By Thomas P. Shay
Do you think of parks and recreation facilities as critical infrastructure? There is no denying the nation’s sports and recreation facilities are valuable, and they already provide us with a lot. For primary users and players, they provide a great opportunity for recreation and fitness as well as lessons of teamwork, both in winning and defeat. For bystanders or spectators, they provide entertainment, social interaction, community connections, fresh air, and more. Numerous local studies have documented the value and benefits associated with strong sports and park and recreation facilities from health and wellness to economic development. In addition to all that, they can still do more!
Oftentimes, new facilities or rehabilitations are designed to address one specific need, or several needs related to one particular problem—such as a lack of adequate space to play—without considering how that project might be able to benefit or offset other needs and problems in typically unrelated departments (think parks and public works). But recreational assets present an immense opportunity to support other critical infrastructure, simply by virtue of their physical attributes, such as location, size, and ownership, which is often public. This is a call to planners, administrators, chief executives, engineers—basically anyone involved in the technical management and operations of large publicly owned and even privately owned facilities—to open your minds and consider how you can significantly improve a facility and possibly community-wide operations by integrating other needs within sports and recreation facilities.
Moving From Competition To Coordination
Investment in water, wastewater, stormwater, security, transportation, and other essential infrastructure is required to maintain an environmentally and economically healthy community. Unfortunately, due to a budget, political factors, perception, or public opinion, some things are prioritized at the expense of others. There are ways, however, to obtain new (or improved) sports facilities and new critical infrastructure simultaneously.
Parks and athletic facilities typically take up large areas, with athletic fields, parking lots, and other open-space areas. How do we integrate other capital projects or needs into parks and athletic facilities or vice versa so they can do more?
Here are some potential options:
Build a park or athletic field as part of a water or wastewater-treatment infrastructure.
Use reclaimed water for irrigation or grey water in facility operations.
Use an athletic field for stormwater or floodplain storage/detention.
Reduce combined sewer overflows by incorporating storage and extended detention features in new developments or retrofits beyond what is required solely for the new development.
Address green infrastructure and stormwater quality treatment goals more cost-effectively by incorporating them into larger projects, as opposed to many smaller projects.
Address brownfield cleanup and closure or a landfill closure or redevelopment with the incorporation of a sports and recreation facility.
Combine a parking structure with play areas and/or athletic fields.
This list is just a sampling of possibilities, but with foresight and proper planning, parks and athletic facilities can be an even bigger asset to a community. Leave it to the engineers and designers to make dreams a reality, but bring them the grand ideas to make the biggest impact in a community. It is understood that some of these examples on initial glance may seem too large or not applicable to smaller communities or departments. While there is likely more potential for greater impact on the larger, more complex projects, this mode of thinking might just be the catalyst to create what might have been a pipe dream on its own into an actual project for smaller communities, once thoughts and resources are pooled, potentially on an inter-municipal level. Doing more with less is the new normal, and parks and recreation facilities are a great place to invest for more holistic solutions. You might be able to score two goals with one shot.
Thomas P. Shay is a principal and technical manager at Woodard & Curran, an integrated engineering, science, and operations firm. He is a licensed professional engineer specializing in site civil engineering and sports and recreation-facility design. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
A Look At What’s Possible
Here are two examples of successful infrastructure integration:
Reis Park in Somers, N.Y., was determined to be a cost-effective location for the town to meet more stringent phosphorus-reduction requirements within the New York City drinking water watershed. The town implemented multiple green-infrastructure stormwater retrofits to reduce phosphorus loading and improve stormwater quality throughout the park, including bioretention basins, subsurface infiltration systems, rooftop runoff disconnects, stormwater filters, dry swales, and a porous asphalt parking lot with landscaping and LED lighting. The stormwater retrofits not only met the stormwater quality treatment requirements, but they greatly improved the park’s beauty while providing better and safer circulation and ADA-accessibility as well as an overall improved user experience. The infrastructure improvements were seamlessly integrated into the park with no impacts to programming.
Johnson & Wales University in Providence, R.I., determined that a contaminated brownfield site was a perfect location to meet the demand for a new collegiate athletic complex. The 20-acre site was remediated and capped with a multi-purpose synthetic-turf field and natural-grass softball, baseball, and practice fields, along with other supporting structures and passive-recreation components. In addition, the project incorporated a bioretention basin to improve stormwater quality within the Providence River—an impaired water body for nitrogen—and integrated with the adjacent Urban Coastal Greenway and plans for future buildings on the shore of Narragansett Bay. Formerly a major liability, the property was converted into a valuable university and community asset.