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From the Design Quarterly: 6 trends shaping community sports and rec facility design

February 07, 2020

Flexibility and inclusivity are key when creating the neighborhood gathering spot for active lifestyles

This article first appeared as “Neighborhoods for active lifestyles” in the Stantec Design Quarterly, Issue 08.

We depend on our school sports facilities and community recreation centers for access to wellness and fitness in many communities across North America. But as the demand for wellness intensifies, these centers for recreation are changing, too.

Here are six trends that are shaping the way we design for active lifestyles today.

Lewis Farms Recreation Center in Edmonton, Alberta. (Joint venture with Saucier + Perrotte Architectes)

1. Shared-use facilities for community building

The recreation center’s role is expanding; it’s becoming a community center. This means centers must be designed to appeal to a variety of activities and sports—to justify their investment, to appeal broadly across the community, and to achieve high utilization. We can’t just design a curling center that sits empty five days a week.

Simultaneously, there’s a drive to make these recreation centers adjacent to new community buildings—from schools to day care centers to public libraries—that are coming up for replacement. In other cases, we are designing these facilities for new neighborhoods. Why not attach a new school or library to the recreation center we’re designing?

Rural areas, for example, may have an aging library or an out-of-date high school. Teaming up the rec center with a new school, library, or senior center allows access by multiple groups, helps local governments maximize their budget, embeds active lifestyles in the local culture, and builds community connections.

Big cities have seen the value in developing large venues as part of larger sports and entertainment districts, which can draw a multigenerational audience.

It can also benefit the partner—libraries attached to recreation centers have shown increased traffic and book borrowing. While these partnerships may require local institutions to come up with creative operational models, they can reap significant cost savings and benefits to projects. Small communities can get a better building with better materials. We’ve seen shared projects achieve 18% savings by investigating shared use—that’s a significant capital investment boost for cash-strapped municipalities.

2. Esports—a revenue generator

The hottest trend in sport and recreation is Esports, a growing multi-billion-dollar industry worldwide. Esports (or organized competitive video gaming) offers major event facilities a chance to add 50 to 100 additional nights of well-attended, revenue-generating entertainment programming. We’re seeing pro sports leagues and teams align with Esports as a second tenant in their building.

Universities offering Esports have a recruitment advantage. And local recreation centers including Esports have an opportunity to attract nontraditional users and bring them into facilities for the first time.

Esports, previously crammed into ill-fitting convention centers, enjoy tremendous momentum right now and will require great spaces.

New recreation design should accommodate this coming wave of recreational and competitive activity. If you’re investing in a new rec center be aware that Esports spaces, whether new or retrofitted, have tremendous power and data requirements—so plan accordingly.

Red Deer College's Gary W. Harris Canada Games Centre in Red Deer, Alberta. (Stantec Architecture/HCMA Architecture + Design)

3. Flexibility and access—designs for the future

Which sport or activity should we be designing for today? Hot yoga, spin class, indoor climbing? The answer is that we’re designing spaces for the things we haven’t thought of yet. Flexibility and adaptability for multipurpose spaces—gender neutrality and ability to accommodate Esports, for example—is the next big thing. Community leaders are concerned about being good stewards of taxpayer dollars, they want to make a variety of activities available to their residents.

And we’re also designing closer to transit, so that community amenities are more easily accessible through public transportation or to those with reduced mobility.

4. Inclusivity and gender-neutral facilities

Gender-neutral changing rooms have long been a feature in Central Europe natatoriums. Now, inclusivity (facilities without male- or female-designated spaces) is coming to sports and recreation design in North America, with Canada leading the way.

For owners, building gender-neutral facilities usually means an increased space requirement and upfront investment for a larger washroom/changing room, but often there’s an operational savings. A recreation center with a pool, for example, usually needs both male and female lifeguards on duty to inspect changing rooms, but with a gender-neutral changing area, it only needs one. Gender-neutral washrooms make larger sports and entertainment venues more adaptable, especially when the venue is hosting an event that appeals heavily to one gender. For designers, the challenge is really making sure that there’s an appropriate number of accommodations (such as stalls in the washrooms) to meet user needs.

At Rogers Place, for the Edmonton Oilers (a joint venture with HOK), our team is working with the Oilers Entertainment Group to the get balance of accommodations right for its gender-neutral washrooms. At Lewis Farms Recreation Center (a joint venture with Saucier + Perrotte Architectes), we have designed a complete 90% gender-neutral building with gender-neutral changing areas (featuring private changing cubicles within), but also small designated-gender rooms. It’s the first gender-neutral recreation center in Canada of its scale.

The Alvin Independent School District's Freedom Field in Texas.

5. Turf—to go synthetic or to go natural?

Often our clients in recreation, high school, and college sports are torn between natural grass and synthetic turf.

Often, they initially prefer natural grass for its aesthetic, natural properties, and perceived performance superiority. But oftentimes grass doesn’t have the required underdrainage, it can’t handle the volume of use that communities dish out, it can’t recover from weather events quickly enough, and it requires significant maintenance.

Synthetic turf used to be known for being rough on players—“death by a thousand cuts” to slide on—but synthetic surfaces have improved dramatically. They can offer a safer, more predictable playing surface. But the desire to replicate the experience of playing on a well-manicured natural-turf field remains strong—so Stantec is researching and benchmarking natural-grass fields at the University of Tennessee to inform our selection of synthetic products.

Choosing grass or artificial turf really depends on the project, the client’s needs, and climatic location. But today, both are viable options.

Leduc Recreation Centre in Leduc, Alberta.

6. Sports entertainment districts come to town

Big cities have seen the value in developing large venues as part of larger sports and entertainment districts, which can draw a multigenerational audience with programming on and off the field and during the off-season. The 24-7, multifaceted nature of these districts makes them dynamic and energetic urban places. These districts have jump-started development in places like Chicago’s Wrigleyville and downtown Denver, areas where Stantec has designed new entertainment districts around Cubs and Rockies baseball franchises, respectively.

With big box retailers reeling, smaller communities are also looking for ways to spur investment and create places where residents want to be. Now, small towns are seeing the value in sports and recreation as a cornerstone for development. Small towns can build off the interest and traffic around a local hockey arena or recreation center and boost development in that neighborhood.

In smaller rural locations like Fort McMurray, Alberta, there’s an opportunity to revitalize and add amenities to downtowns and hold on to younger residents. These towns have aging community buildings and education infrastructure, much of it built around the Canadian Centennial in 1967, that needs to be replaced. They see that co-locating new rec centers to senior centers nearby creates synergies and opens access to swimming pools and a walking track for a prime user group. With a hockey audience, a senior user group, and others, a multifunction facility can build the critical mass needed for retail, residential, and other development to take root. The result is a synergy between recreation and community that’s likely to be an asset for years to come.

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