Looking Back, Moving Forward

Celebrating 20 Years of Recreation, Sports & Fitness


When you consider the year 1999, it may seem like an eternity ago, or perhaps it feels like it was just yesterday. Bill Clinton was president, and mobile phones and the internet were just gaining a foothold in the mainstream. A gallon of gas was $1.22, and the average new car cost about $21,000. Sci-fi fans flocked to see "Star Wars: The Phantom Menace," the New York Yankees won the World Series, and people everywhere were obsessed with Y2K and its ramifications. And the first issue of Recreation Management was published in the fall of 1999.

To commemorate the occasion, we've checked in with some longtime contributors to gain insight into what's changed over the past 20 years.

Parks, Playgrounds & More

Over the past two decades, community leaders have increasingly recognized that parks aren't just nice-to-have amenities—they're actually solutions to many challenges that cities are facing, according to Nette Compton, deputy director of the Parks for People program at the Trust for Public Land (TPL), a nonprofit with a mission to create parks and protect land for people. "Be that public health, access to recreation, community building or managing climate change—whether flooding, storms or urban heat island challenges. I think leaders are really seeing the power of parks to serve their constituents in a number of positive ways," Compton said.


Compton mentioned a current TPL campaign where they're working with mayors nationwide who have committed to ensuring that all of their residents are within a 10-minute walk of a park or open space. "We're talking to mayors in big cities, small cities and towns, and they're really getting how important parks are. What's evolved is that now they're asking us, 'OK, what do we do next?' They're looking for solutions to unlock funding, unlock resources and engage the community in the process."

Social Equity is one of the "three pillars" of the National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA), along with Conservation, and Health and Wellness, and more cities and parks departments are prioritizing equity initiatives. Portland, Ore., has an Equity and Inclusion manager while Los Angeles parks has a Gender Equity Affairs director. Additionally, many nonprofits, such as New Yorkers for Parks, are working closely with local parks departments to better serve all communities.


"We've seen how parks in underserved communities can be so catalytic to bringing communities together, giving a sense of pride and belief in government," said Compton. "Minneapolis, San Francisco and New York all come to mind where they're looking at how they've invested in parks in the past. They're challenging themselves and having tough conversations around investment, listening to what underserved communities need and planning their investments accordingly."

Landscape architects and playground designers have been working together more closely to create more dynamic play spaces over the past 20 years, according to Scott Roschi, creative director at a Minnesota-based manufacturer of playground and park equipment. "Playground components are being integrated into topography more than ever before. One of the top trends in playground design are hillside slides and hillside climbing challenges. Additionally, playgrounds have integrated new materials like rope and belting to enhance the play experience and make it more fun and challenging." Roschi said these types of designs encourage children to use their minds while exercising their bodies.

Playgrounds are now better integrated into the park environment, added Roschi, with more splash and water play areas being combined with playgrounds to encourage families to stay longer. "Larger destination playgrounds are also being developed in communities where more amenities are being offered in a single space." He mentioned Central Park in Maple Grove, Minn., where there's a community center, a dynamic and diverse playground and splash pad activities plus an ice skating ribbon for year-round fun.


Flexible use and using spaces creatively continues to be a goal of park designers and operators, particularly in urban areas where space is limited. "Parks are city dwellers' backyards, so you see things like dog parks becoming more common, and multigenerational fitness," said Compton. "Thinking about how you integrate playgrounds for little kids, basketball courts for older kids, a fitness zone for parents and caretakers—so everybody gets to be active in a space."

Off-leash dog parks are one of the fastest growing park amenities, expanding by 89% since 2007. The NRPA reports that in 2018, 55% of parks agencies had at least one dog park. And outdoor fitness areas are spreading. TPL has a program providing free outdoor fitness equipment to local parks, often in neighborhoods where pricey gym memberships aren't practical. Roschi explained how some stationary fitness equipment has evolved to ninja-style active fitness for children and adults alike. "Additionally, more traditional fitness equipment now offers the ability to attach your own exercise bands, which means group classes are being held outdoors and not just in a gym."

