Be Well

Multipurpose Recreation Centers Take a Broader Approach to Wellness

Today, recreation managers and the architects who design recreation and community centers are increasingly taking a broader view of their role in creating healthier, happier communities. As they do, they are also creating multipurpose facilities and programs that help people address more aspects of wellness than ever before.

"We're finding a real upsurge in community centers, YMCAs, collegiate centers and hospital-based health and wellness centers beginning to tailor services toward other dimensions of wellness beyond just the physical," said Robert McDonald, CEO and architect for OLC (Ohlson Lavoie Corporation), an international architecture firm headquartered in Denver.



Within the recreation industry, these broader perspectives on wellness are becoming more commonplace—though everyone's definition of wellness may still be a bit different.


The NIRSA Model for Healthy People and Communities identifies eight aspects of wellness, including physical, social, spiritual, environmental, financial, occupational, psychological and intellectual wellness.

"We think that a lot of our work can really have a major influence on four of those facets directly and then the other four tangentially," said Kevin Armstrong, a principal at Barker Rinker Seacat Architecture (BRS), an architecture firm based in Denver with an additional office in Dallas. "Obviously the facets we can hit the most are in terms of physical, social, emotional and environmental wellness. But we really think that we are tying into the other four through our work and our design."


Health and wellness is also one of the three pillars of the National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA). The organization's Position Statement on the Role of Parks and Recreation on Health and Wellness identifies the role that public park and recreation agencies can play in:

>> Helping reduce obesity and chronic disease through opportunities for physical activity.

>> Providing connections to nature that relieve stress and improve interpersonal relationships and mental health.

>> Helping to reduce hunger and increase access to nutritious food.

>> Boosting overall wellness and healthy habits such as tobacco cessation and providing life-enriching opportunities.

The reality is that a recreation or community center's ability to influence wellness may be limited only by the imagination in its programming and the ability of its staff and facility to execute those programs successfully.

Cooking Up Wellness

One major trend is toward facilities and programs that teach community members how to select and cook healthier foods. "We are seeing more demand not just in the senior but even in traditional community centers toward nutrition programming and having teaching kitchens," said Stephen Springs, senior principal and architect for Brinkley Sargent Wiginton Architects, an architectural firm headquartered in Dallas with additional offices in Houston and Waco.

Springs noted that the City of Fort Worth is now incorporating teaching kitchens into all of its new community centers. "It's part of their core programming, which is kind of unique," Springs said. The kitchens feature large prep tables with mirrors above them so that people can watch the food being prepared through the mirror or through the video. The spaces are also used as catering kitchens for events and are used by area social services programs to provide meal programs for the community.

Howard Blaisdell, associate principal and project manager for Moody Nolan, an architectural firm headquartered in Columbus, Ohio, with several other offices across the United States, has seen similar features in recent community center projects by his firm.

These are spurred by the acknowledgement that we as a nation need to be eating healthier, a reality hard to overcome when it's so affordable and convenient to eat fast and processed foods. "We really need to be encouraging people to be able to cook and eat healthy foods," Blaisdell said. "And when we look at that, we're looking at how we can teach people to make things that are quick, easy, convenient and still healthy."


One example is a renovation of the Linden Community Center that Moody Nolan is working on for the City of Columbus. Expected to reopen in fall 2020, it will feature a teaching kitchen with adjacent classroom. The two are separated by an overhead door that allows for the two areas to be used together or independently.

At Linden, that classroom also will feature a sliding glass wall that can open to an outdoor covered seating area. Directly off that and fully outdoors is a series of raised planting beds that will be used for vegetables and herbs.

"The idea is that you can be creating that connectivity from indoor to outdoor protected to complete outdoors as you go through there so you're creating that better connectivity to nature," Blaisdell said.

The inclusion of things like vegetable gardens and urban farm elements is also another way that some of these new multipurpose recreation and community centers are expanding their vision of nutrition-focused wellness.

Moody Nolan is working on another project, the Edgewood Recreation Center in Washington, D.C., that goes further by incorporating an urban rooftop farm featuring roughly 12 inches of tillable soil that community members will be able to farm small plots on.

