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Where public spaces and informal sports collide: skateboarding towards social integration policy

A skate boarder at a skatepark illustrating the power of informal sports

Informal sports can be a powerful social integrator. Image: Unsplash/shawn henry

Kathy Liu
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Media, Entertainment and Sport

This article is part of: Global Shapers Annual Summit

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  • Some people find informal public spaces that invite people to take part in sports more welcoming than formal sports centres.
  • Informal sports do not denote any specific sport, but unlike traditional organized sports, winning and competition are not the goal, the propensity for individual skills development is what attracts participants.
  • As we embrace the fluidity of informal sports, national and local governments must recognize informal sports as a distinct sector and design systems and spaces that are responsive to lifestyle changes.

We are running, riding and pumping our way back to full sports participation and returning boldly to public spaces. But the way we are participating in sports is changing. It’s a pivotal moment to think about how we design policies to maximize the social integration benefits of sports, specifically informal sports, and inclusively design the spaces in which they take place.

Formal sports facilities, such as gyms and sports clubs, can be intimidating for novices or those with body image issues and disproportionately attract participants from certain cultural and socio-economic backgrounds. Whereas public spaces remain more open to groups with varying ethnicity, age, gender and bodily ability. These are not necessarily designated sports spaces, they are often parks, squares, streets, ramps and stairs. Studies show public settings draw those who tend to participate in individual and flexible sports - informal sports.

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Informal sports, such as skateboarding, open-water swimming, running and parkour, minimize variables of teammates, schedules and bookings, leaving individuals more free to engage in sport types that better align with their dynamic lifestyles. Informal sports do not denote any specific sport, but unlike traditional organized sports, winning and competition are not the goal, the propensity for individual skills development is what attracts participants. Informal sports are self-regulating and often connect one intimately to the immediate environment, as participants anoint the cultural etiquette of the space.

For example, users of skatable spaces often cross different dimensions of age, gender, ability and social-economic status. It is a community that necessitates constantly observing, alternating turns and exchanging advice with each other in a common space. Skatepark users also actively carve the identity of the areas they congregate in, gradually building a sense of shared existence and painting the (graffiti) lines - metaphorical and literally - of its subculture.

Informal sports are on the rise

Prior to COVID-19, the United States experienced a 0.2% annual decline in structured team sports in favour of the informal and similarly, the UK saw a continued trend from formal and structured team sports to individualised sports, particularly amongst younger participants.

Meanwhile, the Future of Australian Sport report in 2013 was one of the first national strategies to acknowledge this changing participation habit. This trend will likely compound post-COVID-19, with individuals preferring flexible work arrangements and discovering certain sports for the first time during lockdowns. Skateboard GB reports, for example, that since the start of the pandemic, it saw “a rise of over 70,000 people in the UK participating in the sport.”

The changing social structures around sports matter because of the positive association between sports, social trust and community integration. The EU Commission finds that marginalised and underprivileged groups, who are at risk of discrimination, can interact and integrate with other groups through sport and its promotion of tolerance, solidarity and inclusiveness.

Yet, according to Sport England’s 2021-22 report on post-Covid-19 activity, there continue to be significant inequalities in sports levels between some minority ethnic and socioeconomic groups. Eurostat also found that in the pre-pandemic EU (2014-2019), people on lower incomes were less likely to practice sports. So how do we bridge this?

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Bringing more public spaces into informal sports

When public spaces collide with informal sports, communities can more readily tap into the remarkable power of sports to bring diverse people together and pull down barriers. Social groups often form around informal sports and are largely organic, self-organizing and self-sustaining. These groups institute an almost unsaid responsibility for inclusion to bolster the participation experience. Informal sports are also not just for the users of the public spaces, they are enjoyed by the wider community.

Skateboarding, surf skating, inline skating and BMX are all a spectacle for an audience to watch and a skatable space is a place for non-participating folks and families to sit, hang out and socialise. Yet, informal sports are not always recognised as a distinct sports sector and we lack comprehensive data on it to drive evidence-based policy and urban development.

Advocating sports for social integration is not new. Across the world, many cities carry out sports programmes on this topic. London’s Sports for All policy is one of the first to make social integration an explicit outcome of its sports agenda.

However, London Together found that in addition to the many advantages of harnessing sports for integration, there are also disadvantages: some sports are expensive to deliver, costly for participants, competitive, gendered and are inclined towards cultural stereotyping.

This is where the amalgam of informal sports and inclusively-designed public spaces can offset these disadvantages, by emboldening low-cost, non-competition-focused sports in shared environments that are more accessible to a diverse population.

Of course, public spaces and facilities do not always activate informal sports participation in the way urban planners conceived and we need to continue to raise the bar on how these spaces serve as many users as possible. Make Space for Girls, for instance, published a helpful guide for UK councils, developers and funders, to consider how skateparks can be made more accessible to young girls by being designed for all wheeled sports, setting clear designated areas for beginners, having better lighting and being located close to toilet facilities.

As we embrace the fluidity of informal sports, national and local governments must design systems and spaces that are responsive to lifestyle changes. Policymakers should recognise informal sports as a sports sector and designate resources to better understand the relationship between the sport type, the make-up of its practitioners and the features of public spaces in which they occur, to ultimately translate into values of social integration. After all, there is a lot at skate!

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