Community gardens have also increased, growing by 44 percent since 2007, when TPL first started tracking them. And while they were once used for beautifying vacant lots, cities are now realizing that they're great motivators for getting people outdoors and active, according to Compton. Another trend she's seen is how important garden plots have become to immigrant communities. "We've done work in the Bay area, in Denver—all over—where communities that have recently emigrated from Ethiopia, from Asia, are able to grow the food they know and love and miss, and can't find in the grocery store."


Cities and parks also continue to evolve when it comes to offerings for those with special needs. A 2018 NRPA report stated that 74% of parks agencies offered programs and activities for individuals with physical disabilities, while 62% had programs for those with cognitive issues.

The number of inclusive playgrounds continues to increase, and Roschi tells us that inclusive and sensory play are being designed into parks because communities are demanding it. "Many parks are now including new playground products that allow children using mobility devices and their friends to play side-by-side."

Grassroots groups oftentimes spearhead inclusive playground projects, such as Mary's Magical Place in Henderson, Tenn., or Magical Bridge in Palo Alto, Calif. These community groups work alongside city agencies with fundraising, planning and construction. Compton said that more designers and parks departments are going beyond ADA standards and thinking creatively about being inclusive and welcoming to all populations, including parents or caregivers who have mobility challenges. She added that this mindset should go beyond playgrounds, mentioning a TPL project in Vermont where they're incorporating ADA-access standards through a trail system.

In fact, ADA standards have had a positive effect on many facets of park design, including the furnishings. Bob Simonsen, marketing manager for an Iowa-based manufacturer of park products, explained that designs have evolved since ADA guidelines were enacted. "Wheelchair access is an integral component of any new table we design. This is true for park grills and campfire rings also."


What about other changes in the world of park furnishings over the past 20 years? "Twenty years ago we were using primarily lumber, plus one or two colors of recycled plastic and one color of vinyl plastisol coating on a few tables," said Simonsen. "Over the years the market has changed, and we now offer many colors of plastic, powder coat paint and thermoplastic coat finishes. The trend has definitely moved toward more color choices."

Recycled plastic materials have come a long way, according to Simonsen, who said they're much cleaner and purer now, adding that their popularity keeps increasing. Perforated and expanded steel products with thermoplastic coating are also growing in popularity. "We believe customers have caught on to the durability and low maintenance needs of these components."

Simonsen also said that during the past 15 to 20 years they've been designing more outdoor furniture for "streetscaping" installations. "Benches, tables, trash receptacles and bike racks are growing in demand for many different locations, and customers are requesting more upscale, artistic designs. We're doing more custom laser cut designs each year." He added that they build a lot of memorial benches as well, which incorporate plaques, engraved letters or cut steel signage, and are paid for by donors, either directly or through a parks agency.

Evolving Aquatics


The aquatics industry has evolved in all kinds of ways over the past couple decades. Justin Caron, principal at Aquatic Design Group, a California-based firm offering design and consulting services, lists safety as one major change, saying that our over-litigious society has spilled over into the aquatics world, translating to more stringent and uniform codes and an emphasis on safety from design through operations. "This affects everything from features and surfaces to systems and air quality."

Profitability is the next major change Caron noted. "Gone are the days when pools could be financial sinkholes. Today's aquatic facilities are focused on maximizing profitability and minimizing operating expenses."

Finally, Caron said flexibility is an evolution, with today's facilities focused on providing programs and options for all users. "Universal access, multiple pools with variable depths and temperatures, comfortable seating options for active and passive users and providing larger, more regional facilities have become the norm."

In the late 1990s, cities were just starting to adopt the family aquatic center models with all the new amenities, according to Kevin Post, principal at Counsilman-Hunsaker, a Missouri-based firm providing services in aquatic design, operations and planning. He explained that from a design standpoint, it was a struggle to convince cities to look at different types of pools because they were new. "Today, we go into design meetings and they're wanting not only some amenities, but more and more amenities than anyone else around, and they're starting to push the limit."


Post said they're also seeing a push for what he calls the resort trend, with more adult lounges and quiet areas. He pointed out that more municipal facilities are starting to offer private rentals of cabanas, which have become the norm at waterparks. "So in 20 years we've almost used up the trend of the small, family aquatic center. We're moving into the new trends of the luxury, high-end pool of sorts."

