A group of fit, healthy folks exercising in a public park in the open air. It’s the kind of optimistic vision that landscape architects include in project renderings, a seemingly ideal use for a public space.
The city of Denver, however, sees things a little differently. According to an article in the New York Times, officials there are cracking down on group fitness classes in public parks, saying that the trainers and instructors who run them – for a profit -- are violating regulations against commercial use of such places. Using public parks as a space for their businesses, according to city leaders, is taking unfair advantage of taxpayer-funded amenities. Groups have been booted out of public spaces in recent weeks.
“You can smoke pot, but you can’t exercise,” one trainer complained to the Times. “This is Colorado.”
The city at first was going to shut down classes altogether, but has now devised a system of fees and permits to regulate the operators of fitness businesses, from lithe yoginis to ripped CrossFit trainers.
At least some who lead classes say they can’t afford to pay up. One woman who runs a business called Stroller Strides, charging new moms $55 per month to attend classes where they work out while pushing their babies around, told the Times the cost of the permits would be prohibitive for her, up to $1,200 per month. She’ll be relocating her business, she said, to a nearby suburb that is welcoming the stroller-pushers at no charge.
Denver isn’t the first fitness-conscious city to grapple with an overabundance of workout classes in public space. In Santa Monica, California, where toned physiques are a point of civic pride, the city council has been working for months to find a solution to the proliferation of body-sculptors in Palisades Park, a narrow and heavily used strip of green overlooking the Pacific Ocean that is a designated city landmark.
Dozens of trainers use the scenic park to run classes every day, with Santa Monica Patch counting 147 classes in one six-hour period. Some of the groups use equipment such as weights and even massage tables, raising concerns about wear and tear. Other park users have complained that there’s no space for them. The heavy usage prompted the council to propose steep fees – 15 percent of revenue on top of a $100 permit charge – and limit class size as well as the type of gear that can be used. At one point they considered making the park off limits altogether to group classes.
Those proposals met with vocal opposition from trainers at a meeting in the spring, and the council said it would go back to the drawing board, potentially lowering fees and allowing group classes to continue in Palisades Park.
Denver and Santa Monica may be outliers when it comes to residents’ fervor for staying in shape. In a way, having parks crowded with people paying to sweat is a luxury problem. But the controversies raise some interesting questions about just how far government should go to encourage activity among its citizens – way too many of whom rarely get off their butts at all.
Exercise groups provide some real benefit to the parks, even without paying a dime. In Santa Monica, homeless people used to outnumber fitness enthusiasts, creating an atmosphere some found threatening. The homeless aren’t gone, but they are less dominant. As the great observer of public space William H. Whyte once wrote, "The best way to handle the problem of undesirables is to make a place attractive to everyone else."
Not only that, the exercise groups and those who lead them can become a powerful constituency for parks. Should those who make a profit leading classes be charged a nominal fee? Perhaps. But cities shouldn’t forget that people – lots of people – are part of the plan for almost any public space, and discouraging them doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.