Open Spaces Encourage Healthy Activity

CHICAGO (May 14, 2019) — What can American planners learn from studying the needs of urban dancers in Beijing? A recent study published in the Journal of the American Planning Association (Vol. 84, Nos. 3–4) shows that providing city residents with open spaces encourages activities that promote physical health and mental well-being.

In “Designing the Danceable City,” author Caroline Chen, postdoctoral researcher at the University of California, San Diego, uses a mixed-methods approach to observe Chinese urban dance groups, map their locations across the city, and interview participants over a three-year period.

The study found that urban dancers struggle to find suitable space for dancing, highlighting the importance of ensuring communities have adequate open space. Coupled with the growing interest in urban dance and the limited spaces to do so in Beijing, the dancers are forced to move their groups to different sites throughout the city. Often the groups generate noise complaints from neighbors and end up dancing in undesirable locations. While parks are preferred, dancers often find themselves in empty parking lots, the space under bridges or between buildings, parking garages, or “waste spaces” like construction sites and empty lots.

The continued search for dance space suggests that planning for communal open spaces may be part of the future for American cities. Specific target areas could include Oakland, Los Angeles, and Brooklyn, where residents already engage in regular group health and social activities like dancing and tai chi. The dancers in Chen’s study reported that using the open spaces in their community offers a way to stay active, and also an outlet for socialization post-retirement age. Chen highlights the social benefits of group activities like urban dancing into four main categories:

  1. Inclusion: People from a wide range of ages, backgrounds, and physical abilities can participate
  2. Group Format: Eliminating the need for a partner encourages more introverted participants, while also providing a space to meet new people
  3. Sense of Community: Practicing in public spaces creates a sense of connection between participants, as well as a connection with the physical space of the community itself
  4. Opportunity for Mastery: Encourages self-development through mastering a new skill by practicing with friends or using resources like YouTube to improve

Chen draws from American urban planner Kevin Lynch’s work, particularly “The Openness of Open Space” (1996), to envision an opportunity for planners to create open public spaces that are specifically designed for group activities. Chen imagines these spaces as incorporating elements like wide, flat surfaces and overhead protection adopted from transportation infrastructure, as well as the greenery and cleanliness found in public parks.

The quarterly Journal of the American Planning Association publishes only double-blind peer-reviewed original research and analysis. The journal has published research, commentaries and book reviews since 1935.

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Roberta Rewers, APA Communications Manager, 312-786-6395;

May 14, 2019