Splash pads and spray parks have popped up everywhere, whether as standalone spaces at museums, zoos or campgrounds or as added amenities placed in existing pools. Caron explained that offering an amenity that doesn't require a lifeguard allows operators to provide wet amenities in public spaces where small community pools may have existed in the past. "Simultaneously, the exposure to these fun, themed, interactive features has created an expectation for similar features in recreation pools, increasing the play value, desirability and profitability of these pools."

Post agrees that spray amenities now are often tied to pools in bigger facilities. "When they're standalone now I see the trend being more toward the artistic fountain—something you can play in, but less of the giraffes and squirt guns and more of the lights and Bellagio-type fountain features." He described how they've become more interactive and creative, with more options and app-related integration where the public can log in and do different things with the light shows.


Aquatic programming has been a major driver of change, with competitive programs and water sports, water therapy, adaptive programs for disabled populations, kayaking and scuba and many water exercise and fitness offerings from aqua yoga to paddleboard fitness. Caron said that specialized programs have become the norm as facilities focus on retaining members and increasing participation. "From a holistic standpoint, right-sized flexible spaces capable of handling multiple programs has become a core tenet in aquatic design."

Post uses the adage "programming precedes design," and mentioned the four user groups of aquatics: competitive, recreational, therapy, and instructional. He explained how these groups all desire different water depths and temperatures.

Caron pointed out that mechanical and chemical systems for pools are much more complex and efficient than their counterparts from 20 years ago. "Automation, remote monitoring and increased efficiencies are the main results of the industry's efforts to provide safe and reliable systems that are easy to maintain and cost less to operate."

Post agrees that technologies are ever-changing now with regard to mechanical systems and chemicals. "Twenty years ago there was not a lot of research focused on aquatics."


Pools have become more sustainable as well. "Manufacturers have improved the efficiency of their equipment. Innovations have led to pool systems that use less water, less fossil fuels and last longer," said Caron, adding that updated laws, codes and regulations have also driven change.

In 2008, the Virginia Graeme Baker Pool and Spa Safety Act (VGB) was put in place, requiring all drain covers to meet new standards. Pool lifts are now the norm, and ADA-compliant pool access is required. And while this has resulted in safer and more accessible facilities, Caron feels that "we should be striving for truly universal access in excess of what ADA requires."

In recent years, many community groups, nonprofits and local coalitions have pushed to provide swim lessons for all populations, regardless of income, neighborhood or ethnicity. Organizations such as the National Drowning Prevention Alliance (NDPA), National Swimming Pool Foundation (NSPF), USA Swimming and the American Red Cross and YMCA have all initiated learn-to-swim campaigns. Additionally, more facilities are making U.S. Coast Guard-approved life jackets available to non-swimmers.

Multipurpose Spaces for Recreation, Sports & Fitness

When it comes to designing collegiate and community recreation spaces, much evolution has taken place in 20 years. "Wellness is on the mind of almost every collegiate recreation administrator," said Colleen McKenna, director of CannonDesign's Sports, Recreation and Wellness practice. She says the definition of wellness has evolved to encompass a much more holistic view of mental, emotional and physical wellbeing. "Today's students are more empowered than ever to track their activity levels, heart rates and stress indicators."


McKenna said institutions are motivated now to move beyond just the physical aspects and create centers to help students achieve more holistic wellness, citing Virginia Tech's War Memorial Hall project as an institution integrating recreation and wellness. Set to open in 2021, the facility will unite the university's School of Education, Department of Human Nutrition, Foods & Exercise, Hokie Wellness and Recreational Sports under a single roof. Basketball courts and weight and cardio spaces will mix with nutritional kitchens, relaxation spaces, touch-down counseling spaces and more.

Eric Einhorn, vice president and Washington D.C. sports market leader for CannonDesign said that multidisciplinary integration is a current trend, with regard to college sports facilities. He points out that when institutions compete for top-tier athletes, a lot of focus is given to scholarships and innovative training and competition facilities that house jaw-dropping amenities. "However, increased focus on human performance, academic success and student-athlete health and safety is driving important shifts in facility development."

