Joy Okazaki, Program Manager,

Seattle Department of Parks and Recreation

Kathy Madden, Director,

Urban Parks Institute

Joy Okazaki manages the Community Center Development Program, formed in 1992 to build six centers funded by an $18 million levy, replacing older centers that were too small and in deteriorating condition.

One of the disturbing trends in parks today is the focus on creating single-purpose recreation facilities such as community centers or ballfields and the apparent fear of creating the types of multi-use facilities and park buildings that were once the centerpiece of parks. Many of the community centers that are built have little or no connection to the parks in which they are located and recreation facilities often focus on serving single user groups and single activities rather than providing multi-purpose spaces that encourage people just to linger.

Unfortunately, there are all too few examples of parks that do function as centers of community activity in our newer parks. Even citizen planning processes can often result in traditional concepts for these buildings because of the lack of workable options.

Politicians, in trying to get “projects” built for their communities, do not necessarily look to solving park issues in innovative ways or forging partnerships.

In order to develop innovative concepts for parks that are centers of community activity in the future, the political process also needs to change. Politicians, in trying to get “projects” built for their communities, do not necessarily look to solving park issues in innovative ways or forging partnerships between city agencies and local institutions. For example, if a parks department combined services with a library or a school’s existing sports facilities rather than building their own facility, there could be an opportunity to create a different type of center and park.

The recreation-oriented training that park staff commonly has is not geared toward a holistic view of managing parks. And generally park staff do programming for a community center but have little experience or responsibility for programming or managing the area around it.

Recommendations for building a true “community center:”

Use a community-based process. The program for each community center should reflect the community in which it is located. An advisory council can be set up to plan each center and to guide the process. Planning exercises such as a game in which the community and park staff evaluate various combinations of uses and activities including trade-offs in terms of cost is valuable.

Link buildings to the park around it. This can be done by putting windows or roll-up garage doors in the center, sliding windows for concessions connected to outdoor patios where people can sit, eat and people watch, designing circulation paths to make the center accessible from other areas of the park, etc.

Engage children. Children should be involved in both planning the center and helping to give input and ideas once it is built.

Establish partnerships. Institutions such as libraries, family support centers, schools, child care and senior centers can be good partners in developing community centers in parks.

Use a flexible and holistic plan for management. To be adaptable to multiple uses, a community center needs to have both flexible space and flexible management. For example, a temporary children’s play area could be developed inside a building during inclement weather. The management of a park and community center should also reflect the diversity of the community through the types of activities that occur as well as the language that is spoken by park staff.

Include opportunities for economic development. Apprenticeship programs can be developed wherein an inventory is taken of the skills that people in the neighborhood have and then those people can be tapped in a variety of ways including helping to build the center. Some community centers have push carts that are community operated and used to cater to visitors at athletic or other events. Other community centers have markets near them.

Break out of the box. Don’t be afraid to come up with something that doesn’t exist – we need to invent more good models of parks and buildings that are true “community centers.”

Think of security creatively. Use the community center or other buildings as a management (or security) presence in the park. Try to develop a visual connection between the inside of the building and the surrounding park by including the types of uses that will allow the center to be open from early morning until late at night.

Ways to evaluate a park or a community place:

  • Is it accessible from the community?
  • Is it comfortable and does it have a good image?
  • Are its activities varied and physically combined?
  • Do people socialize there?
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