Brussels: 2134 geotags for a runner friendly city.
Running is one of the most popular leisure activities in Brussels public space. Parks and streets are visibly populated by individual runners, duos or organized running groups. Running as an activity has grown enormously worldwide. A third ‘running-wave’ has been seen worldwide since 2010, reflecting the desire to be active in a more flexible, individual way. And since the Coronacrisis, a fourth running wave is visibly taking place.
On 20 february 2017, Brussels parlement accepted a motion to:
“develop the ‘be running’ strategy for ‘Brussels gewest’, with necessary interventions to improve spatial conditions for running in Brussels.”
TRACK-landscapes was selected to run this research and design project, commissioned by and in collaboration with Perspective Brussels. Last December, the proposals for the design of the runner friendly city were recognized and approved by the Prime Minister of Brussels, which will now be addressed to the municipality partners.
Why are runners so interesting from an urban development perspective?
Runners move on the edge between pedestrians and cyclists. They are in fact pedestrians, sometimes moving at (near) bicycle speeds and using both sidewalks and cycle paths. Logically, their ideas for an improved city are the perfect glue for bicycle and pedestrian city ambitions.
Runners place high demands on their environment. Imperfect pavements, unsafe crossings and poor lighting can be a nuisance to pedestrians and cyclists, they are really problematic for runners.
Runners care deeply about environmental aesthetics. They are strongly attracted to green and calm environments. Even though all city users appreciate this; these aspects are often forgotten in mobility ambitions, planning of cycling and pedestrian ‘infrastructure’.
Runners use their city at a variety of moments, experiencing the city both during daylight and in the dark. During rush hours, and on quieter weekends.
Runners use the entire city, from their front door, connecting neighbourhood streets with nearby parks, within the city and through surrounding landscapes.
The starting line for proposing improvements was formed by the simple idea, that shaping cities that suit the needs and preferences of the people that use it (in this case runners); should start with asking them about their spatial desires. Hundreds of thousands of runners experience their city every day in many types of running rounds. They collectively have both the most detailed and complete knowledge of the city. As a running destination, but also beyond. Why not harvest the knowledge of that collective brain?
So, we developed an online ‘map survey’ asking runners to describe their preferences and indicate where the city could be improved for a better running experience. Participants could participate in this survey from any mobile device; phone, tablet or desktop. Perspective Brussels distributed the survey via various news channels and running platforms such as Brussels-Marathon. Within a few weeks, 1240 runners expressed their desires for a more running-friendly city.
Downloadlink complete report Track-Landscapes
Downloadlink synthesenota Perspective Brussels
Commissioner: Perspective Brussels
Timeline: 2020-01 <-> 2020-10
Project status: The ideal running map was approved by the government of the Brussels-Captial Region in December 2020 is (link)
How necessary is a more runner friendly Brussels?
Well, about 40% of Brussels runners are not explicitly satisfied with Brussels as a running city. One could also say (more optimistic); more than half of runners are satisfied. However, these are city totals and no runner uses the entire city to run. Most of the runs start at the front door and are tied to what can be found within a few kilometres radius. And as such, we also see that this judgement differs in different city districts. Inhabitants of the more central, urban districts less often like to run ‘in Brussels’ than the inhabitants of less central city districts. This already suggests certain preferred experiences of runners.
What did runners see as their number one priority for a more running-friendly city?
No simple, unambiguous answer can be given. But we do see a clear division in the challenges of making Brussels more running-friendly. The first majority of the answers are ‘traffic related’ and concern the structural layout of public space: nuisance caused by intersections, traffic or air pollution resulting from this. It is striking that not that many runners ask for more green, but many runners do ask for better connections between existing green parks. And that need is also traffic-related. The absence of low-traffic, crossing-free streets between parks is often the more precisely described problem. The greater challenge therefore requires us to structurally rethink the layout of streets. And that cannot be done without rethinking the entire traffic system of Brussels. And although runners may not be the primary reason or target group for having that ambition, they do address interesting ideas and principles on binding ambitions for a ‘bicycle-friendly city’ and a ‘pedestrian-friendly city’. And that is exactly what we have made proposals for (that we will elaborate on in part 2 of this article, or see the report "how to design the runner-friendly of Brussels'').
Fortunately, many running-friendly priorities are also easier to achieve. These are more ‘runner specific’ and require relatively simple measurements such as adding facilities like water taps and marked routes, improving lighting, or optimizing path surfaces. For all these measures accounts: runners could be the main reason or focus group for investing, but other city users will also co-benefit from the investments.
The real question now is; where exactly do they see all these runner-friendly ideas?
In the online map survey, runners marked 2134 locations, where they described either positive or negative experiences and ideas. The result is a colorful collection of tags related to a multitude of themes.
To really examine these described geotags, all these remarks had to be separated into thematic maps. It allows us to really understand the specific nature of improvements needed. For example, there may be a subtle but important difference between “no lighting present, feels unsafe” or “sidewalk surface is not sufficiently lit”, “long waiting time at traffic lights” or “dangerous place to cross the street”. Runners turn out to be refined in their commentations. That comprises the true wealth of information; it is ‘big experience data’.
Why are runners so capable and willing to speak up about city improvements?
Runners want to keep running; they must know their surroundings very well in order to not get lost. Their mental city map is therefore often quite well developed.
Runners are well able to link online maps (in which they often plan their routes in advance) to the real city from eye level.
Most runners consciously search for the most pleasant routes, but also prefer a wide variety of enjoyable routes. This exploration is part of the fun. They know a lot about pleasant places and routes.
What turned out to be the most tagged, specific places and type of interventions for a more running-friendly city?
1. Remove the traffic in Ter Kamerenbos. Also, frequently tagged places with regard to traffic and crossings were: the Canal, the edges of Jubelpark, Elisabethpark, Park van Vorst and Dudenpark, and between the ponds of Elsene. Furthermore, traffic-related comments, and remarks for better connections between parks were spread over many neighbourhood streets.
2. Better and more lighting in Jubelpark. Other places where lighting could be improved are ‘the old railway route’, T&T park, around Josephat Park, Ter Kamerenbos, Pedepark, at Boudewijnpark and along the canal.
3. More even path surfaces at Park van Vorst and Dudenpark. Other uneven pathways were tagged at T&T park, the ponds of Elsene, Jubel Park, along Woluwe creek (muddy) and at the Hippodrome.
4. The poor air quality in Elisabethpark (due to high traffic intensity) was also very frequently tagged.
5. Water taps are missing in Elisabethpark, T&T Park and various other specific places, often on the edges of green spaces.
6. Runners have also tagged their favorite routes and places. The pathway of the old railway route was appreciated for its smoothness and being non-stop traffic free. Ter Kamerenbos was popular because of its size and car free weekends. But the smaller parks were also appreciated for various reasons, mostly those in the busiest parts of the city.
In our report “how to design the runner-friendly city of Brussels” we made several design proposals for making more activating streets, parks, pathways and facilities. Soon we will post a second (sub) article that focuses on the proposals to structurally transform the Brussels neighbourhood streets in conjunction with existing green routes; the ‘ideal map’.
Based on the wishes of runners, a city is explained that every health oriented, active person would want: more and (more importantly) better connected green spaces, less dangerous crossings, more pedestrian space and cycle paths separated from (car) traffic, less air pollution, more even pavements, better lighting, more water taps, public fitness equipment and marked pedestrian routes. Runner or not; that is no bad city to live in.