Just turn up – informal sport, public space and participatory social life in the multi-ethnic city

Project: Research council

Project Details


The project explores the extent and ways in which participation in informal sport in urban public spaces contribute to social interaction and urban inclusion. In cities characterised by high levels of superdiverse migrant settlement and social inequality the project will examine whether and how informal sport animates public spaces, is socially connective and has health and wellbeing implications. The experience of the Covid-19 crisis has sharpened awareness of the need for accessible outdoor spaces for physical activities and for social life. This project will focus on how informal sport uses and redefines urban space as a means of exploring what makes for the 'good city' (Amin 2006)

Informal sport, defined here as peer organised, non-club or fee-based sport, within which players often participate by 'just turning up', is increasingly popular and involves socially and ethnically diverse groups which tend to be under-represented in club-based sport (Sport England 2020). While some types of informal sport are familiar ('jumpers for goal posts' football, street cricket) others are relatively new (volleyball, parkrun and urban walking groups) reflecting the vitality of this mode of social participation. There are indications that social media and migrant settlement contribute to this vitality and the expansion of informal sport (Wise et al 2018)

Informal sport typically takes place in everyday public spaces and the project looks outside the walls of the gym and club to focus on sport activities in parks and facilities on housing estates or 'reused' spaces such as residential streets and alleyways. As cities become more unequal and heterogeneous there has been an increased policy emphasis on sport and health initiatives that promote inclusion, wellbeing and the health of urban populations through accessible outdoor activities within local neighbourhoods (Public Health England 2017; Sport England 2020).

However, public space is not available in the same way or to the same extent in different parts of cities. And the 'unspoken rules' of informal sport can still exclude some even as they include others. This is an active process in which outdoor spaces may be appropriated by otherwise excluded groups and sport-related activities may provide them with ways of inhabiting and claiming a right to the city (Aquino et al 2021). Nevertheless, this right may still be contested. In this context the research examines the growth and in/exclusionary, on and offline dynamics of informal sports participation and the social, spatial and wellbeing outcomes that it generates.

Locating itself in two comparative case study cities, (Sheffield and London), the project uses a mix of qualitative methods combining social mapping, interviews, participant observation and digital ethnography. The project is organised around four Work Packages (WP) which focus on: the geographies and types of informal sport activities (WP1); the social media environments which support and enhance informal sport (WP2); the practices, interactions and experiences of those taking part in different types of informal sport (WP 3) and the perspectives of sport, cohesion, urban design and health policy actors on the wellbeing and in/exclusionary role of informal sport (WP4). The project will generate academic outputs to make interdisciplinary contributions on sport, health, inclusion, superdiversity and urban space. It will use creative and policy-based approaches with community and organisational partners to develop impact focused resources and activities aimed at collaboratively engaging wider non-academic publics.
Effective start/end date3/10/222/10/24

Collaborative partners


  • Economic and Social Research Council

RCUK Research Areas

  • Environmental planning
  • Human Geography
  • Sociology


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