The Remaking of Rec Centers

May 1, 2015, Feature, by Stephen Springs, Dwayne Brinkley

Seven key elements that hardly existed 15 years ago are having a profound impact on the planning and design of recreation facilities. It was a long, slow march between the field house template and the rise of the community recreation center. Whatever is coming next is coming awfully fast.

We’re at a moment when the built environment in recreation seems to be changing — not only quickly, but in many different ways. Recreation centers in some communities are following the collegiate trend toward wellness; in other communities, the recreation center and senior center are moving closer together philosophically and even sharing a site. In others still, such as in Mustang, Oklahoma, and Laredo, Texas, the recreation center and library coexist under one roof. Everywhere, the increased use and sophistication of master planning and city planning, and the greater emphasis on financial accountability, is bringing recreation departments into a more holistic relationship with other city departments.

As planners as well as designers of recreation facilities, we’re confronted with the accelerating pace of change every day. We’ve seen any number of factors that influence the eventual form and function of rec centers — but seven in particular currently have, and should continue to have, enormous influence on the next generation of facilities.

Holistic Planning

Ten years ago, parks master plans barely addressed facilities, and the standards followed in most cases were extremely rudimentary, involving a certain number of square feet of indoor space per 10,000 residents. While city management as a field took hold a generation ago, citywide needs assessments are a much more recent phenomenon. Increasingly sophisticated recreation departments understand that the object is not simply to respond to current needs, but to understand how future growth could impact the needs of the community at large.

Working with the city manager, the department will typically issue a request for proposals (RFP) to firms that specialize in performing needs assessments, or architecture firms like ours with a planning specialty. The primary purpose is to quantify information about the city in question and to benchmark comparable cities, both in terms of current population and expected population growth, and myriad other factors related to the respective recreation departments (current square footage/acreage devoted to indoor and outdoor activities, the size, structure and offerings of the recreation department, and so on).

With the study completed, a city and its recreation department have more than a theoretical understanding of how it can meet the needs of its constituents, as well as information about comparable cities with which it can draw comparisons in terms of current facilities and the likely form that expansion of facilities might take. A planning firm might be able to recommend 75,000 square feet of indoor space within a certain time frame in a particular area of town, or a certain square footage of water surface budgeted at a certain dollar amount. NRPA had its eyes on this trend when it began developing its PRORAGIS™ database with the stated purpose of comparative benchmarking. However, given that PRORAGIS is as focused on operations as it is on other aspects of recreation, it remains a work in progress on applicability to facility development.

Together, though, this shift to data-driven decision making marks a huge leap forward in recreation. As the process of how cities look at their needs changes, exactly what cities provide their residents, and how, becomes that much more targeted and effective.

Financial Self-Sufficiency

Previous generations of recreation facility planners at best paid lip service to the idea of net-zero cost of operation, and few facilities actually achieved it. Increasingly, however, state, county and municipal governments (this year, everyone from the South Carolina Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism to the Woodridge, Illinois, Park District) have declared that self-sufficiency is a requirement of new facility development, and this can only deepen as a trend in this post-recessionary environment.

Unlike libraries, the operations of which might be protected (for the moment) by the “free libraries” tradition embedded in their DNA, recreation centers are being heavily scrutinized. Providing expensive specialized spaces such as pottery kilns or kitchens, or often unused or inflexible spaces (for example, an 800-square-foot racquetball court for two people versus 800 square feet of fitness area), have to be reconsidered in light of their revenue potential. Any pricey program areas that survive this financial culling must be designed with sensitivity to energy use to help minimize overhead.

Funding new facilities used to involve defining a need for a recreation center, aquatic center or ice arena, and then deciding to meet that need, with (at best) a percentage of the total cost set aside for its ongoing operation. Now, operational costs are a prevalent discussion from the beginning among city managers and recreation directors, as well as members of the public who weigh in on the city’s plans.

Overlapping Programs

The focus on holistic planning and finances has a natural consequence — a realization about duplication of services and a rethinking of which “quality of life” services belong in which city-run facilities. The recreation center/library is one resulting hybrid, but even in communities where the physical buildings remain separate, there’s a trend toward libraries offering programming that was a natural fit in earlier community centers and second-generation recreation centers. Some of this might be driven by libraries seeking to retain their relevance in the Internet age, but there’s also evidence that “nonrevenue” activities are being shifted out of leaner, purer recreation centers. Computer classes are an example of an activity that recreation centers might have offered as part of their outreach to all classes and age groups within a community, but which are also now offered at libraries and senior centers (seniors being the people who most need the instruction). Other examples include nutrition programs and (if they’re equipped for it) cooking classes. Down the road we may see more overlapping job titles in shared facilities — one administrator performing the roles of parks and rec director and library director. This is already happening in some communities, where assistant city managers oversee cultural services, incorporating both parks and libraries. Particularly for communities of fewer than 50,000 residents, a shared facility separated into active and passive zones celebrating a community’s core values of health, wellness, social and educational opportunities, is an arrangement that benefits users and administrators.

