Sports Architecture: Redesign And Repurpose

This column, “LBWA” (Leadership By Wandering Around), is based on the premise that, in order to find out what’s going on in the field, a parks and rec leader has to leave his or her desk and “wander around” the area of operations, talk to people, ask questions, and kick around ideas with the individuals in the thick of delivering services to the public.  So the author will bring up issues that may be common to many PRB readers and ask the leaders who are the readers to weigh in and share their knowledge and experiences. 

Back in the 8th century B.C.—that’s nearly 3,000 years ago—legend has it that Hercules, the mythological hero of strength and endurance, established the length over which athletes had to compete against each other, according to World Stadiums, an online resource.

Eventually, the story continues, the shape of stadiums was driven by this length, first in an elongated “U” shape with the start and finish on opposite ends then the more-familiar oval shape reflected in today’s stadiums.

There is much more to the historical story of sports architecture, but for purposes of this article, today’s sports facility designs can trace their roots from the ancient Greek “stadion,” as it was originally called, to the Roman amphitheaters.

Another common theme from those historic places through today’s parks and rec facilities is that the sites for serious athletic competitions could be used by the general public.

In Greece, for example, stadia were built in many Greek towns alongside hippodromes, oval tracks used for horse or chariot races. Because they were centrally located and popular with the public, stadia began to serve what today are called “multi-purpose facilities.” Public events, political rallies, circuses, carnivals, and other events gave people and their families something to do.

If an existing sports park has seen better days, and you’re preparing a plan to renovate it, I hope to provide some tips here to ensure the design of the final product truly serves all its intended audiences.

One Plan, Numerous Needs

The aesthetic architecture of parks and rec facilities isn’t a subject to which a parks and rec professional often gives much conscious thought—unless he or she happens to be an architect, too. But for those professionals who do think about it, the design of a park can turn it from a single-purpose facility to one that is multi-purpose, capable of serving several distinct audience types with different needs.

Take, for instance, the South Anchorage Sports Park in Anchorage, Alaska. The 65-acre park was originally constructed in 1998. The master plan envisioned the park to be a premier center for outdoor sports.  However, as the newly adopted 2014 master plan states, “Development of the park has proven challenging. Peat soils coupled with the lack of a reliable water source have prevented the park from meeting its promise.”

With the population in the park’s service area growing by 20 percent since 2000, there was “renewed interest within the community to develop the park in a manner that provides for active recreation.”

Oddly enough, and probably purely by accident, the park is in the shape of the ancient Roman elongated “C”; only the inside is squared off, with the park wrapping around land with a communications tower. The park had suffered neglect over the years and was being used for disparate activities, including baseball, an RC car group, paintball, an off-leash dog area, and undeveloped land.

Right Place, Right Time

Two years ago, Steve Rafuse was starting his new job as a planner for the city’s parks and rec department. With a bachelor’s degree and background in economics and a master’s degree in community and regional planning, he was the right person in the right place and time to take on the task of redeveloping the park.

Rafuse took an inclusive approach to determine how to design and repurpose the park. In fact, intentionally or not, his effort could have been a successful case study in the book The Deliberative Practitioner: Encouraging Participatory Planning Processes by John F. Forester. The book, originally published in 1999, is an excellent source of concepts and workable solutions to common public-administration issues, such as redesigning a park.

“You have to bring the right people to the table in order to succeed,” says Rafuse, who works closely with community councils (neighborhood organizations). “We have about 20 or so different neighborhoods in Anchorage.”

As Forester notes in his book, “Effective deliberative planning requires attention to both the substantive issues at hand and the relationships that link the parties who care about those issues.”

In South Anchorage’s case, representatives from three or four neighborhood groups were affected as well as those involved with baseball, paintball, RC cars, the dog park, and community members at large. Rafuse and his colleagues organized a series of interviews and meetings (see flowchart below, from the South Anchorage Sports Park Master Plan, 2014) that captured stakeholder desires along the way. 

