Designed by the Community

Customized outreach and participatory engagement strategies ensure community centers respond to users’ needs now and into the future.

Community recreation centers are more than the sum of their parts. Beyond providing recreational and athletic amenities, these facilities function as critical resources for wellness, community gatherings and educational opportunities. To succeed, community centers, more than most projects, must be multifaceted and reflect each community’s needs and specific range of interests.

Finding the right balance between the latest trends and budget realities requires a detailed understanding of the community. Designers must dive deep, engaging community members to better understand their needs and passions. One-sided town hall meetings with slide-deck presentations won’t develop the wealth of data, insights and consensus necessary for actionable results.

“The process should be about hearing the community’s vision,” says LPA Director of Sport + Recreation Arash Izadi. “It should be more of a listening exercise than a presentation.”

Community Engagement 01
The Reed and Grant Sports Park in Santa Clara supports youth and adult soccer as well as many other activities.

In recent years, LPA has honed and utilized a customized, research-driven approach to community engagement that goes above and beyond the typical strategies. There are no boilerplates or templates. The outreach process is customized for each community, providing ample opportunity for designers to hear about the challenges of the project, with the clear intent of developing community authorship.

“There is no standard approach,” Izadi says. “We have a kit of parts with more than 20 different outreach tools that we can mix and match.”

The intent was to foster empathy, mutual understanding and a sense of collaboration during the programming phase.

The tools themselves are not unusual; the novelty is in how they’re curated for each community. In many cases, new tools must be developed to respond to specific needs. The key is selecting which engagement tools to use, when to use them and how to sequence them. The list includes engagement with combinations of ad hoc committees and public workshops, focus groups and community stakeholders in one-on-one interviews. Designers can initiate online surveys and host charrettes, site tours, product fairs, park pop-ups and virtual planning sessions.

“The most important thing is to make sure the right people and a broad sampling of the community are at the table so that the diversity of the community is represented,” says Kimari Phillips, Research Manager of LPAred, LPA’s research team.

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LPA designers use multiple strategies, including town halls, to ensure that community members provide input.

A Research-Driven Strategy

The first step should be to diagnose the problem. In the case of the recently completed Reed and Grant Sports Park, in Santa Clara, California, the process began with deciding where to site the development. With a population density of 6,327 people per square mile, Santa Clara has little developable land. The project had to support a wide array of activities, including youth and adult soccer leagues, indoor and outdoor activities, special events and recreational programs. City leaders wanted to put the park on a site that could accommodate several multiuse playing fields, a multipurpose community center and enough parking to satisfy code requirements, while addressing the larger needs of the community.

LPA’s customized engagement strategy started with a “Plan the Plan” meeting, where all the client’s ideas, needs, wants and presumptions were put on the table. “The intent was to foster empathy, mutual understanding and a sense of collaboration during the programming phase,” says LPA Senior Project Manager John Courtney.

Community Engagement 03
Residents of all ages weigh in with thoughts about recreational facilities.

Once specific needs were established, the design team conducted tours of different sites, detailing each location’s size and conditions. Community members received booklets to record observations and notes about pros and cons, and to answer questions in real time. By tailoring the process, the city of Santa Clara, the client, was able to actively program the space before any design discussion occurred. Community feedback led to enhancements to one neighborhood park that was not part of the sports park effort, an unexpected outcome that benefited many residents.

Eventually, a wedge-shaped, eight-acre brownfield site in an industrial zone, which had been initially rejected, was chosen for the facility. And the engagement process helped motivate the city to reconsider its priorities and get more ambitious. Additional funds were allocated for amenities and sustainability upgrades that weren’t part of the original vision, including a community playground, stormwater collection and a photovoltaic system on the roof of the park’s 3,800-square-foot multipurpose building.

“The community feedback we received was invaluable in shaping and guiding what residents of Santa Clara wanted to be included,” Santa Clara City Manager Deanna J. Santana said after the facility earned a Project of the Year award from the American Public Works Association Silicon Valley Chapter. “It’s incredible to see industrial lots transformed into a vibrant space where the community can come together to bond, exercise, compete and grow.”

Community Engagement 04
Residents took an active role in planning the new Reed and Grant Sports Park.