In anticipation of a potential shifting of programs in and out of facilities, designers have to find ways of making spaces flexible without sacrificing the aspects that make them suitable for specific activities. Multipurpose rooms that can be subdivided remain a staple of these buildings, but greater care has to be taken in terms of sizing and materials — the subdivided rooms must be as programmatically functional as their parent space. In place of subdividable rooms, dedicated rooms can be made flexible while still steering them toward different activities — for example, a room with hard surfaces to accommodate activities such as crafts (requiring a moppable floor) and another outfitted with softer surfaces to accommodate educational programs, meetings or book clubs (requiring a quieter environment).

Generational Changes

The recreation industry began warning of the changes that would be wrought by the aging of the baby boomers, the first generation to embrace fitness and wellness, at least a quarter-century ago. Many communities, however, are still wrestling with the best way to meet the needs of this generation even as its youngest members enter their 50s. Five years ago, it seemed as if any investment in senior fitness could be justified, given the boomers’ high disposable incomes and ample savings, and their clout at the ballot box. The worldwide recession has perhaps altered the scope of some parks master planning where seniors are concerned, but this is still an enormous growth area and a largely untapped source of revenue for most recreation departments. This revenue comes with corresponding capital expenses — for example, the expectation of this user group is that their facilities should include more well-appointed family changing rooms.

At the same time, though, younger people — who in years past didn’t need opportunities or encouragement to be active — are the target of recreation departments on the front lines of the nation’s obesity epidemic. This is a critical issue in disadvantaged areas, where obesity rates are highest. Recreation directors as well as facility planners must grapple with how best to serve these different age groups, at the same time that they struggle with financial self-sufficiency — one of the biggest balancing acts of this era in recreation.


Communities with very strong or growing ethnic populations know the effect that this can have on programming decisions, something that impacts facility planning as well. The impact goes beyond program spaces — more space devoted to futsal or table tennis, perhaps, in communities with large Asian or Latino constituencies — to all corners of a facility. Witness changes made to natatorium operations and locker room design in facilities with large Muslim populations, for example, where the importance of modesty requires rethinking the trend toward more open locker room areas and lounges. Recreation directors need to know their clientele and their clientele’s recreation preferences, and facility planners need to expand their knowledge base to respond accordingly. In the case of a community with strong participation in table tennis, for example, facility planners should know and incorporate recommended clear heights for competitive table tennis in their planning.


Another topic in recreation circles that goes back a quarter-century or more, healthcare is a natural fit in recreation centers that hasn’t quite become incorporated as people once envisioned, probably because of ongoing uncertainty about the delivery of care. A flurry of construction of lavish hospital- or clinic-based wellness centers also seemed to take away the need for a duplication of services, but it’s clear that as more people have health insurance, the larger the pool will be of community residents seeking preventive care. Recreation centers will have to be designed to anticipate this growing need, which represents both a community-service and a revenue-growth opportunity for recreation departments.


The infrastructure that allows recreation directors to meet their constituents’ almost insatiable need for connectivity and entertainment changes exponentially — so quickly that we often design certain technological aspects later in the job, because otherwise the equipment specifications would be out of date by the time they were ready to be installed. Security systems with scores of cameras and card readers involve one set of planning issues, and treadmills that are outfitted with video screens involve another. Recreation centers have become IT hogs — demand for wi-fi and onboard entertainment has grown so acute that, seemingly overnight, recreation centers have gone from being low-bandwidth buildings to high-bandwidth buildings.

This is an element that must be considered from a demand standpoint, but also from a project budgeting standpoint. As planners, we find that an enormous number of recreation professionals know of the need for accommodating technology, but don’t have a handle on the financial costs involved. One of our first questions to administrators is whether the city has a separate budget for integration of tech into their buildings, or whether their stated budget would be burdened by the costs involved. For administrators working with budgets that disallow the immediate purchase of multiple pieces of fitness equipment, but who wish to plan for future capacity, a key question is whether there’s enough bandwidth available to the site to support their plan. The importance, in this day and age, of a realistic IT budget built into the project budget from day one, and a plan that anticipates the pace of change, can’t be overstated.

Planning Ahead

These factors are all influencing facility design — and facility designers. Architects accustomed to being judged on their design portfolio have found that many recreation program providers need substantial assistance in financial planning for facility planning. Fortunately, architects with experience in this building type have been changing to meet their clients’ needs, too. With regard to the bottom line, you should expect that an architect brought in to help with a study necessarily has the ability to look at the holistic project and not just the construction and design component cost. That is the mark of a good planner.

Stephen Springs and Dwayne Brinkley are principals with Brinkley Sargent Wiginton Architects in Dallas, Texas.