, has seven stations that can accommodate a total of twelve people, and includes a leg press, seated back row, and elliptical trainer. The smallest, at Sally Bird Park, has three stations—a chest press, air skier, and warm-up-and-stretch station—that can handle four users.

“If we could do this everywhere, we would,” says Catriona Delaney, manager of Get Active Toronto, a nonprofit that helped coordinate placement of the Woodbine and Glen Ravine gyms. “If kids are brought to the playground, but their parents are sitting on benches, what message does that send? We’d like to build a physically active culture by default rather than by mandate.”

This outdoor-fitness trend has some eighty-year-old precedents. In the 1930s, with unemployment at its height, concerns about declines in physical activity, combined with the need for make-work projects, resulted in the construction of walking trails in many parts of Canada. And in the '60s and '70s, governments, warned about the health effects of increasingly sedentary lifestyles, installed wood-and-steel fitness circuits like the Vita Parcours in Sunnybrook Park.

Delaney says that now's the time to further remove barriers to physical activity in Toronto. “We have the fastest-rising obesity rate of any city in the country,” she says. “These gyms are great for people who are just starting to be physically active. And we need that. We don’t all have the means to hire personal trainers, right?”

While these sites are great in a lot of ways, there's also some valid concerns about them. Read on at Openfile for those.

A few more extra notes of interest on this topic:

City Councillor Adam Vaughan, who faciliated two of the parks, told me he would one day like to see a park in his ward where the electric lights or other electric features are powered by the actions of people on these types of gym machines.

There's a variety of ways these parks have come to be across Canada. In Red Deer, they were implemented through a health-care interest group formed of doctors. In Calgary, two members of the community pushed for them. In many places, though, it is something that the muncipality decides they are going to do.

There are actually a lot more of these gyms in Canada's smaller cities than in its larger ones. Fort McMurray claims to have the largest outdoor gym in Canada, for instance.

The main domestic competitor for GreenGyms, which manufactured Toronto's outdoor gyms, is Alberta's Fitness Outdoors. I wonder how different these pieces of equipment art.

And I'd be remiss if I didn't point out Spacing's blog post and comment thread on these types of gyms in China.

Finally, there is a whole other realm that could have been investigated here on the aesthetic qualities of these gyms--colour choices, design, etc. I'll leave that to my more artistic readers, for now.

(Image of some chest press and back row machines at Woodbine Beach from OpenFile by Christopher Drost)


sportsbabel said...

hey, thanks for this! did not know that T-dot was getting into the outdoor gym game.....although i echo caroline fusco's views that this leads to a particular (mechanical) concept of fitness that is what really makes it "work" rather than "play".

i'm reminded of a quote by Baudrillard: "there is a direct line that runs from the medieval instruments of torture, via the industrial movements of production-line work, to the techniques of schooling the body by using mechanical apparatuses." available at the park!

Leah Sandals said...

Hey sportsbabel,

Thanks for your comment!

I think Caroline Fusco's got a lot of interesting research (most of which I don't fully understand, because I'm not an academic) around the "healthification" of public space too. I'm sorry I couldn't include more of her comments in the article, as she also took pains to point out the impact of the profit motive on this trend-- outdoor-gym businesses, worthy as they may be, make cash off these developments, and market their "health solution" to cities as much as possible.

I wondered, talking to her, about this approach to health care. While it's great to have these facilities, some people do need one on one -- or at least human to human -- health supports. How much are these expected to close the gap?

I was also intrigued by a piece of equipment in some of these sites called "Tai Chi Spinners". To use them, you can stand or sit and spin wheels with your hands, activating muscles in your arms and shoulders as well. It was funny to see these, I guess, becuase Tai Chi, from what I understand, typically doesn't require any equipment at all. Maybe this is profitable "equipmentization" and "individualization" of that traditionally social or eqiupment-free type of activity.

Anyway, I can also say that on the flipside I tried out these pieces of equipment as well and I did find them overall fun to use and definitely, if not a heavy workout, then a favourable step up from my usual deskbound total lack of movement.

Michael Wheeler said...

Hey Leah,

I am totally into these things and use the two machines at the bottom of High Park along the water all year round.

Run around the park - use those machineson the water - run home through the park: $0 in membership fees.

The biggest problem is getting across two major 6-lane speedways (The Queensway and Lakeshore Blvd.) to get to the water from the park however. You have to be patient and not care that it is slowing down your workout or whatever. At the crossing that I normally use a cyclist was recently struck and killed.

So basically: Good on the city for creating this infrastructure - now it would be great if there was a way that made it more accessible. A pedestrian footbridge would connect the waterfront and the city's biggest park in a significant way while increasing safety at a small cost.

Leah Sandals said...

Hi Michael,

Great comment. I tend to think about the economic accessiblity--which is great with these outdoor gyms, of course--and less about their physical accessibility. There does seem to be a lack of pedestrian bridges in Toronto, particularly across the Lakeshore. I was just running across Lakeshore at Leslie today and thinking "man, I have no idea how a person with a stroller, walker, or a wheelchair deals with this traffic regularly!" They've lengthened the pedestrian-crossing times at that intersection, but it's still a scary one.