Recreation in Underserved Communities
By Stacy St. Clair
alifornia enjoys diversity in its geography, its climate, its industries and its people. But the state's impoverished teens, regardless of their location, have much in common: sugary soda, myriad fast-food restaurants, too much television and not enough exercise.
The results, as one would imagine, are troubling. Low-income teens in California are almost three times more likely to be obese than their peers from more affluent households, according to new research from the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research. In California, 21 percent of teenagers live in low-income families, which the federal government defines as having incomes of less than $19,971 for a family of four. The state is home to about 480,000 obese adolescents from all income levels. But the high rate of obesity among low-income teens suggests that barriers to healthy behaviors, healthy foods and physical activity not only continue to exist but have grown even larger. Those barriers include high numbers of neighborhood fast-food restaurants and low numbers of parks and other opportunities for physical activity.
"Our neighborhoods are literally making us fat," said Susan H. Babey, one of the policy brief's authors. "We need better strategies and more thoughtful urban planning if we are going to make our towns and cities livable, not just places where we live."
The authors also called for greater opportunities for physical activity and education, as well as campaigns to promote family dinners and discourage excessive television viewing. It's an arduous task and one that must be undertaken in low-income communities throughout the United States.
In the fight against low-income obesity, three Bay Area projects serve as shining examples for all North American communities to follow. With careful planning, creative programming and thoughtful design, the three—one private and two public—show innovative ways impoverished areas are moving and improving.
The City of Oakland first began dreaming of a new community recreation center more than two decades ago when the Bay Area announced its intentions to vie for the 2012 Summer Olympics. The structure would have played an important role in the Games, so when the region lost its bid, the world-class facility—and its funding—suffered a massive blow.
Councilman Larry Reid, however, was determined to keep the project alive because it would serve one of the most challenging areas of Oakland. The original plan called for a 155,000-square-foot, two-story sports complex that would contain an Olympic-size swimming pool, library, gymnasium, bowling alley, dance aerobic studios and additional activity areas. But the city could not afford to build such a lavish structure without Olympic-sized grants and gifts, so officials made the difficult—but necessary—decision to pare down the project.
"The city had to rethink how to build a recreation facility without the help of the Olympics," said Clarence Mamuyac of ELS Architecture and Urban Design, the principal-in-charge of the project.
As part of their rethinking, officials eliminated the 50-meter pool and the diving well. The gym space was halved, while the locker rooms and administrative space were significantly pared down.
Despite the revisions, the project is expected to become the crown jewel of a neighborhood plagued by drugs and gang violence. The East Oakland Sports Center will include a 25,000-square-foot building housing a natatorium with an indoor recreational pool, aerobic studios and a fitness center.
The project also has been designed in phases, so the community can expand the facility as its budget allows. Future phases will include the construction of soccer and baseball fields and a competitive swimming pool. The project will also include a learning/media center, a childcare facility and a senior center.
"At the end of the day, this is going to be an amazing facility," Mamuyac said.
Once-built, the $17-million facility undoubtedly will prove that impoverished communities do not need to break the bank in order to provide recreation services. It just requires careful attention to selecting amenities that benefit both your patrons and your budget. For example, when choosing which features to eliminate from the project, officials very quickly cut the diving well, which would not attract enough users to justify its cost or the space it consumed.
They also scrapped the 50-meter pool because planners doubted it would recoup its operating costs. However, plans for an indoor aquatic center with playful amenities remained in place. The spray guns, water cannons and waterfalls attract patrons and make any recreation center a must-visit facility, experts said.
"The fun water features actually pay the freight," Mamuyac said. "It's just good recreation business to keep a component like that."
Across the bay, plans have already begun on the new Shih Lu-Yang Central YMCA building in San Francisco. The facility, which will replace a somewhat outdated and space-starved Y, serves a diverse community that includes the famous city's Tenderloin neighborhood, an artistic community known for its low-income immigrant populations and single-room occupancy hotels. Its service area also includes professionals, seniors and students from nearby Hastings College of Law.
The architects tapped to design the facility, Michael Willis Architects (MWA) and ELS Architecture and Urban Design, relied upon the expertise of the YMCA staff, which has a long history of understanding the community's recreation and fitness needs. To encourage the conversation, officials held a charrette to discuss the community's vision for the project. Participants were encouraged to share their wish list, regardless of price.
"You try to keep cost out of the discussion," said David Petta of ELS Architecture and Urban Design, the principal-in-charge of the project. "You don't want to stifle creativity."
As a result, Shih Lu-Yang patrons soon will be enjoying a state-of-the art facility with an indoor pool, gymnasium, senior center, youth center and workout facility. There will also be a rooftop garden that can be used for both meditation and gardening classes.
The design offers several features that address the needs of underprivileged patrons. The facility, for example, has a kitchen where teens will learn to cook healthy meals with vegetables grown in their rooftop garden. Plans also call for an indoor pool, a staple feature in almost any YMCA.