Beware ‘Project Fatigue’

On each project, “it’s essential to assess the community situation with clear eyes,” Izadi says. With each project, the community is facing its own challenges and history. In some case, facilities have been discussed for years, making “project fatigue and distrust” a real issue. It’s possible that residents have grown tired of talking about the project; they might tune out any attempt at outreach or their perceptions might be clouded by misconceptions from past discussions.

In Rancho Cordova, California, residents had been discussing a community pool project for nearly a decade. Before LPA got involved, residents had undergone several surveys and workshops, and many stakeholders had lost confidence that their new center would ever be built.

In response LPA worked with district leadership to adopt a more “tempered” engagement strategy, Izadi says. Outreach sessions were staggered to involve a greater variety of voices. Community members were invited to participate in “envisioning sessions” to focus on programming needs. LPA also conducted charrettes, town halls, focus groups, site-awareness tours and stakeholder interviews.

“The sequencing of the outreach was critical,” Izadi says. “We wanted to engage with as many folks as possible to learn as much as possible but in such a way that it didn’t feel repetitive and intrusive. We needed to show that we were listening and moving forward.”

The result was a facility that was data-driven and responsive to the community’s needs. The original working plan, which called for refurbishing existing facilities, was rejected, after analysis of usage and cost-recovery targets determined it was not cost-effective and didn’t meet the community’s programming requirements. Instead, competitive and recreational needs were balanced with a 10-lane competition pool and a smaller pool for play and free swim. The facility also addressed very specific local interests, including support for a beloved and competitive “artistic swimming program” (aka synchronized swimming), which helped the community embrace the new facility.

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Aerial view of the 27-acre Brea Sports Park.

Unique Challenges

Every project presents specific challenges and opportunities. In Brea, California, plans for a 27-acre sports park symbolized the community’s growth. Residents were passionate about the chance to create a facility to serve their recreational needs, improve the environment and provide a source of neighborhood pride. To reach as many neighborhood groups as possible, LPA employed a range of strategies, including workshops, charrettes (where community members physically drew plans for their facility), information fairs and site-awareness tours. The process also involved two separate committees made up of Brea City Council members and neighborhood interest groups.

In Laguna Niguel, California, development of the 30,000-square-foot Crown Valley Park Community Center required a much different approach. The community center, which quintupled the size of the existing center, needed to integrate with a wide range of existing facilities, including two community pools. Stakeholders included a diverse blend of recreation, arts and culture groups.

The designers specifically looked for different ways to engage the community, recognizing that not everyone communicates in the same way, LPA Director of Civic + Cultural Jeremy Hart says. Early in the process, the city put a survey on its website (and sent surveys to customers with their water bills) asking residents about the activities the new community center should accommodate. A visual listening exercise was used, in which images of potential spaces were presented at two public visioning sessions. That helped to produce a wish list that informed every subsequent step of the process.

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In Laguna Niguel, residents responded to surveys asking them to advise on ways to integrate the new Crown Valley Park community center with existing swimming pools.

For Crown Valley Park, the focus was on collecting “qualitative information,” Hart says. “We wanted residents to dictate the character of the spaces and let the program respond to operational needs. Throwing around a bunch of engagement tools to gain public input won’t necessarily yield reliable data.”

In many cases, the challenge is to engage people with a diverse group of interests they are heard and participating in the process. Engaged community members in West Hollywood, California, were eager to replace a 50-year-old aquatic and recreation facility in the center of the city. Design Director Rick D’Amato and the LPA design team conducted more than 30 outreach sessions with stakeholder groups, including swimmers, joggers, arts foundations, local residents, business owners, members of the dodgeball league, users of the public-access television studio and representatives of national groups that hosted events in the park. A steering committee with 17 members, reflecting the community’s varied interests and demographic diversity, helped to facilitate communication.

The effects of the engagement process can be experienced throughout the final project. The multilevel, 125,000-square-foot of programable indoor and outdoor space includes two rooftop pools and a multiuse gym, as well as new arts spaces, a national AIDS monument and an additional 3.5 acres of community open space.

“Residents told us they wanted the new center to be a place for everyone, which really struck a chord with us,” D’Amato says.

A Better Project

A customized engagement process provides dividends in many ways. Community-driven projects are not only more effective, but they are also more resilient and able to adapt to changing trends and interests. The more the community members feel a part of the process, the more likely they will be to embrace the result and help to support the facility

“When the community is involved in the process and sets the agenda, you end up with a better project,” Izadi says. “It turns a facility into a community asset.”