You've Come a Long Way, Baby

By Melinda Kempfer

nce upon a time, recreation professionals called wondering what this "zero depth thing" was, if waterslides were really safe and why the heck they should add shade structures to a pool. This, of course, was several years ago. Aquatic recreational and programming needs of the public have evolved to the point where words like "zero depth entry," "interactive water play structures," "competitive swimming" and "accessibility" now are all part of the industry lexicon. They are no longer new trends, and family aquatic centers are no longer a luxury—they have become our new way of life.

There's no place like home

Family aquatic centers continue to increase in popularity because of the positive impact they have on the communities where they are built. The industry has seen that an aquatic element within a neighborhood positively impacts health, crime prevention, the environment, the economy and the quality of life. Well-attended parks help decrease vandalism and fear of crime within parks. They evoke a sense of ownership as residents become more involved in "park watch" programs.

They have become important to the economic development of neighborhoods across the nation by helping to create a place where people want to live and do business. Grassroots revitalization and growth programs that focus on beautification projects and commerce, including streetscapes and curb appeal, in neighborhoods around the aquatic center are often initiated after aquatic facilities are built.

What's new?

Pools are still popular, but what are today's "new trends"? Of course there is a plethora of innovative equipment that has made the scene. Commercial waterparks are a big influence in municipal family aquatic centers. Rides have become more exciting to keep up with the public's demand and entertainment needs. We are starting to see amenities like surf generators, speed slides, bowl slides, wave pools, water coasters and multilevel play structures in public aquatic centers. Bringing this excitement to the municipal pool increases attendance, participation and revenue, and fulfills guest expectations. But equipment isn't the only new trend. We need to take a step back and look at the communities that we serve.

A grandmother and a teenager walk into the pool...

No, this is not the beginning of a joke. It is a new trend in aquatics: designing and programming for the multi-generational and programmatic needs within our pools. A community waterpark facility helps to weave the threads of a community and enhance the quality of life, family, togetherness and wellness of its residents. It serves the entire public including active seniors, aging baby boomers, parents, teenagers, young children, toddlers and infants. There is recreational value that meets the needs of each demographic in a community. Programming within aquatic centers and parks encourages people to gather to gather and share an event. Let's take a look at who is swimming where:

  • The aging population has increased the demand for low-impact exercise programs. Because water buoyancy gives a person more freedom, movement becomes easier. Water also adds a graded resistance during exercise. Current channel or lazy rivers can be used for resistance or assistive walking classes during one time of the day and can then be used as a recreational river to serve another group.
  • Conversation and socializing areas within the pool—3 to 5 feet of water—with bubble benches and sitting areas are becoming prevalent in new designs.
  • The inclusion of water playgrounds in municipal parks is on the rise. These interactive areas can be located adjacent to other recreation venues or in standalone parks or urban areas.
  • Guest accommodations are becoming commonplace in a municipal pool. Shade is increasingly important along with deck chairs and pavilions where guests can be comfortable. A comfortable guest spends more time at the park.
  • Difficult-to-please demographics include the tweens and teenagers who don't always want to hang out with mom and dad. An aquatic craze among those participants is the "Teen Zone." This is a separate yet very visible section of the deck or grass area that is programmed for this specific group. Within their "own space" they can socialize, enjoy popular music and just hang out.
  • Likewise, some facilities have designated areas for adults only. While parents with small children in the pool should not be encouraged to visit these areas, it is a relaxing environment for adults or seniors who would like attend the pool without interacting with children.
  • One final trend that shouldn't be overlooked is theming. Themed environments within a park have become common in both commercial and municipal waterparks. The ability to package some sort of experience and create an instant atmosphere will transform guests into another world as they navigate through the park. This concept creates excitement and a sense of arrival for the guest and can help to increase the length of stay.
Income generators

Designing for revenue is essential. It is imperative that communities maximize the use of these multi-pool complexes for the long-term funding of the facility—the aging, outdated pools of our past were a drain on the taxpayer. Facilities are finding income beyond the entrance gates and ticket counters.