These types of efforts are helping to promote wellness by teaching people how to grow food, make healthier food choices, cook food and even shop for food.

"These kitchen and nutrition spaces going into community centers now are successful not only because they're providing a space for people to enjoy cooking and learn cooking techniques," said Zach Bisek, a principal at Barker Rinker Seacat, "but the successful ones I see, the programs also include bringing people out to the grocery store and teaching them how to shop and purchase groceries successfully to create healthy meals."

Environmental Wellness, Indoors & Out

As in the Linden Community Center design, more spaces are trying to create more connection with nature, the outdoors and natural elements to enhance environmental wellness. Bisek noted the example of Waggener Farm Park, a planned recreation center in Berthoud, Colo., built on an old farmstead site.

The design includes opportunities for people in the community, even those who might not be members of the center, to visit and engage in outdoor health and wellness, immersive playground and community activities. Currently included are features such as orchards, gardens and outdoor community areas.


"They made these large gathering spaces with a farm and picnic table setup so that they can then come together as a community and enjoy that farm lifestyle, enjoy the fruits of their labor, and have community communication and conversation around those open settings," Bisek said. "It's a big part of the project."

Armstrong noted the example of another recent project in Big Sky, Mont., that includes multipurpose community spaces and rooms that also feature the ability to expand outside into an event plaza and event lawn behind the facility.

"You can have really large events and bring the whole community together, and the building is the backdrop for that gathering," Armstrong said. "It may not be the core space that you go to. That's kind of exciting because then you're allowed to think beyond the boundaries of the walls of the facility."

Newer designs are also increasingly incorporating opportunities for outdoor fitness, whether it be through placing fitness equipment outside or through programmed outdoor turf space. "We've seen a number of parking garages where we're utilizing the top space for outdoor turf and soccer areas," Bisek noted as one example.

McDonald is also seeing the outdoors brought in as a growing component of recreation center designs. "We've been focusing on bringing more of that biophilic design into the buildings," McDonald said. "So whether it's introducing nature in terms of plant life or aquatic life or maybe it's a water feature, you're tapping into those natural senses. We've been doing a lot of that lately."

He has also seen increased efforts to incorporate circadian rhythms into building lighting designs by utilizing color-changing lighting that's brighter and bluer in the morning to wake people up and more orange and gold in hue as the evening approaches to help people wind down and get ready for sleep.

Putting the Community in Community Centers

A focus on designs and programming that builds a sense of community is also growing within new recreation and community centers. "Social connectivity is really important," Springs said. "It is challenging—how do you address that architecturally? And I think the only way to do it is to provide some of those spaces in the building for organic things to happen." According to Springs, this means things like lounge areas and game rooms that allow things like friendships and mentorships to flourish.


At the college level, Blaisdell is seeing lounge areas with a wide variety of seating groups and options, plenty of opportunities for students to plug in, and locations off main lobby areas that enable people to see friends and acquaintances passing by.

"It's still an area that's a little softer in terms of color, lighting, floor finishes, and the furniture might be thicker, softer," Blaisdell said. "But I'm still in an area where I can visually see the activity and the people going back and forth."

In some facilities, this can include an effort to create even cozier areas, such as the community living room in the Linden Community Center that will feature an electric fireplace, stone and warm materials to create a more intimate feel and space. Blaisdell also noted the example of a rec center in Tennessee called Heritage Park that included a community living room that featured the history of the neighborhood and information on neighborhood heroes who were integral to the growth and the vitality of the neighborhood.

"By honoring those people and putting their information out there that people can see and understand and recognize, the hope is that you can educate the younger people and they can see this and say, 'I can make a difference too,'" Blaisdell said.

He is also seeing similar efforts in the use of inspiring environmental graphics in everything from schools to gyms, YMCAs and community recreation centers. "We've got inspiring messages there that you might not consciously think about but subconsciously your brain is absorbing it … to help change your mindset and help create that sense of peace and wellness and happiness and community," Blaisdell said.

