Painting a Canvas

Design Corner: Incorporating Community Preferences

By Tom Poulos


ommunities that are beginning to think about building a community/recreation center might wonder how to define the scope of such a project—that is, making the determination as to what the building's overall size will be, and what types of spaces and amenities it will contain.

Getting community buy-in to determine and prioritize facility components will be an important part of this discernment exercise as well as the subsequent process to plan the facility in a way that is responsive to community needs and wishes. Applying a methodology for gleaning public input, drawing conclusions and ranking preferences accordingly can assist in the exercise to determine a realistic project scope.

A feasibility study to find out what is realistic from an affordability and approval standpoint starts with stakeholders. These community members could be elected or appointed officials, such as a city's mayor, members of a municipality's board or council, or representatives of community service organizations. Such a group can be a "lightning rod" of the community, and typically provides a pool from which to draw people to serve on a steering committee to direct the feasibility study from the client's and community's perspective.

Setting the Stage

The steering committee will generally work hand-in-hand with an executive team comprised of city/village and/or park department senior staff, from which a project contract manager is appointed. These two groups will likely interact in a series of meetings to establish general project goals that are in concert with the design consultant's contractual requirements as they discuss opportunities and challenges of the project, setting the backdrop for the public input process, which includes:

  • Input
  • Findings
  • Alternatives
  • Test the concept

In an early first step preceding public forums, your design team will want to conduct a data collection effort to better understand existing conditions, whether of a building that is to be part of the project, a site or a neighborhood in which the project will or could occur. Existing documents, previously developed site or facility master plans, maps, geographic information system data and soils reports are among informational resources that could help the team. Department heads also are polled about operational concerns, such as storage and other functional space needs, and sites are examined for suitability based on such criteria as size, access and how such development might complement a community's strategic plan.

From Forums to Form

The next step in the process is to formally announce the feasibility study effort to the community at large, kicking off a public input process. This public "open house" approach has as its objectives transparency of process and setting a work plan down on paper. To promote the process, a public relations professional may be engaged to alert stakeholders to public input opportunities, which should be conducted to allow brainstorming activities.

Questionnaires should be crafted to find out what the project means to members of the community, regardless of whether or not they are expected to patronize the new facility. Questions concerning the adequacy of current services and programs should be asked, as should ones to elicit suggestions for offerings to be considered for introduction—and, of chief importance, whether or not the respondent is willing to pay a share of the cost of the construction of a new facility.

The formal steering committee is usually charged with ensuring that a cross-section of community voices is heard during the public input process. Some examples of brainstorming points are whether the site under consideration is accessible, whether it complements community strategic plans and whether the facility would be a catalyst for economic development.

In planning the Centre of Elgin, for example, a 185,000-square-foot community recreation center in historic downtown Elgin, Ill., the Recreation Center Advisory Team was established to steer the effort of seeking community input from constituencies in this sizeable and diverse community. To develop a design response, the architect/engineer (A/E) team worked with this advisory panel containing city council members, park and recreation staff, prominent citizens (including a local architect), as well as representatives of business, the library, schools and cultural institutions, to present a series of public input meetings.

Such forums should culminate in a series of findings that delineate recreation needs of the community and, in turn, launch a vision for the project to build momentum. Additionally, a market analysis to determine what recreation opportunities are currently available in the community through other providers—both public and private—and who they serve in terms of the population, should be employed to avoid duplication of services.

"Cross layering" of data collected through these public forums and a statistically valid needs assessment survey can provide an early "sketch" of the vision. You must start with the community in order to understand its wants and needs. Surveys and open-forum public meetings are two methods for successfully accomplishing this important portion of the process.

Considering Design Alternatives

Through a subsequent open meeting "charrette," or a series of these exercises to consider conceptual design alternatives, people select options and give opinions on their choices. In one last round of public input the concept is tested to achieve buy-in prior to a formal presentation. After study findings have been analyzed to develop an understanding of community needs, and, in turn, the prevailing opinions of what the project scope should be, pre-design and programming drills can "draw a picture" of the project as it is envisioned.

This preliminary "picture" will appear in the form of a design/program statement, design criteria and a space area program. Aiding in assembling this portrait of the potential project will be information gleaned from a site analysis in which a site or set of sites being considered for a new recreation or community center are scrutinized against established criteria, such as the availability of utilities and those previously mentioned.

In a further step to visualize a finished product, a "bubble" diagram of facility options can illustrate space adjacencies, and define linkages of program spaces to the site, which will lead to the development of design alternatives. This device is a precursor to a singular conceptual facility design, which typically includes initial floor plans, vignette sketches of spaces envisioned for the facility, and photos of like programs, accompanied by projected costs for the project.

Unveiling (a Plan for) a Masterpiece

After the concept has been honed following a carefully considered progression of comparative evaluation, number crunching, public review and validation to determine a realistic set of stratagems for the facility's development, a final presentation of the plan in a public forum is in order. With community and project leaders as well as stakeholder group representatives on hand to field questions, a presentation delivered by the A/E team can offer a glimpse of the future facility, and provide a platform for public discussion and questions about the plan.

It is important to have this dialogue when public funds are being spent or sought for an initiative of such significance. If funding is yet to be raised, the consideration of options to do so—from bond issuance to referenda to levy a property or sales tax—will likely generate debate, which is best addressed in an open, public discussion of the anticipated costs and benefits to the community of a new community/recreation center.

With a plan for funding in place, and facility components determined through this important public process to prioritize "wants and needs" and reconcile them with budget constraints, the community is ready to move forward to further develop a facility design to lead to actual construction of an exciting new facility that will open up new recreation opportunities for its members.

In preparing to build a new community/recreation center that will appeal to patrons, it is important to gain through a public input process a solid understanding of preferences among the plethora of programs available. You have to start painting your canvas, so to speak, and in doing so create a facility that promotes "filling the calendar" with active and passive recreation opportunities for a wide spectrum of the community that your department or agency was established to serve.

Picking Partners, Finding Funding

In conducting a feasibility study for a public community/recreation center, it is critical to accurately assess funding sources—and often beneficial to identify funding opportunities previously not thought of. Are there any local, public or private organizations, such as hospitals, YMCAs or schools that might contribute to create a win-win situation for them and the city or park agency spearheading the project?

To get a clearer picture of project costs, an operational and pro-forma review can draw scenarios that outline fees for potential program offerings, as well as provide projections of personnel and other operational costs involved in running a new community center. This forecast of revenue and expenses often serves as a springboard for fine tuning a program and space plan, and can spark action to seek additional funding—perhaps in the form of grants—to offset anticipated funding shortfalls.


Tom Poulos, AIA, is a registered architect and a principal with Williams Architects Ltd., Carol Stream, Ill., a leader in recreation facility design in the Midwest. During his career serving public recreation agencies, Tom has worked on a variety of community and recreation center projects. For more information, visit

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