Brussels: 2134 geotags for a (running) friendly city.

Running is one of Brussels' most popular leisure activities in public space. Individual runners, running duos and running groups are visible everywhere in the parks and streets of Brussels. The desire for a more active and flexible lifestyle has ensured that since about 2010, running has taken off enormously, the third wave of running. Since the corona pandemic, the fourth running wave seems to be a visible fact.  

 

But long before the corona crisis, on February 20, 2017, the Brussels parliament passed a motion to:

 

Develop the “be running” strategy for the Brussels region, consisting of the necessary interventions to improve the spatial conditions for running in Brussels.  

 

TRACK-Landscapes was selected to carry out this (design) research, on behalf of and in collaboration with Perspective Brussels. At the suggestion of the Prime Minister of the Brussels-Capital Region, the draft "ideal road map" was approved by the government at the end of December. This will form the basis for consultation with regional and municipal partners, who will further include the implementation of running-friendly measures.

 

Why are runners so interesting from an urban development perspective?

  • Runners are active on both the cyclist's and the pedestrian's terrain. They move at an intermediate speed, on footpaths, cycle paths and mixed traffic streets. Logically, the runner's ideas for a better environment are a perfect binder for urban cycling and pedestrian agendas.

  • Runners place high demands on their (running) environment. Imperfect sidewalks, unsafe intersections or poor lighting can be annoying for pedestrians and cyclists, but often more problematic for runners.

  • Runners care a lot about the (green) beauty of the environment. They are strongly attracted to green, watery and peaceful environments. And although almost all users of the city care about this, 'green' usually does not come first in the field of mobility/traffic engineering and the development of infrastructure.

  • Runners run around the city at all times, allowing them to experience the city during the day, after dark, during rush hour and on quiet weekends. 

  • Runners use the whole city; from the front door, through the neighborhood streets, through the nearby parks to the suburban landscape, and back again via a different route. They are very aware of the qualities and possibilities that exist in their living environment.

 

The starting point of the search for improvement opportunities for a running-friendly city is this simple idea: if we want to create cities that match the spatial preferences of people who use the city (runners in this case), we should start by asking those people about their spatial experiences and wishes. Hundreds of thousands of runners experience their city every day in many different running laps. Together they possess the most extensive and detailed knowledge of where the city is still unpleasant, in all kinds of areas. This often goes much further than just a running-friendly city. The knowledge of that shared memory; we must harvest that.  

 

So we designed an online map survey in consultation with Perspective Brussels. In it, we asked runners to map their experiences, and based on  'geotags' explain where and why the city is not yet optimally walkable. Perspective Brussels distributed the survey through various media channels; a few weeks later, 1,240 runners had mapped out their wishes, with more than 2,100 'geotagged'

Download Link complete report Track-Landscapes

Download Link synopsis Perspective Brussels

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research, do you like running in Brussels?

How much is that more running-friendly city really needed? 

About 40% of Brussels runners indicated that they were not explicitly satisfied with their 'running city'. You could also say more optimistically that more than half are satisfied. However; these are city averages, and no runner uses the whole city. Most of the walks start at the front door and are tied to what's within a few miles of there. And so we also see that this opinion differs in different Brussels municipalities. Roughly speaking, the inhabitants of the more central, urban districts are less satisfied with their walking environment than the border-urban municipalities. That already suggests some preferences of runners. 

Brussels priorities for a runner friendly city

What do runners list as their top priority for a more running-friendly city?