As it is in many other spaces, flexibility in lounge areas is important to success. "You want it to be able to multifunction or multitask for whatever use the customers might have," McDonald said. To do this, he recommends incorporating any potentially needed technologies, audiovisual capabilities, good natural light, systems component and furniture arrangements.

A Multigenerational Approach

Community is also fostered by facilities that take an intergenerational approach and appeal to all ages and demographics within the local population. Multipurpose spaces that can adapt for different programming are critical, and elements like storage play an important role in making it possible.


"We have some spaces where we have cabinets on the walls, where during the mornings, some of the cabinets are open for the senior programs," Blaisdell said. "They close everything, put everything away at 3 o'clock, you open up a separate set of cabinets for the afternoon kids' programs. You close that up, you get cabinets that open up for the adult evening programs."

A multigenerational approach also creates an emphasis on wellness almost by default. "If you've got a multi-gen center where you've got a senior component as part of it, I think there's a natural inclination to have some programming that's more wellness-focused because that's definitely a driver in the senior market," Springs said.

And this driver is leading to trends like increased use of therapy water to serve the senior market while still, through effective design, providing program opportunities for other demographics.

Bisek noted the example of a recent facility in Hobbes, N.M., called CORE (the Center of Recreational Excellence) that incorporated a warmer-water wellness pool that's used in the morning for senior workouts and therapy. Later in the day, it's used for youth swimming lessons, since some young children are turned off by colder-water pools.

"And then later in the day because of the therapy jets and the design concept with a large video screen wall … it turns into a space where teens and adults can relax and just have conversations almost like a hot tub atmosphere," Bisek said.

The space also follows the example of effective multiuse group exercise spaces in its attention to detail to acoustics and flexible lighting that includes bright lighting for seniors in the morning and ambient lighting on the pool sidewalls for evening activities.

Flexibility in terms of variety of spaces is also important to create a sense of community and create an environment that is welcoming to different personality types. "Some people really like being out in the middle of everything … other people may want more of a private environment," Armstrong said. For this reason, Armstrong noted the importance of providing smaller and larger gathering spaces and a diversity of lounge areas that includes ones in the middle of everything and others that are more tucked away and private.

Designing for Wellness Providers

As architects see more requests for things like massage therapy spaces, they are also working on more projects that incorporate wellness and medical offices. These often feature their own entrances and lobby areas.

"If you do have some wellness offerings, they may be open to just the general public," McDonald said. "And so placing those components outside of your control point is very important so you're not mixing credentialed members with nonmembers."


At the same time, just making the effort to put these spaces within a larger recreational or community center can also help destigmatize the provision of these services. Blaisdell noted that that was an explicit aim of a recreation center project he worked on several years ago for Butler University. The center combined health and wellness services into the same building and used the same main entrance but turned down a separate corridor for the wellness services such as medical and counseling clinics.

"They wanted to put those services in the main building and have information about them along the main concourse as you walk through the main building to destigmatize and normalize them and make people feel better about it," Blaisdell said.

For the Linden facility, the design features not only a partner space for local Women, Infants and Children (WIC) programs, but also a space out front of the facility that mobile health providers such as mammography trucks and bloodmobiles can plug into.

Paying attention to good acoustics is another way to provide greater flexibility in spaces that potentially could be used for group sessions or counseling as well as regular programming that may not require as much sound protection.

Flexibility for the Future

In the end, attention to these and other issues enable the design and execution of flexible spaces that can work effectively for multiple purposes and demographics without being too specialized.

"You can design a space that has good acoustics, flexible partition systems and flooring system that might be in the midrange and can accommodate two or three purposes at moderate levels," Bisek said. "The space may not look like something you're going to put in a high-design architectural magazine. But from a user standpoint, it can allow better use of different programs and allow that space to flex over time."

As wellness continues to expand as a priority for recreation and community centers, the forms it takes are sure to keep evolving into the future. "You really need a lot of flexibility in rec centers because it's inherently trendy and I don't think wellness is a trend—I think it's here to stay," Springs said. "But what is considered a wellness program today and tomorrow could very well be different programs." RM