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Sporting Life

by George Bull
As a nation, we need and want to get fitter. But what impact can the landscape have on these desires, and what impact does our interest in fitness and sport have on the landscape?

On the site of a defunct aluminium works, in the heart of the Conwy Valley, you will soon be able to go surfing. For eight months of the year, you’ll be able to count on a perfect two- metre wave of pristine mountain water that will peel for 200m creating a barrel that you can surf inside, just like in the photos. Only you won’t be on the beach in Hawaii, you’ll be on the edge of the Snowdonia National Park, in Wales. Assuming Surf Snowdonia succeeds, it will be one of the most dramatic examples yet of how sometimes it’s sport that can rescue a landscape.

The story of how the world’s first artificial surfing lagoon ended up in the sleepy Welsh village of Dolgarrog starts a thousand miles away in San Sebastian, Spain. Ever since the Beach Boys were big news someone, somewhere has been trying to make an artificial wave you could surf. At their secret test facility in the Basque Country, a bunch of engineers with a passion for surfing who call themselves Wavegarden, finally did it.

Landscape architect Planit-IE had been following their progress for some time before it was invited to consider how the former Dolgarrog aluminium works might be redeveloped as a leisure project. Its client – crane-hire mogul Martin Ainscough – was also aware of Wavegarden, so when the economics for a conventional lodge resort failed to stack up, they collectively realised there was an opportunity to explore a radical alternative.

Roughly the size of six football pitches and fed entirely by rainwater collected from Snowdonia’s mountain reservoirs – which first powers the nearby RWE hydroelectric station at Dolgarrog before entering the lagoon – Surf Snowdonia is the first of its kind in the world. Managing Partner at Planit-IE Peter Swift says that, now the project is nearly complete, it’s clear that the concept is the only thing that would have worked for the site.

‘The economics of the Conwy Valley have always been difficult. But the landscape is another matter: Snowdonia National Park has always had international standing. The reason the Welsh Assembly Government gave funding to Surf Snowdonia was because it could see the gravity it could give the area. Manchester and Liverpool are only an hour away, but the pent-up demand for something like this is pan-European. This will be an international destination.’

Swift says that almost as soon as the £12 million project received planning permission, the client – Conwy Adventure Leisure – received letters of interest from the International Surfing Federation in Santa Barbara and the International Olympic Committee, both of which would be at the forefront of any future discussions were surfing to ever become an Olympic sport. This is all good for brand Surf Snowdonia, but this isn’t just a place for the pros.

Swift points out that, on the one hand, adrenaline sports that were previously very niche have developed mass appeal, and on the other, people have been falling back in love with being outside. Part of the rationale behind the project, he explains, is that it takes amateurs so long to become proficient at surfing because there just isn’t the access to reliable, surfable swell. The 300m by 120m man-made lake at Dolgarrog will cater to all levels. And with vantage points and café facilities part of the site design, you don’t even have to surf to enjoy it. Conwy Adventure Leisure expects visitors to be ‘conservatively in excess of 75,000 per year’.

With Snowdonia National Park on the doorstep, this promises to do more than simply regenerate the village of Dolgarrog. Rather like the Eden Project in Cornwall, it will offer people a gateway into the landscape beyond. This can be both good and bad. Dan Barnett, access and recreation manager for Exmoor National Park Authority, says that people are diversifying the way they use national parks, with mountain biking, kayaking and horse-riding all on the increase.

There are also now more organised events, from trail races to triathlons. Of course part of this is people getting pleasure from where they are, but Barnett says ‘some people don’t just want to do an activity, they want to set goals around it’. Lots of these activities also have kit associated with them, and people like kit. Access to lighter, more affordable equipment has made it easier for novices to get out there and give things a try.

For the big national parks, such as Dartmoor and the Lake District, this can translate into even more visitors and both park authorities are reported to be considering permit systems for races. They don’t actually have the power to say ‘no’ though, explains Barnett, so the focus is on encouraging consultation and trying to spread out the race dates. ‘You tend to manage the issues rather than control the numbers, because it’s actually very difficult to know who and how many people use the park each year,’ he says.

A reputation for adventure can be good for the image of the park, he says, but at Exmoor their
real contribution to the economic agenda remains small. Cycling still only accounts for around 6 per cent of the use of the park, horse-riding around five per cent and kayaking less than one per cent. What’s more, their impact on the landscape and a park’s funds can be disproportionate. Horse-riders might be comparatively few but because those doing it are now often not as skilled or confident, they have higher expectations of the condition the route should be. ‘We’re having to invest quite heavily to meet those expectations,’ Barnett says.