Einhorn described the University of Maryland's Cole Field House, a state-of-the-art football practice facility that surrounds traditional practice facility elements with unique complementary spaces, including the Center for Sports Medicine, Health and Human Performance; the Academy for Innovation and Entrepreneurship; and the Orthopedic Clinical Treatment Center. "By blending academics, entrepreneurship, health sciences, care delivery and more, the dynamic building serves multiple purposes for athletes and coaches, as well as the campus and community."


Another focus of campus recreation departments is evolving their facilities to become more inclusive, according to Jenny Delgado, a senior vice president at CannonDesign. "We're seeing new design opportunities like gender-neutral restrooms and locker facilities. We're also seeing recreation departments introduce international sports like cricket and digital tech like e-sports to engage as much of the student population as possible." Delgado also sees a rise in programming for individuals with cognitive, physical and sensory disabilities, helping them to achieve greater functional independence.

Inclusivity has also become a focus in community recreation design, according to Kevin Armstrong, associate and project manager specializing in recreation design at Barker Rinker Seacat Architecture. "Creating inviting and welcoming spaces for all is now fundamental in the design of these facilities."

Armstrong said that over the past two decades there's also been an emphasis on diversifying the program options available to patrons of these facilities. "Gone are the days of the single-use space, gymnasium or pool. Amplifying facilities to be adaptable for multiple uses with flexibility in mind has become key in the design of high-functioning facilities."


Many newer facilities are allocating significant amounts of space and resources to aquatic amenities, according to Armstrong, citing the Center of Recreation Excellence (CORE) in Hobbs, N.M., as an example. The immersive and technologically advanced environment features two 40-foot tall body slides with lights and music, a themed desert environment complete with an actual monsoon thunderstorm, a lazy river, zero-depth beach entry and spa. "Creating facilities like these are truly a way for cities to differentiate themselves from surrounding communities to draw in new residents and revenues," said Armstrong.

McKenna said sustainability is a fey focus for most of their clients, so they need to be aware of leading-edge materials and engineering solutions to meet these goals. "We've designed hockey rinks with refrigeration systems that can make ice and generate heat for buildings, we've designed football practice facilities that rely on 100% natural ventilation—there's a ton of creativity when it comes to sustainable design."

Armstrong said they're thinking more critically about the exterior envelope around a facility and working on new strategies to reduce the amount of energy consumed. "In our current facilities we're finding they're using about a third of the amount of energy compared to those designed 20 years ago."

It's imperative for designers to create adaptable and flexible spaces to accommodate the latest technologies, according to Armstrong, since technology is constantly creating new trends. He mentioned wearable devices as an example. "This trend has introduced new interactive features into the fitness environment, such as individualization and customization in the way people use facilities, which has directly influenced the manner in which fitness areas are laid out and developed."

Einhorn agrees that technology is a huge driver in the evolution of sports facility design. "Think about all the things we can now do on our phones when attending sporting events—show our tickets, order food, see how long bathroom lines are, check fantasy sports scores and more. As technology empowers these new possibilities, facilities change how they shape spaces."


Reed Vorhees, senior vice president at CannonDesign, described how the MAC (multiuse activity court) has evolved since debuting in the 1990s. With advancements in sport flooring technologies and equipment, MACs accommodate a wide range of programming opportunities in addition to traditional basketball and volleyball programs, including indoor soccer, floor hockey and team handball, as well as Weekend Warrior training, sleep-ins, conferences and tradeshows. "We continue to see greater interest in highly flexible spaces that enable a broader range of creative programming opportunities, coupled with a desire by students for activities that contribute to a heightened level of energy throughout buildings with unique features that allow unique design solutions."

Armstrong believes that facilities are working hard to meet the desires of their patrons, which have changed over 20 years, and as such, the makeup of facilities has changed accordingly. "What will be really fun is to see in the next 20 years what we will all reflect upon relative to the facilities we are all creating, designing and using today!"

"The future looks incredibly fun and powerful," Caron concluded. "Quickly changing technology will change the way we relax, play, train and compete." He believes that augmented reality, social media, biometric monitoring and shifting weather patterns could all affect the evolution of facilities over the next 20 years. "Change is coming fast, and we'll need to continuously evolve to change with it." RM