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Creating a neighborhood hub: Design considerations for community centers and recreation facilities

Community centers and recreation facilities are often sources of pride for their communities. They serve as identifiable places of gathering that belong to all citizens. At Wold, our philosophy behind recreational architecture is to impact the communities we serve by creating safe, inclusive, and sustainable public spaces. Our team has partnered with communities across the United States to design recreational and community-use facilities that enhance the overall quality of life for all individuals. From climbing walls and gyms to tracks and indoor and outdoor aquatic centers, these facilities provide opportunities for active living and recreation for programmed and independently organized activities.

Most recently, based on several community meetings, we master planned a new community center for Clearview Park in Gallatin, Tennessee, which includes updated outdoor sporting fields, picnic pavilions and a walking track. We’re also working with the Deerfield Park District in Deerfield, Illinois, to upgrade and expand the Jewett Park Community Center, the current home for the Park District’s administrative offices and registration, the Deerfield Park District Preschool, and the majority of their classes and community education programming.

Based on our experience working with communities around the country, we’re sharing four considerations for designing community centers and recreational facilities that are safe and accessible to everyone, engage people of all ages and abilities and serve the community at large.

Create spaces centered around inclusion

We believe public spaces should be accessible to everyone and meet a wide range of needs regardless of age or ability. The more inclusive the facility is, the more it can be used and enjoyed by all community members. Designs should be reflective of community values and present a welcoming appearance. One of the best ways to achieve inclusivity is to conduct community surveys. During the programming phase, extending a survey to all residents allows project owners to determine community-specific wants and needs. This ensures the facilities are designed to fit each unique community while serving diverse groups. For best results, owners should obtain sufficient response samples to ensure different community members’ views are heard and recognized.

Our team was brought on by the City of Gallatin to engage the community and collect input on what renovations and features its members would like to see in their parks and recreation facilities across the city. We ensured citizens had the opportunity to share their voices by presenting at multiple public meetings and encouraged them to place sticky notes with suggestions on boards around the room. This allowed us to recognize the community’s biggest needs and design a comprehensive master plan focused on park and community center elements that are inclusive to, and usable by, all community members.

Design with sustainability in mind

The biggest untapped opportunity for community centers and recreation facilities is sustainability. Designing energy-efficient buildings can lead to massive reductions in energy consumption. Although the upfront cost may be higher when choosing more sustainable options, the buildings typically experience overall cost savings over time. As part of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) 2030 Commitment, our team works with clients to help design buildings with a goal of reaching Net Zero emissions in the built environment by 2030.

Our parks and recreation clients are often viewed within their communities as stewards of natural resources. Through our participatory planning process, we work each of our clients to develop consensus around the topic of sustainability and determine specific performance goals for each project unique to their respective values. Energy-preserving and sustainable approaches that can be incorporated into recreational facility design include passive daylighting and heating, shading devices, CO2 monitoring and geothermal heating and cooling. If the facility has swimming pools, designers may also include state of the art water filtration systems that reduce the use of water from the pools and make the building more energy efficient.

Incorporate flexibility to generate revenue

Our clients rely on their community centers and recreation facilities to be sources of revenue generation. Due to the prevalence of department budget cuts, generating funds is all the more important to lighten taxpayer burden and help maintain and expand facilities. When designing these facilities, keep in mind how different areas of the building can be programmed and/or rented for community as regularly as possible to generate maximum revenue from every square foot.

The highest-grossing facilities typically have one thing in common: flexibility. Consider how each square foot could be multi-functional. Our facility designs often include rentable space for parties and events, including rooms that serve as both children’s birthday party space and meeting space for staff or community gatherings. Furthermore, flexible spaces may also reduce maintenance needs, which lowers operating costs. A focus of the Jewett Park Community Center renovation and expansion, our team worked with Deerfield Park District to incorporate more flexible areas that would provide the district with additional sources of income, including adding combining existing classroom spaces into a single, larger room and creating a new ceramics classroom in the place of an underutilized kitchen area.

Ensure safety and security for all users

Parks and recreation agencies, and their design partners, play an important role in developing safe facilities. Incorporate security elements that help keep operation and personnel costs low while providing adequate safety for users. When it comes to indoor recreation facilities, control of the lobby is most important, and safety features can include a desk or counter that all guests must stop at to get into the facility along with door alarms to provide controlled access, even with a minimum amount of staff. Since these facilities are typically open to the public, private spaces for staff, away from the public areas, should be included.

Sight lines should be clear, surveillance cameras should be located throughout the facility and the exterior perimeter should be as secure as possible. When our team designed Tennessee Technological University’s recreation center, we included cast stone blockades and decorative bollards around the front entrance of the building to enhance the landscape while guiding traffic and increasing security. Additionally, creating safer facilities and surrounding grounds also increases accessibility. For example, ramps, handrails and automatic doors make facilities usable by, and safer for, individuals with varying abilities and those with physical limitations.

From our years of experience in the valuable realm of park architecture, the Wold team understands our duty to enhance the quality of life for those in the communities we serve by creating spaces that cater to each user’s unique abilities, wants and needs. Our in-house engineering team allows us to be more responsive to our clients’ needs by delivering integrated, quality and high-performance solutions. As building systems and sustainability options continue to evolve at a rapid pace, our engineering team adapts our approach to building design, and our architecture team delivers innovative, flexible community spaces. Please contact our team to learn more about investing in impactful, inclusive and revenue-generating community centers and recreation facilities for your residents.

Jim Gilliam, PE, is a principal at Wold and leads the civil engineering team in Tennessee. Steve Griffin, AIA, is an architect and principal at Wold Architects & Engineers. Matt Bickel, AIA, LEED AP, is a partner at Wold based on the firm’s Illinois office.