"Putting pools in disadvantaged neighborhoods is a great thing to do," Petta said. "You're giving someone the opportunity to learn how to swim. That's a great gift to give someone."
The most impressive design choice, however, may be the decision to place the fitness center—the area which traditionally gets the most traffic—on the top floor. As they work out, patrons will be treated to a breathtaking view of the city and with it, Petta hopes, a sense of empowerment.
"The penthouse is usually occupied by the people with the most money," Petta said. "This is just the opposite of that. Patrons will have a view of the city they might not otherwise see."
To the north in Berkeley, the high school's new recreation and athletic facility enlivens an urban campus that was revamped as part of a local bond initiative to upgrade all of the city's schools. The $30 million project includes a 25-yard competition and teaching pool, gymnasium, student union and dining hall, library, classrooms, administration offices, and college counseling center.
Located within Berkeley's landmark Civic Center Historic District, the new buildings are designed to create gateways into the campus as extensions of the existing city streets. The segmented design organizes functions into zones allowing community use of the gym, pool, dining hall or library during non-school hours.
Built of durable cast-in-place concrete to withstand heavy daily use of recreational and student services, the high school complex is light-filled and has a high degree of transparency. The quality of design encourages students to feel pride and ownership, discourages graffiti—an important feature for any school—and encourages participation. The new complex supports the social interaction essential to the school's educational mission, as well as reconnects the high school to its urban community.
On a tight urban site, the buildings were crafted to take maximum advantage of daylight. Large clerestory windows in the gym and glazed walls framing the pool allow natural light to pour in. Elevations facing west are glass-enclosed, providing cross-ventilation and additional views and daylight.
On the interior, bold yellow structural trusses sport the team color while adding interest and scale to the large spaces. On the second floor, a glass-enclosed view into the gym provides dynamic movement to enliven the area in front of the elevator.
But it's not just the aesthetics or the additional programming opportunities that make the buildings special. It's the attention to the detail, the understanding of how teens think and what's important to them.
For example, the central student union, ringed with clerestories, has become a popular gathering spot for eating, discussions and performances, much to the satisfaction of counselors and student advisers whose new offices open directly to the seating area. As such, use of student services has increased sharply.
In order to get to the student union, students have to pass the counseling center. Officials hoped the layout might encourage students to try services they might otherwise ignore. With its university campus-type feel, the design gives students a taste of college freedom while still in high school.
"It really gives the kids a sense of independence," said architect Edward Noland, an associate principal at ELS. "The school wants the students to prepare for the next phase of their education as best they can."
And should they need more encouragement, the library has a scenic view of the University of California, Berkeley campus.
"They can see the campus as they study or do research," Noland said. "We want to inspire them as much as we can."
When planning recreation programming for underserved communities, it's critical to understand today's kids. That means embracing technology, comprehending urban issues and possessing a willingness to step outside the norm, said Nina S. Roberts, an assistant professor with the San Francisco State University Department of Recreation and Leisure Studies.
Skateboarding is still hot in urban areas, as are basketball and soccer. Urban children also enjoy leisurely pursuits such as fishing, which they can share with a parent or adult role model.
"'There's nothing for these kids to do' is a myth that is so untrue and unfair," Roberts said. "What's really missing is mentorship and guidance."
Roberts champions youth and community centers, which serve as a safe haven in neighborhoods plagued with gang violence and drug peddling. Urban teens and tweens prefer facilities where they can just drop in, giving them both the freedom and refuge they crave.
Experts recommend creating an environment where local youth can express themselves with their music, clothing and conversations. Welcoming places will gain a reputation by word of mouth, as kids embrace what their friends think is fun.
"It needs to be cool," Roberts said. "It's important to have a place where kids feel comfortable going. It's all about stepping out of the norm and really learning what's cool in urban communities."
Music, for example, plays a huge role in the urban teen's life. Successful programs find ways to incorporate music, giving teens a place to play their music without being hassled or criticized. Urban teens—like most Americans—have become enamored with television shows such as "American Idol" and "America's Got Talent." The opportunity to spotlight their talents could draw inner-city teens to recreation and community centers in record numbers.
"The media has brought a lot of attention to youth talent," Roberts said. "These kids are thinking less about a career and more about making a buck. Recreation Centers can take advantage of that. Special events where kids can be behind a microphone could be very successful. Have the kids help plan it."
There's still value to gender-specific programs, Roberts said. Girls can enjoy programs in which peer pressure is minimized and body image does not become the predominant issue. Boys, meanwhile, can act macho and roughhouse without trying to impress girls.
In the end, each program will rely upon recreation managers to make them successful, Roberts said. Those who are willing to serve as mentors and forge relationships with their young patrons are the ones who will succeed.
"It's not all about the programming," Roberts said. "It's the leadership."
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