The Changing Face of Recreation

Multigenerational, Multipurpose Facilities


The demand for flexibility of space within YMCAs and municipality-run recreation facilities is one of the strongest trends and greatest challenges facing architectural planners and their stakeholder clients today, as they try to anticipate needs in the face of constant change due to new innovations, directions, technologies and the expectations of their multigenerational community users.

Throw out that old notion of what a "Y" or your neighborhood rec center used to be, said architect Frank Parisi, associate principal, Williams Architects, Itasca, Ill. "It's nothing like what it is today. The origins of the YMCAs were designed as a place to go for young men, and often they would house transient men. That's how they started," he said.

Initially, YMCAs and recreation centers were geared toward younger generations—places where kids and youths could go get involved in activities, whether it was basketball, baseball or some kind of dance class. When people learned to swim, the answer was the YMCA or the local pool. Both YMCAs and municipal recreation centers started small, but over time the evolution of their offerings has expanded beyond community-oriented classes such as arts and crafts to encompass health, wellness and more active fitness programming, "which is where, over the past 20 years, these centers—call them community centers now—have been going," Parisi explained.

The trend in the market is fitness, he said. "It is a big thing, and different levels of fitness are really important, in addition to the original programming such as dance classes, ballroom dancing or painting, inside of the community center. The evolution of that, from the initial YMCA concept, is now multigenerational, so community centers start becoming community hubs, multigenerational—starting from the very small preschool toddler, where you can have some early learning classes before the child actually goes into kindergarten, it starts evolving into the active adult formula."

Increasingly, Parisi said, what's gone is the senior center, because the active adult, defined as 50-plus, is no longer interested in playing pinochle or shuffleboard. They are looking for active programming, which community centers are now providing.

Gone is the senior center, because the active adult, defined as 50-plus, is no longer interested in playing pinochle or shuffleboard.

But while programming targets the very young to the very old, at its root, it still has the essence of the community at heart. "Basically," Parisi said, "YMCAs and recreation centers are gathering spaces, and this is not just for programming; you can go there and lounge. Give people a home away from home, especially teens. If they are not involved in a sport, it's a perfect place to go and get together with friends. Recreation centers are becoming that go-to place. What we've learned from that is we really don't design facilities for particular generations, you design it from a flexibility perspective in a multi-generation solution."

Daniel Matoba, senior associate, project manager, Barker Rinker Seacat Architecture, of Denver, put it this way: "We are not designing the space for the trends. We are designing space to accommodate changing ideas."

Amenities you might see inside of a recreation center would certainly include the ones everyone is familiar with: gyms, pools, the running track, which has been very popular nationwide, because that will grab anywhere from the regular athlete running to the seniors walking in the morning. Silver Sneakers is a program that is geared to that. And then dance classes, fitness, group exercise classes, which can involve anything from Zumba, yoga, ballroom dancing, tap.

"You name it, across the gamut," Matoba said.

Parisi added that, "Recently we've seen that instead of a more traditional gym with a wood floor that targets volleyball and basketball, you have a multi-activity court gym. We call it a MAC gym. It's a smaller gym, but it's a catchall so you can do Tae Kwon Do, you can do inline skating. The multi-activity gym starts taking up on the trend for fitness, which right now is basically the CrossFit."

Gone is the day when people are just going to run on the treadmill or lift some weights. Fitness is currently more focused on conditioning and training. The MAC gym can be used as part of that because it has that versatility of the space, Parisi said.

Programming is also more often including indoor adventure play, such as ropes courses or climbing gyms. "You can use American Ninja Warrior as a kind of example," Parisi said, "but that's on a big scale."


Adventure play can exist at different levels and challenges inside the course. An example of that would be when you are harnessed in and you can walk on a rope or you can zip line and climb.

Interactive play designed from very young ages to adults, are also attractions at community centers.

The YMCA has a similar formula, but tailored to a different audience, Parisi said. "They see the need in the community. It varies geographically. If you are in Illinois, Colorado, California, the park department is different than in other areas. They have recreation divisions that support community centers. In other portions of the country, their recreation department is more about parks, so they might have smaller community centers. One room might be for everything. You might not have a gym, or a pool, although most will have an outdoor pool. Those communities will rely on the YMCA to supplement some of that recreation programming."

Designing for Flexibility

Understanding that the leading trend, driven by users, is for fitness training and wellness programs in recreation centers, "municipalities are asking us that when we design there is enough flexibility to account for these differing kinds of fitness programs," Matoba said. For example, he explained, a walking track with space next to it. "We will use the space we have for a pull-up bar or ropes attached to a column at a station. The track can be used as part of interval training, just to provide additional flexibility or multi-use. Traditionally, people just walked or jogged, but that's changing."


Matoba's designs look at rooms that might have been used just for aerobics or traditional fitness room, but now can be used for audio-visual effects. For example, you could display an image of a serene lake on a wall, turn the lights down, and it becomes a yoga or meditation room. "We are using video technology as part of the changing needs of people who use the space," he said.

In many centers, Matoba continued, "they become not just recreation centers. Maybe there will be a space for people to get on the Internet, or maybe a place for moms to hang out that has access to Wi-Fi where you can plug your phone in—things that will get the community involved, even if they are not engaged in recreation programs.