“We also presented the plan to the planning and zoning board, which ensured it was reviewed by other city departments as needed,” says Rafuse. “All these meetings are public meetings, which is important to ensure that everyone feels sure they have been heard.” 

Once the plan went through that process, the city council’s input was sought before publishing a final product, including an implementation plan and cost estimates, totaling more than $9 million.  

Rafuse is currently working on four additional master plans for other parks.

Connect With The Community

However, most departments aren’t so fortunate to have on-staff experts, and the odds are that funding is limited to hire planning and design consultants, whose fees range from $100 an hour to over $300, depending on location, scope of work, complications, and other factors.

Rafuse recommends that a professional planner be brought in for at least the preliminary portions of the effort.  However, if that is not feasible, it can be done in-house.

“A department with no planner and who can’t hire a consultant can still structure community meetings where you don’t have to lead a complicated design workshop,” he suggests. “Just have flip charts and engage in an open and honest conversation with community members affected by the redevelopment of a park. When I conduct such meetings, I listen to what the participants are saying and write main points on the flip charts so they see that I hear them.”

He notes the main goal of the meetings should be to connect with the community and build relationships.  “Identify people who are key stakeholders and find those who will be your champions on certain issues,” he says.  “Even if they are critical of what you’re doing, at least you’ll get an idea of what the attitude is.”

Rafuse says some people record the meetings and then later transcribe the notes. However, in his case, another staff member takes copious notes during the proceedings, and they are immediately transcribed and sent out as minutes to all meeting participants for review. Regardless of the method, it is critical to capture what transpired accurately.

“Many people think of public meetings as something they have to do to put a check in a box, but here we do our best to listen, so the experience is normally positive for everyone,” he explains, even when there are contentious issues.  “People can get passionate about their parks, and emotions can run high, but when we roll out a new process we normally bring in people who have worked with us in the past to help explain the process.” 

Do Your Homework

The other suggestion Rafuse makes is to research everything about the area being considered for redesign. “When I start a project, even if I’ve done the same type of thing 10 or 20 times before, every park is different.” “So I try to look at the attributes of the park and compare it to other places to see how other people have approached similar challenges.” Again, he stresses having an honest conversation with the public to see what has worked in the past, and what has not.

One of the places where many plans fall short is designing a wonderful facility with all the bells and whistles people have asked for, but not including future maintenance as a key element. 

“We work closely with the maintenance department, and when we’re getting into a project, I always check with the maintenance manager to see if there’s anything they know that we should know,” Rafuse says. “Then, once we have been through the design phase, before we finalize it, I sit down with the manager and say, ‘Here are the ideas; how does this look to you, looking 5 or 10 years down the road?’ We take that input back to the advisory groups to let them know why the plan will need to be modified to ensure we don’t inadvertently create an undue maintenance burden.”

There’s little doubt that Rafuse and the Anchorage Parks and Rec Department will have plenty of practice on this in the future. With 300,000 residents sharing 11,000 acres of park land, 224 parks, plenty of wetlands, forests, and coastal plains, there is definitely a need for repurposing and redesigning well into the future.

For parks departments considering an in-house effort to redesign a facility, it would be worth the time to look at the Anchorage master plan at the PRB website (Christine: I assume you’d want to drive people to the website so if you can add the link here I’ll send you the .pdf) It is an excellent, easy-to-follow plan that can be a helpful guide for those who might not have in-house experts or funding to hire consultants.

I would also suggest getting a copy of The Deliberative Practitioner and reading some of its excellent advice. The principles Forester suggests are timeless and as useful now as when the book was originally published.

Randy Gaddo served for 15 years as a director in municipal parks and recreation after retiring from 20 years in the U.S. Marine Corps. He earned his Master’s in Public Administration and is now a full-time photojournalist living in Bay Minette, Ala. Reach him at (678) 350-8642 or