It’s no secret that outdoor recreation areas in low-income urban areas can keep kids off the street. Just take a look at your nearest bustling basketball court. Now imagine that that basketball court is taken a step further, built vertically (and quickly) to include more multipurpose courts, an indoor soccer area, a cafe, a weightlifting section, and a running track—all intended for urban youth.
Design studio Urban-Think Tank has actually built a 4,000-square-meter prefab vertical gym in a slum of Caracas, Venezuela, that houses all of those elements. The four-floor gym has the dimensions of a basketball court, and it has already proven its worthiness: after it opened in 2004, crime in the surrounding neighborhood dropped 30%. The gym is programmed 24/7, with everything from dance therapy classes to chess tournaments.
The Caracas gym was part of the firm’s push to build vertical gyms in slums around the world. There are 1 billion people living in slums today, and that number will only grow as worldwide urbanization increases. "Principally [the gym] was designed for inner-city use areas where they’ve got density and kids are out of school, there’s drug, violence, and diabetes," says U-TT cofounder Alfredo Brillembourg.
The prefab Vertical Gym can be assembled, bolted together, and built in three months, and it can go on top of any existing sports court—or any structure, really. "You could put it on top of a Walmart if you want to," says Brillembourg. At a cost of $1.5 million, Vertical Gyms aren’t cheap—but they’re relatively low priced considering their size and the amenities they house.
U-TT, which has received seed funding from a German foundation for its Vertical Gym efforts, is working on two other projects in Caracas. The design studio has also proposed Vertical Gyms elsewhere around the world, including Mexico, New York City, and a refugee camp in Jordan, where the gym would have separate hours for men and women. And at the recent Clinton Global Initiative Annual Meeting, U-TT announced that it has committed to deploying a gym in São Paulo, Brazil.
Eventually, Brillembourg wants to open-source the Vertical Gym plans for cities in the hopes that private sponsors or municipalities will pick up the tab. "We have a lot of initiatives out there, but the real problem is that I’m a designer," he says. "We are needing and looking for partners who want one of these gyms, know where to put them, and know how to finance them."