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Mike Hall - Architect’s Notebook: Engaging Buildings

In the first of a series, Mike Hall, sports partner at FaulknerBrowns Architects, explores current trends and themes in sports buildings and design. Here, he looks at how sport facilities design should generate better engagement with younger users

by Mike Hall, FaulknerBrowns Architects | Published in Sports Management 2014 issue 1
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The National Cycling Centre in Manchester attracts users of all ages
The National Cycling Centre in Manchester attracts users of all ages

As the economy develops, physical activity declines; that is the disturbing headline finding of MOVE IT, a Young Foundation report on sport participation levels among young people. The report cites a number of issues that adversely affect grassroots sport – such as over emphasis on elite sport, the fragmented delivery of amateur sport, misaligned funding streams and gaps in data/accountability. The report also includes a four-part plan outlining how policy-makers can help bring about behavioural change. Among these is a call to make sure sports policy not just provides for young people, but puts them at the centre of the process. The report states: "Sports policy-makers need to better understand the needs, interests and motivations of young people and structure delivery around these." I believe this excellent advice should also be heeded by those of us involved in the design and delivery of sporting facilities.

We should see the report and its findings as a challenge. It rightly identifies that what is needed are facilities that better engage with young people – venues that reflect social trends. These trends include the increasing popularity of more informal sporting activities (climbing, BMX, skateboarding) which require flexible access as well as the option to take part in pay and play activities. There is now a need for facilities that will be able to not only provide a place to meet and take part in sport, but ones which will also become a social hub in an environment where having a digital platform is crucial.

This doesn't mean, however, that we should separate elite and community sporting activities and build separate facilities for each. A good example of this is the National Cycling Centre (NCC) in Manchester, where the original velodrome is now nearly 20 years old. Despite it's age and prestige, it is common to see elite gold medal winning cyclists on the track with youngsters waiting their turn in the inner D, while other members of the community are participating in court sports in the infield. Next door, in the new indoor BMX facility, young riders prepare to hurl themselves over a series of jumps with cool music playing in the background.

It is precisely these aspects of the NCC – an elite venue that is also a social hub for casual bikers - that should be taken forward to produce the next generation of innovative, inclusive sporting venues. Some venues have already been designed with these principles in mind. Take the Derby Multi-purpose Arena or the Lee Valley White Water Centre. At Derby, the indoor cycling track has been raised to allow the centre of the area – which usually is inaccessible while cycling takes place - to be in constant use. At Lee Valley, the new home of the highly successful Team GB white water squad, training of elite canoeists will be undertaken alongside young people – many of who come from underprivileged backgrounds and those with accessibility issues.

The Young Report is a timely wake up call to us all. Inactivity carries with it a massive economic burden to the nation. As architects, we need to continue to innovate in the way we design the sports facilities of the future. There are challenging yet exciting times ahead through which we can make a significant contribution.

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