In particular, we see a clear division between two types of wishes. The first large group consists of traffic-related wishes and foresees a more structural change in the layout of the city: less nuisance due to (dangerous) intersections, less frequent sharing of space with motorized traffic flows and improving the poor air quality that caused by this. It is striking that runners do not even often ask for more greenery, but mainly for better connections between existing green/quiet places. And that too is ultimately traffic-related; the lack of traffic-calmed, intersection-free connections between parks, through the neighborhoods, is usually the more precisely described problem. As a runner quotes “the general urban setting makes me feel too much of having to go through a hostile environment before I can finally run really well”. The greater challenge in Brussels therefore requires the structural transformation of street profiles; which is impossible without also structurally revising the city's traffic system. And I hear you thinking "are we going to overhaul the whole city for just runners?" No, but runners do generate interesting ideas and spatial principles that can bind the ambitions for both a bicycle city and a pedestrian city. A movement-friendly city. And from that perspective, we have made proposals for urban transformations, which are set out in the report “how to design the runner-friendly city of Brussels” . Part 2 of this article will follow shortly, in which we will summarize the principles of this design study. 

Fortunately, many running-friendly priorities are also relatively easy to achieve. These are the more minor additions such as water taps, urban gyms, signposted walking routes, or optimizations/equalizations of path surfaces and adding or improving lighting. Many other types of city users will also benefit from all these measures. 

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The big question now is: where exactly do those runners want all these kinds of improvements?

In the online map survey, runners marked 2134 locations, describing their positive or negative running experiences and ideas. 

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In order to have a clear overview of all these geotags, we have divided them into approximately 20 thematic maps. Then the specific nature of possible improvements really comes to the fore. Because the subtle differences in descriptions are relevant. "Unsafe due to lack of lighting" is quite different from "unsafe because the lighting does not shine enough on the path surface". There is also a subtle but essential difference between "crossing, you have to wait a long time before crossing" or "crossing is dangerous". Runners often turn out to be pleasantly refined in their explanations. Therein lies the real wealth of information; it is 'big experience data'.

Why are runners so good at mapping their ideas?

  • Runners should keep running; they really need to know your surroundings so as not to get lost or have to stop. Their mental map is therefore often well developed.

  • Runners are quite capable of linking online maps (which they often use to plan routes) to the real city from eye level. 

  • Most runners are purposefully looking for the most enjoyable paths and roads, but also want a wide range of different routes. That journey of discovery is part of the walking pleasure; people therefore have a lot of knowledge of the pleasant and unpleasant routes.

What turned out to be the most frequently tagged places, routes and themes?

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1.   The removal of traffic in the Ter Kamerenbos also on weekdays. Other places that often received traffic-related tags were the routes along the canal, the edges of Cinquantenaire Park, Elisabeth Park, Park van Vorst and Duden Park and between the Ponds of Ixelles and the Bois de la Cambre. There was also a wide spread over various city districts, of geotags asking for better connections between parks, through the districts.  

2.   Better and more lighting in the Cinquantenaire Park. Other places where lighting could be added or improved were the 'old train track', T&T park, the roundabout around Josephat Park, Ter Kamerenbos, Pedepark, Boudewijn Park and along the canal.  

3.   Better evenness of paths in Park van Vorst and Duden Park. Other uneven paths were tagged in T&T park, the ponds of Ixelles, Cinquantenaire Park, Along the Woluwe brook (muddy) and at the Hippodrome.  

4.   The poor air quality in and around Elisabeth Park was also often mentioned, as was the case with the tunnel in Cinquantenaire Park.

 

5.   Water taps are also mainly missed in Elisabeth Park, T&T Park and various other specific places, often on the edges of parks or green/water structures.

 

6.   Runners also often tagged their favorite running routes and surroundings. The path of the old train track was often appreciated for the soft ground and the absence of traffic and crossings. The Ter Kamerenbos is appreciated for its size and car-free weekends. But the small green 'pocket parks' are also praised for various reasons, especially if they are located in a very urban context.

In our report  “how to design the runner-friendly city of Brussels” several design proposals have been made for more active streets, parks, paths and facilities.  

 

The wishes of runners express an exercise-friendly, safe, healthy but above all more humane and less motorized city. With more nature, and more importantly, better connected nature, safer crossings, wider footpaths, more separate cycle paths, better air quality, better evenness of paths, better lighting, more water taps, public sports and playground equipment and beautifully marked walking routes. Runner or not, we don't think it's a bad place to live. 

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