But if so-called adventure sports account for less than 20 per cent, what’s everyone else doing? Walking. Of course walking or going out for a run – whether in a national park or your local park – is not generally recognised as a sport. When Sport England released data in January bemoaning that the number of people regularly participating in sport for 2013–14 was down by 125,000, walking wasn’t on the list.

In the current vogue, walking, running or cycling tend to be sidelined as ‘fitness’ or as part of an ‘active lifestyle’. But as Ken Worpole, author and emeritus professor at London Metropolitan University’s Cities Institute, says, this is a misnomer. ‘If you use the word “sport”, you’re actually cutting off most people’s activity, which is recreational,’ he says. ‘The last 20–30 years of traffic surveys didn’t include cycling and walking, but traffic managers have had to acknowledge that it is a legitimate means of transport. Politicians now understand that fitness needs to be part of everyday life, rather than segregated into sport.’

Walking and cycling are now also big business. ‘Ten years ago there was probably one bike shop in Hackney. Now there are 12,’ says Worpole, whose house overlooks Clissold Park in north London. Like many urban parks, Clissold was once maligned by park managers as too socially complicated to bother with; it was easier to focus on country parks. But with the help of lottery money, it is now thriving with a huge mix of demographics using the park for informal exercise. ‘When I did Parklife with Demos in 1996, one clear indicator of what made a park work was having a wide social mix around it – and parks like Clissold have been reinvented to offer the diverse activities that a diverse demographic want,’ Worpole says.

Parks are also free, and local authorities are increasingly looking at ways to use them to get people into active habits that don’t require an expensive gym pass. Earlier this year, Enfield Council was offering residents the chance to ‘get a park body’ with free hour-long exercise sessions as part of the Our Parks scheme. While in Camden, where one in three ten year-olds qualifies as obese, a new programme is aiming to get children active early.

A collaboration between the borough’s clinical-conditioning and public health teams, Camden Active Health Programme, is working with local primary and secondary schools to see how new playground facilities, designed by landscape architect LUC, will influence the children’s lifestyles. A team from UCL’s sport science department has a grant to spend a year monitoring their health and is due to publish its findings this summer.

Jennette Emery-Wallis, director at LUC, says that the feedback from teachers and children so far has been very positive, but it’ll be exciting to be able to provide data. ‘As landscape architects we don’t speak the same language,’ she says. ‘The hallowed dream of course is for this data to satisfy the clinicians, who can then roll it out and persuade other local authorities that there is a benefit in paying out for this from their public health or even healthcare budgets.’

Just sometimes, though, the answer comes from the community itself. The complex interplay between landscape and sport – in its broadest sense –  is perhaps best exemplified by one of the most success ful community movements of the past decade: Parkrun. Founded by Paul Sinton-Hewitt in 2004 as a means to get back into running, the concept is simple: register online and then turn up to a Parkrun park every Saturday at 9am and run 5km. More than a million people now regularly participate in more than 500 parks across the world.

One of those venues is Waterworks Park in Belfast. ‘Waterworks was a no-go area when we started Parkrun there,’ says Sinton-Hewitt. While The Troubles in Northern Ireland had meant that this wasn’t unusual, he says Waterworks had 18-foot high fences with Catholics living on one side and Protestants on the other. ‘We started in this park on the 6 November 2010 and we have run there every week since barring a couple of cancellations. That’s some 225 events.’

Sinton-Hewitt says Parkrun is also helping to take back the parks in his native South Africa, where conflict and crime means people are often reluctant to use them for recreation. ‘More than half the participants in many of the South African parkruns are walking the event with their close family, which I believe proves the point that parkrun is enabling the decolonisation of these spaces.’ 

Swimming and the City
Despite recent Sport England figures reporting a marked drop in participation in swimming, a different story seems to be playing out if you look at take-up of open-water swimming. Jonathan Cowie, editor of open-water swimming magazine H2Open, says that ‘in January this year you could have attended a cold-water swimming championships every weekend if you wanted to. That certainly wasn’t the case a few years ago.’
One project hoping to capture this zeitgeist is the Thames Baths. Set up by architect Studio Octopi and with planting design from Jonathan Cook Landscape Architects, the project is about to launch a Kickstarter campaign to fund design development and a planning application for the end of 2015.
The 25m by 10m pool at Victoria Embankment will be run as a social enterprise, able to accommodate 300–500 people per day and will cost the same as using your local pool. Reeds and rushes that were originally just going to extend the landscape along the riverbank will now be part of a closed-loop natural filtration system.
‘When there isn’t an overflow in the Thames it is safe enough to swim in. We want to change people’s perceptions about the river,’ says Studio Octopi director Chris Romer-Lee. ‘The idea is to use the Kickstarter campaign to build a community behind the project, so we don’t look like we’re dropping something onto the city.’

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