How community services and recreation departments are providing programs since COVID-19
Where can you go to learn Tai Chi, attend a board meeting, drop kids off for afterschool arts and crafts, host a birthday party, or connect with fellow veterans? Community and recreation centers play a central role in communities, offering residents a place to gather and engage in a remarkable variety of fun and productive activities. This is crucial for the health, wellness, and social cohesion of our communities.
However, the COVID-19 public health crisis has forced us to rethink how we interact with others in physical spaces. At their core, community/ recreation centers are a place for people to physically gather, interact, and socialize – a role that has been impossible during “shelter in place” orders. But because community and recreation centers are essential places in public life, communities are beginning to plan for their reopening – despite the uncertainties of how the pandemic will play out.
Community and recreation centers are dynamic environments that require rigorous planning and diligence to reopen safely for all users. Adapting these public spaces must go beyond simply laying out tape on the floor at six-foot intervals. This paper explores questions and strategies for how to adapt community and recreation centers to the “new normal,” including near-term retrofits of existing buildings as well as long-term planning and design of renovations and new construction.
Since the beginning of the shutdown, communities have been in a “triage” phase that – for most – has involved some level of shutdown that has reshaped daily life. The collective experience of sheltering at home for weeks and months has led us to find new ways to connect with each other.
Recreation departments and staff are proving to be highly creative and innovative in helping people stay connected. Telecommunication technologies have created a platform for offering new and alternative services, including in-home recreation resources, virtual activities, and even augmented reality experiences.
Recreation facilities are still in play. Parks and parking lots can help people maintain appropriate physical distances even while participating together in innovative outdoor programs such as drive-in/bike-in movies and other events.
In planning how to reopen community and recreation facilities, the focus is on areas of highest community need as well as keeping facility users and staff safe. Program offerings that are most desired by the community can be determined by utilizing existing data or conducting a survey to evaluate preferred services/programs during these special times.
The threat of potential exposure to the virus shapes many of the precautions for protecting the health and safety of the public. Spaces need to be evaluated and furniture reconfigured in order to support physical distancing and reduce the number of surfaces that users must touch. Where distancing cannot be maintained – such as between staff and patrons at service points – equipment such as sneeze guards and shields can help provide protection.
Hygiene and sanitation continue to be crucial considerations for retrofitting community and recreation centers. Strategies to reduce the possibility of infection include minimizing or eliminating the use of shared objects (such as some recreation equipment), as well as frequent cleaning and disinfecting of high-touch surfaces and shared objects.
Outdoor programming will continue to be a good alternative, as it offers more space for physical distancing as well as good natural ventilation. Customers may also continue to enjoy and use the innovative virtual and drive-up services that began during the Triage phase. Recreation departments may consider supporting community connectivity and equitable access to virtual services by loaning technology devices and equipment for home use.
Long-Term Planning and Design
Our communities have withstood challenges and pandemics in the past, and have always found a way to come back together in shared spaces. When broader resistance to COVID-19 is achieved (such as through the development of effective vaccines), community and recreation centers will be some of the first places people want to go as they regain their confidence about public places.
Many of the modern best practices in community and recreation center design will also help ensure their continued usability and resilience. Recreation departments will need to ensure that their facilities are designed to maintain and build community confidence in their safety, as well as to update their staff service model and reintroduce expanded programs and services. These goals will also provide new opportunities for experimentation and innovation.
When designing new future-proof community facilities, flexibility and agility are key. Large, column-free spaces or spaces with operable partitions can be easily transformed for different uses and varied program sizes. Large open spaces can also be zoned to direct foot traffic along multiple circulation paths and minimize unnecessary physical contact. Accessibility and connections to outdoor spaces, like courtyards or patios, will allow the expansion of interior activities into exterior spaces.
Meanwhile, small to medium-sized meeting rooms can accommodate remote workers who need appropriate, well-equipped space for virtual collaboration.
Operable exterior openings allow increased air circulation and passive ventilation. Well-designed mechanical and HVAC systems with multiple zones will further enhance occupant well-being and facility flexibility.
Other emerging design strategies with long-term benefits in community and recreation facilities include touch-free fixtures, equipment, and services. The time-tested emphasis on durable materials, furniture, and finishes will ensure that they can withstand decades of use and frequent cleaning.
Technology will also continue playing a central role in community and recreation centers. Robust and flexible power and data infrastructure will ensure connectivity in public facilities and support for virtual programs. Extending Wi-Fi, AV, and electrical infrastructure into outdoor spaces will also enhance outdoor programs and access to services.
Community services and recreation departments have embraced the opportunity to continue to serve their communities through the pandemic, while envisioning innovative ways to provide programs and services after COVID-19. Rethinking the design of our community and recreation centers during the era of COVID-19 will also make these facilities more serviceable and resilient during future challenges, whatever and whenever they may be.