Playful Active Urban Living: science for active cities

Tying shoelaces

Increasing the physical activity of urban citizens through a smartphone app: this is the project Playful Active Urban Living (PAUL) in a nutshell. The basis for development of the app lies in empirical data and scientific literature. “We especially develop the app for people who want to engage in more physical activity, but find it difficult to get off the couch and start to move,” says Karlijn Sporrel, a PhD candidate at the department of Human Geography and Planning at Utrecht University and one of the researchers in the project.

Imagine having an empty spot in your agenda, the sun is shining and, at that moment, you get a message: “Why don’t go for a walk in the park?” Or, when you’re doing sports exercises in a park a video pops up, showing how to do squats exactly at your location. Or, starting to get tired after 2,5 kilometres of running, you receive a motivational message: “You’re half-way through. Keep going!”. The app that is developed in the PAUL project is able to send location-specific messages thanks to transmitters measuring distance, duration and speed that are installed in the park and that connect with the app.

Science to promote physical activity

The app is developed on the basis of scientific literature on theories of behaviour change and maintenance: what motivates people to take up and continue to perform physical activity? Based on this knowledge, the researchers study strategies that motivate people to engage in physical activity, such as setting goals and getting feedback and social support, but also playful game elements. The app uses self-learning algorithms that aim to find the best moment to invite a user to engage in physical activity.

Feeling comfortable

It is not only the persuasiveness of the application that is important in influencing peoples’ behaviour, the researchers argue. Rather, whether or not someone engages in physical activity is also influenced by people’s environment: whether or not someone feels comfortable or is able to perform exercises in his or her surroundings. Therefore, the researchers will also study where individuals are most willing to perform exercises in public urban spaces. Is the app used more at specific locations in a park? If so, what are the physical characteristics of that location? And where do the app users prefer to do strength training, and why?

Lasting change

“In addition, we also want to get more insight in the long-term effect of the app on physical activity”, says Sporrel. “Knowledge on this is still limited. Apps use game strategies to increase motivation and long-term physical activity, but we need to gain more insight in the effects of this promising approach.”

Municipalities and companies

The PAUL project is a good example of a research project in which various academic disciplines cooperate. Researchers from Utrecht University cooperate with the Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences, the University of Amsterdam, the Federal University of São Paulo in Brazil, combining the fields of human geography, data science, behaviour change, and game design. And the close collaboration with partners outside academia, including the municipalities of Utrecht and Amsterdam, contributes to bridging the gap between science and policy.

In addition, the active involvement of several digital innovation companies such Zappyou,, MyLaps and IOT living lab) is valuable for the project as they provide data from exercise apps and knowledge on issues like involving the end-user in the design process. The companies, in turn, can apply the knowledge they gain from the project to optimise their own products and business models.

Three parks

The app is currently being developed by the Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences and the University of Amsterdam. The project team expects that the application will be operational and can be used in Park Transwijk in Utrecht, and the Oosterpark and Sloterplas in Amsterdam around fall 2019.  

More information: 
Video demonstration of the pilot version of the app by the HvA (in Dutch):