PRB Articles

The Well-Developed Facility

Recreation and leisure facilities are created with the hope that participants will find fulfillment and happiness. It’s safe to say that almost all experiences are influenced--good or bad--by the surroundings; especially, perhaps, recreation and leisure experiences, which carry the heightened expectations associated with good times and play.

While most facility designers and operators are delighted to see buildings and fields being enjoyed by throngs of people, it is possible--and even likely--that any given facility can suffer from over -use. Just ask the maintenance supervisor of a baseball diamond or soccer pitch complex who has too many teams wanting to practice and play on too few fields.

Conversely, fewer sights are more disheartening than a beautiful, new (or sadly dilapidated) recreational space being ignored or even vandalized--classic cases of under-use. Add to the mix the ultimate question: What is a particular site’s innate capacity for supporting recreational activities?

In Chapter 11 of the National Recreation and Park Association’s (NRPA) Management of Park and Recreation Agencies (2nd edition), the concept of “development” in relation to usage patterns is discussed. “Developed recreation areas are characterized by facilities accommodating high-density use. They require a high degree of maintenance and continuous site supervision and management” (p. 257).

Defining The Terms

Although “high-density use” is not defined explicitly, we know from experience that it means larger numbers of people who visit fairly frequently. Further, the term “high density” suggests that there also must be examples of low-density use, leading to an opposing word: “underdeveloped.” But does “underdeveloped” mean “not being used to capacity” (an indication that people have chosen to not use the facility), or might it also be a planned outcome based on a site’s “carrying capacity”?

Figure 1 depicts the interaction of three factors to better conceptualize the differences between planned and unplanned consequences of development:

· Number of users

· Frequency of use

· Site resilience.

At one extreme are those special places valuable for their ecological roles. Often, they are fragile, natural areas, containing niche biological populations particularly susceptible to being disturbed. In other words, to be sustained, they must remain undeveloped (lower-left, forward corner of Figure 1). Little or no activity is permitted, and protection from intrusion becomes the main management responsibility. These areas stretch the low-density concept to no-density, and any development immediately becomes overdevelopment (the three remaining forward corners).

At the other extreme are those facilities designed to withstand frequent visits: robust places fortified by resilient materials and diligent maintenance (upper-right, back corner of Figure 1). When operated within specified capacities, these are the high-density developed sites described in the NRPA book. Within this context, overdevelopment is not possible.

It is possible, however, to have too few users, even though their frequency of visits meets projections. Similarly, it is possible to have a high number of users who do not visit very often (upper-left, back corner of Figure 1). Unless your facility is intended to cater to those realities (a football stadium may be used only six times per season, for example), it is underdeveloped (lower-right, back corner). Of course, it also is possible that a site may host few users and that those few do not visit often.

Nevertheless, we know that people are tempted to ignore specifications, or are pressured to exceed them by anxious users who are not shy about expressing their opinions or contacting their local politicians. In these cases, no longer are we talking about “high” density, we’re contemplating over-use, if not abuse; we’re off the chart (or off the Figure, anyway). There are serious consequences to violating guidelines, and few--if any--are positive.

A Balancing Act

To be well-developed, then, refers to achieving an ideal balance between your facility’s users and its designed capacity. It may be lots of people lots of the time, or no people at any time. Seldom, for the sake of sustainability, is it all the people all of the time.

Work cited:

van der Smissen, B., et al, eds. Management of Park and Recreation Agencies: Manual for Agency Accreditation. 2nd ed. Ashburn, Virginia: National Recreation and Park Association.

Kim S. Uhlik is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Hospitality, Recreation and Tourism Management at San Jose State University. He can be reached via e-mail at


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