ALPhA

The Informal Appropriation of Public Space for Leisure Physical Activity in Lagos and Yaoundé

The ALPhA study explores ways that public space is being used for physical activity (exercise) in Lagos, Nigeria and Yaoundé, Cameroon. Over 3 years, the project sought to understand the types of ALPhA spaces that exist, the experiences of people who use these ALPhA spaces, and air pollution, safety and injury risks. The interdisciplinary team members come from across several fields including urban planning, public health, chemistry, engineering as well as citizen scientists recruited through public recruitment.

Africa is experiencing rapid urbanisation alongside poorly governed infrastructure development and increasing unhealthy living. These factors contribute to an increased burden of non-communicable diseases (NCDs) like obesity, diabetes and heart disease. These NCDs also contribute to premature death disproportionately affecting the economically active and jeopardising development. The built environment is a critical determinant of physical activity, a risk factor for NCDs, but due to unmet need for the necessary infrastructure for exercise, public spaces in African cities are increasingly informally used for exercise, sometimes under hazardous conditions such as toxic air pollution. As a result of a lack of surveillance data, the health risks of exercise in public spaces are unknown. 

Methods

The study, which was conducted in Lagos and Yaoundé, works at the interface of public health, urban infrastructure, urban planning, environmental engineering, and atmospheric science.

Using participatory approaches, we investigated exercise in public space to re-imagine urban space for healthy, safe exercise in Lagos, Nigeria and Yaoundé, Cameroon, countries with similar demographic and NCD risk profile.

We adopted an asset-based approach,  we asked members of the public who are claiming public space for exercise (we call these ALPhA spacesto tell us about public spaces they use (or have observed to be used) for leisure physical activity. Using geolocated multimedia data (photos and text), our citizen scientists captured features of these spaces  that pose health risks from air pollution exposures and safety and injury risks which may cancel out benefits to health from exercise. In addition, participants captured information about the motivations and experiences of the people that use these spaces (ALPhAs!).

In a subset of ALPhAs, we collected further information about their individual health profiles and more information about the accessibility of these spaces. 

Through two stakeholder workshops in each city, we engaged multisectoral actors to shape the data collection and share their own experiences (Workshop 1, September 2021) and to share results from this study to inform urban infrastructure development strategies and the co-design of public space interventions that support equitable access to healthy safe physical activity opportunities in Africa’s cities (Workshop 2, May/June 2022).

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, we extended this project to conduct opinion analyses of public space leisure physical activity in Lagos. In particular, using social media analyses, we will explore public perceptions of government lockdown restrictions (and enforcement), and the impact of these lockdown measures on the perceptions, nature and frequency of exercise in public spaces. Our findings highlight the importance of context-aware public health messaging that safely encourages physical activity in the short term and health foresight interventions to reduce vulnerability to future health emergencies long-term.

Project outputs
air pollution

The urban environment and leisure physical activity during the COVID-19 pandemic: a view from Lagos

In this commentary, we highlight five aspects of the ordinary – known interactions between urban environments and physical activity – that are amplified by the extraordinary – an unprecedented societal response to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Using Lagos, Nigeria as a case study, we illustrate the possibility of re-thinking urban development and the potential for urban (re)form to address health inequalities in African megacities in the context of post-COVID-19 pandemic.

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The urban environment and leisure physical activity during the COVID-19 pandemic: a view from Lagos

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