Improving communities through sport

The 9-Step Guide to Community Recreation Center Planning Part 1

Every city has its issues. Increasing crime rates, expanding waistlines, a shrinking sense of community- the list can go on and on, from poverty among our citizens to a burgeoning environmental crisis. And while there’s no one cure for all that ails us, there are organizations that have continually been successful at chipping away at societal problems. Our nation’s community recreation centers have proven to be the antidote for a variety of local and national issues. For example, according to the National Recreation and Parks Association, parks and recreation systems in the U.S. feed more than 560 million meals to children annually through after-school and summer programs. This makes them the second largest feeder of children nationally behind schools. Research has also shown that children who spend at least four hours a week performing structured activities, including those found in recreation center afterschool programs, were 57 percent less likely to drop out of school and 27 percent less likely to be arrested.

These numbers speak to a small but significant part of what community recreation centers and parks can do to fill gaps in how a municipality serves its citizens. Community recreational activities performed at parks and recreational facilities have been shown to enhance the mental health of citizens and the presence of these venues has been shown to increase community interaction. In the time of the Coronavirus pandemic, this has taken on crucial importance as many recreation centers have not only become a place to seek respite through physical activity, they’ve also provided spaces for eLearning.

There’s no denying the role recreation centers can play in providing solutions for a myriad of issues within our communities. Unfortunately, since the great recession of 2008, community recreation has been underfunded and has had to fight for budget dollars and positive perception among citizens and fight against enhanced competition from the private sector. However, through our work with thousands of communities throughout the country, we’ve seen that planning and execution can conquer the most challenging environment. In this two-part guide, we provide nine critical steps to create a plan that will maximize the impact of your community recreation center.  

Step 1: Set the Vision

Everything starts with a vision. For a recreation center, a vision serves as the scale for which all decisions, initiatives, programming, and partnerships are balanced. Great community recreation centers have a formal vision for how they want to serve their end users- for the ways in which they desire to integrate within their communities. Their vision is not generated by one single person, but rather reflects both the desires of residents and the city’s master plan. This alignment ensures their decisions reflect the desires of community members and decision makers.

Pro Tip: Recreation centers ultimately belong to the citizens of your community. It’s important to not only get their input at the beginning of the development process, but even beyond the facility development phase. Communities continually evolve and what was once important can shift quickly and profoundly. It’s also good to create a vision statement and place it on your website as a reminder of what your facility is working to accomplish. 

Step 2: Create or Align with the Recreation Master Plan

Your parks and recreation system likely has a master plan document. While that’s important, it’s helpful to have a master plan specific to your facility that aligns with the larger master plan and the needs of your community. The plan should also align with the facility’s vision, mission, and needs as well as lay out goals and a long term strategy. 

Pro Tip: According to The Excellent City Parks System, a landmark report from The Trust for Public Land, the most effective master plans have the following components which many can be applied to community recreation center master planning:

  • A set of goals for the parks and recreation system
  • A master plan implementation strategy with a timeline
  • A needs assessment
  • An analysis of connectivity and gaps
  • A budget for both capital and operating expenses
  • A mechanism for annual evaluation of the plan


Step 3: Seeking Community Engagement

Throughout this guide, we will continually refer to the importance of community support and engagement when it comes to building and maintaining a recreation center. And how a lack of community support can make your facility irrelevant. A strong recreation center has a community behind it that not only uses the facility and participates in programming but also voices their opinions for what that programming should be. Strong recreation centers also have volunteers who are dedicated to making the facility successful. 

There are a number of ways to gather community support and engagement including surveys, community open houses, and meetings with key stakeholders. Also, consider partner organizations. The school district, local companies, hospitals, and faith-based organizations can offer valuable input, and, ultimately, be an important community ally.

Pro Tip: Community engagement is not just about concerned citizens. Engagement with the business and non-profit communities is critical to a recreation center’s success as well. Recreation centers should actively seek relationships with local businesses that not only provide financial support, but volunteers and services that maintain the facility or enhance its offerings.

Step 4: Creating Access for All Citizens

It goes without saying that great recreation centers are within reach of all citizens. There are several areas to consider when evaluating accessibility. The first is proximity- how far do most citizens have to travel to get to your recreation center? A five-minute walk? A five-minute drive? Ideally, it should be the former. However, for all citizens to have an awesome community recreation center nearby, a careful assessment of where assets are placed must be conducted. This is to ensure that disadvantaged or sparsely populated areas are not being left out. 

Accessibility means that your assets are compliant to all Americans with Disabilities Act accessibility requirements as well. A variety of features must be in place including ramps, railing in restrooms, and special seating for event facilities, among other items. 

Pro Tip: Accessibility also means that your recreation center provides equipment and programming to meet a variety of interests. Whether you’re the mom with one in the stroller and one holding your hand, the senior looking to stay active, or the emerging athlete, your recreation center should have something to support their interests. For example, the Hoover Met Complex plays host to major events including the SEC Baseball Championships, but on a daily basis hosts hundreds of people on their walking tracks and kids via their summer camps. 

For steps 5-9, check out part 2 of this guide. To learn more about our recreation master planning services, contact us today at 727-474-3845. 



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