Family aquatic centers are including rentable cabanas within their facilities. These cabanas are rented for an increment of time and allow families and groups to have a shaded, centralized meeting area.

They have become a great source of revenue for many municipalities.

A popular place for children's birthday parties is the neighborhood swimming pool. Many aquatic centers are designating both indoor air-conditioned and outdoor shaded areas for these reserved get-togethers. Popular packages include admission for the attendees, pizza, snacks and a birthday cake.

Easy being green

The commitment to sustainable building practices is on the rise and facilities, indoor and outdoor, are being designed to U.S. green building standards. A recent example of this would be the North Boulder Recreation Center in Colorado. This facility was renovated to meet the U.S. Green Building Council's Silver LEED standards. The Boulder Parks & Recreation Department's specific goals were to reduce the amount of landfill waste generated by the renovation, reduce consumption of natural resources in operating the center and improve the efficiency of the heating/ventilation/air conditioning systems.

The city re-used materials from the old North Boulder Recreation Center and worked to recycle building components. The air conditioning units were reassigned to other areas of the building, used in other buildings or used for parts. The counters were removed and reinstalled in restrooms at a local mall and the asphalt from the old parking lot was recycled.

The solar water heating system in the new recreation center is the largest solar unit to be installed in the past 20 years in the United States. The natural gas consumption is reduced by 50 percent, 2 billion BTUs per year. The high-efficiency boilers operate at a 90 percent efficiency level, a 20 percent increase from the old boilers. All of these LEED-compliant features will reduce the annual energy consumption of the North Boulder Recreation Center by 35 percent compared to normal commercial building standards.

Water, water everywhere

Global warming studies forecast more water shortages that will impact our community's water supplies. We tell our constituents they can only water their grass at certain times, yet we fill our pools with thousands of gallons of water each season. The new trend? Water consciousness.

Water usage is an important consideration in the design and operation of swimming pools. Contributors to water usage include evaporation, bather carryout, splash-out and backwash. Control of water usage is important because of the operational efforts placed into the water, including chemical treatment, balance and heating. Utilizing regenerative media filtration, it is possible to reduce backwash loss by over 90 percent. These filters represent a capital investment premium, but the client should be given the information to make informed decisions regarding the value of this investment.

Changes in water filtration systems including UV filtration are another current and future trend in the industry. UV is quickly becoming a standard for addressing chloramines at indoor aquatic facilities and proactively addresses Cryptosporidium and other chlorine-resistant pathogens in outdoor pools.

Pooling resources

We have begun to see the trend of joint partnerships between public and private entities in the municipal pool market. Many of our city recreation centers have partnered with the high schools, hospitals and YMCAs to produce a win-win situation. The recreation department is able to subsidize and operate a facility that will satisfy the recreational needs of the community, while the other entities are able to fill their particular needs without the burden of operating the facility. Knowing what areas can double as teaching spaces, training areas and recreational swim/buy outs and rentals, while still meeting guests' needs is essential.

Is that your final answer?

Yes, Americans still love to swim. A variety of surveys and studies conducted throughout the nation have provided us with the conclusive evidence of the importance of swimming as a leisure activity. Swimming is now second only to walking as the most popular exercise in the United States, with more than 368 million annual visits to swimming pools. Swimming, however, ranks first among all ages as the most popular recreational activity in the nation.

The family aquatic center still responds to the very basic needs and interests of the consumer. Its emphasis is based upon the premise that the swimming pool visitor is primarily interested in a quality leisure experience that includes high entertainment and social values. The right blend of entertainment, multi-generational programming, along with the now-traditional aquatic requirements, such as zero depth and interactive play, has proven successful for communities of all sizes.


Melinda Kempfer is the business development coordinator for Water Technology Inc., a Wisconsin-based national aquatic design firm. Melinda has written several articles for industry publications and has presented sessions at state and national parks and recreation conferences. For more information, visit

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