Sport and recreation facilities – especially the local swimming pool – are a big hit with ratepayers, but they are also expensive for municipal councils to run.

With so many other demands on their budgets these days, councils have had to rethink their approach to new sport and recreational developments.

The result is an interesting one: a trend away from single-purpose facilities sports facilities towards multipurpose “health and wellness centres”; places we can enjoy whether we want to work out, take the kids to swimming lessons or have a relaxing coffee with a friend.

The first step to viability: community consultation

For any facility to prosper, it needs to connect with the local community’s needs and preferences. If the locals don’t use a new facility because it is in the wrong place, or doesn’t reflect their values and interests, it’s going to flop financially.

So the first step to viability is to engage the community in a consultation process about the concept and design for an upgrade or creation of a new facility.

Canvassing possibilities

Feelings can run high in any such process. Stakeholders such as parents, retailers, local medical and allied health providers and gym junkies often have strong views on what will – or will not – work.

But it’s also important to open up the discussion to new possibilities early on. Global trends change, new ideas emerge. The idea of having a physiotherapist on site at a swimming pool might be welcomed, but what about an aromatherapist, or a fresh food market?

The process is one of listening to all stakeholders, outlining current trends, and understanding what is important to the community.

It’s then a matter of drawing up designs, bringing all the information together, and taking it back for comment and discussion.

Fleurieu Regional Aquatic Centre

The Alexandrina Council and the City of Victor Harbor have recently undergone a comprehensive consultation process for the region’s new aquatic centre, which will finally realise the local community’s 30-year vision for a public indoor swimming pool on the Fleurieu Peninsula. The facility will be located within a wider health and wellbeing precinct which will house a broad range of retail and allied health businesses, such as massage and physiotherapy.

This facility is a first for South Australia, embracing a growing trend throughout Australia for health and well-being centres where local residents use wet and dry fitness facilities co-located with retail, health and other community activities. These neighbourhood centres can have a lovely fresh food market or a range of eateries in the precinct around the centre itself. On days when the locals are not working out in the gym or swimming, there are still plenty of reasons to visit the centre.

In the past, sport and recreation centres tended to be located away from shops and other community facilities. That is changing dramatically.

The stellar success of the Adelaide Oval redevelopment in bringing life back to the Riverbank precinct and kick-starting economic activity within the western quadrant of the city of Adelaide emphasises the benefit of social infrastructure to the wider community. In this instance, a new footbridge over the River Torrens links the oval with the Adelaide festival and convention centres, with foot traffic extending further afield into the entertainment precinct around Hindley, Leigh and Peel streets.

The oval’s proximity to the city, with all its shops and restaurants, was seen as a big advantage and one that could not be wasted.

Balancing the interests of stakeholders

In the case of the Fleurieu Regional Aquatic Centre, the consultation process involves a second group of stakeholders, including retailers, potential operators, learn-to-swim groups and school programs, gym-users and various interest groups such as the elderly.

Throughout the consultation process, careful consideration was given to developing a facility that supports the wider community, and that doesn’t compete with existing small businesses and other facilities. There’s no point in creating a vibrant new retail precinct around an aquatic centre if the existing main street shops suffer as a result. The resulting backlash could not just reduce viability, but also divide the community.

Public Q&A sessions help to communicate this information. It’s remarkable the amount of detail that communities want to know about these decisions. Conveying this detail is often enough to satisfy them when some of their wants or needs cannot be met.

Keeping stakeholders engaged is a balancing act. It is impossible, of course, to give everyone everything they want. However, it’s fascinating to note that, so long as everyone is heard, and clear explanations are given for the decisions and compromises taken, stakeholders tend to stay committed.

Politics and sport

It doesn’t take long for any project that involves a lot of public stakeholders to attract the attention of politicians. Local council representatives obviously have an interest, but if the process gets unruly and divisive, state and even federal representatives may wade into the process.

Autocratic decision-making processes lead to poor outcomes and damage the viability of sports and recreation processes. Winning community buy-in is the essential first step.

Communities change, however. Every modern sport and recreational facility needs to flexible and adaptable to be viable and sustainable. Think of the incredible changes that smartphones have wrought on gyms in recent years. Who needs a television to watch while they are on the cross-trainer these days? We are all using our smartphones to record changes in our weight, heart rate, and muscle tone while we catch up on podcasts and training videos or the latest series of Orange Is the New Black.

About the author: Michael Lambert leads Hames Sharley’s sport and recreation portfolio. He is a design-focused Project Architect with over 10 years’ experience in Australia and the United Kingdom, such as leading the interior planning works team on the prestigious and complex Adelaide Oval Redevelopment in a joint venture.

Did you enjoy this article?