That's right, Parisi, of Williams Architects, said. "We no longer start dedicating space to particular programs, because in that case the efficiency of the space goes down. What we want is to start designing spaces that allow for the most flexibility from a programming perspective to handle current trends and then for potentially upcoming trends in the market. That is very important because what you end up doing is getting the versatility of spaces."

In the morning you could have an active adult space in a multi-use room, with retirees coming in when all the kids are in school; as the day goes on the same room can turn into an after-school space, where kids can socialize and play games. Providing flexibility in those spaces might mean having operable panels to provide for a single larger program, or two smaller programs.

Success Story

Ten years ago, Williams Architects, along with the Carmel Clay Parks and Recreation Department, in Carmel, Ind., partnered to develop an entire recreation system on a 120-acre parcel. "In one fell swoop," Parisi said, they created a central park in the community, put a 110,000-square-foot recreation center on it, connected it to regional trails, created a pond, and have added outdoor and indoor aquatics. And they created jobs, growing from a staff of 10 to 100, by the time the entire area was done.

The center has been very well received, reported Michael W. Klitzing, chief operating officer, Carmel Clay Parks & Recreation. Usually over a year, more than half a million people go through the facility.

"What is very important to us is not just building and making upgrades to it, but we have been very diligent in ensuring that throughout the course of the 10 years we are continually remodeling it and adapting space to accommodate the needs of the users today," Klitzing said. "And what we offer today is not necessarily what we needed 10 years ago or what we thought was needed 10 years ago."


Carmel Clay is an example of a successful multi-use, multigenerational approach to a recreation center. When it opened, Klitzing explained, it included many of the typical recreation components, a gymnasium, a walking track and a fitness center. There was an area committed to more passive activity. The center was also envisioned as a place for banquets and community meetings, as well as more general, lower impact recreation programs like arts and crafts, or adult education. Subsequent surveys taken during the past few years found that fitness was the number one need in the community for recreation programming.

"We were already providing a significant amount of that kind of programming, but they wanted more of it. The study made that very clear," he said. Over the years they have been transitioning to serve those needs. A space that might have been predominantly passive is being used more for group fitness programs.

"We have converted flooring that was carpeted into a rubberized flooring that is more appropriate for group fitness classes," Klitzing said. "But these spaces can still be used for those programs such as arts and crafts. We have been very cognizant of making those changes that allow us to not only expand the group fitness programming at our facility, but also be able to maintain the other types that are equally important to our community."

Ironically, the space appropriated for banquet events—a need in the area when the facility opened, Klitzing said—began to decrease as new hotels and banquet facilities opened in the region. "We phased out of that and focused on areas where there was a greater demand than supply in the community."

Parisi helped redesign those underutilized banquet rooms. "We went back and retrofitted the spaces with the correct finishes, started bringing day camps and doing passive recreation in those same rooms, which were sitting dormant for three-quarters of the day."

Mixing Use

Stephen Springs, senior principal, Brinkley Sargent Wiginton, of Dallas, said recreation centers want to reach a broad audience though multi-use centers, where senior centers and recreation centers share the same space.


"We are working on one right now in Arlington, Texas, where we are integrating a library into a senior center," Springs said. "It is not necessarily a new model to have a library share a roof with a recreation center, but this is the first one we've done where they are actually integrating their operation, sharing program space. That is breaking some new ground and in this client's experience it is a unique deal, which certainly broadens the appeal and allows for cross marketing."

The library idea is interesting because there are more and more grandparents raising kids, or at least acting as caregivers during the day. Having a senior center and a library along with a recreation center allows that multigenerational activity to appeal to both the caregiver and the child. In the summer they can be running camps in the facility, but the grandparent can still hang out in the senior center or go to the library.

It keeps everybody active and engaged, Springs said. "It reduces the shut-ins, particularly in some of those underserved areas, such as the one in Arlington. This is an entirely new building and a new way of thinking about recreation. We have done buildings with a library, senior center and a recreation center together many times; that idea is not new. But they tend to have their own entrances and their own turf in the building."

While this one does contain elements that are their own turf, he said, "they are sharing a common lobby and will share some common spaces so, there will be classrooms where sometimes the recreation center is programming and other times when the library staff is programming. The common lobby space will be available to people that are just there to read a book or do some research, as well as people that are hanging out between recreation classes. It's of much more mixed use than co-located use."


Springs believes this facility, due to open in 2019, will get some national attention. "Other cities might be interested in talking to Arlington about how they figured out how to operate this," he said. "They use the words cross-training. In their eyes they envision some efficiencies in staffing by sharing. I don't know how that will play out in the real world; you can't expect a librarian to tell people how to use fitness equipment, and vice versa. But the notion of having a common control desk, where people can go to learn about the programs in one place seems to make sense."

This is something that is innovative and still on the boards, Springs said. "We're designing it, but it's an interesting project from a programming standpoint. It's got a library component, a small indoor pool, a lot of traditional rec-center attributes, a small senior center space. The reason it can fit a lot into that footage is the cross-programming and sharing of the program spaces.

One of the challenges Arlington is still working through is that some of the programming through the library is free, while similar programming offered by the recreation side isn't. "On the operations side, they are ultimately going to have to solve what their pricing structure will be. The recreation center can't offer computer classes for a fee if the library is doing it for free. Some programming may have to move into one side completely. There is a lot for them to think about."