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Get Up! Get Out! Get Well! Parks and Recreation Design Grounded in Science

Posted by Mimi Burns

Rio Grande Bosque Improvements, couple walking and child bicycling on trail
"In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks." ~John Muir

Wellness and Recreation Design

Do you feel better when you take a walk outside, pet a dog, or watch the clouds float by? You are not alone. Human beings have an innate inclination to connect to nature and other forms of life. This is the Biophilia hypothesis. Scientific research shows that connecting people to nature, facilitating social interaction, and fostering altruism contributes to improved human health.

Parks, open space, and recreation facilities are the perfect places to improve community wellness and connect residents to nature. Parks and recreation facilities and programs play an important role in addressing a host of community health concerns including chronic disease; health inequity; social isolation; community physical, mental, and spiritual health; and creating safe healthy environments and opportunities for play that help children thrive.

Parks and recreation facilities also bring value via community-wide economic development benefits, such as increased property values, increased municipal revenues, and increased interest from employers and knowledge workers, which can ultimately result in more job opportunities and a higher quality of life for residents.

Boyce Tennis Court
Randall High School's Boyce Tennis Courts, Canyon, Texas. One of the largest high schools in the Texas Panhandle, Randall High School expanded its facilities from 6 to 14 courts, allowing them to host new visitors and large regional tennis matches. The expansion includes eight new tennis courts, covered bleachers, locker rooms, visitor restrooms, a concession stand, and coach’s office.

Community Wellness and Parks

So what kinds of parks, open space, and recreation facilities do our communities need to improve community wellness and help people be the best they can be?

  • Communities need great places, spaces, and programs designed to connect people to nature and to each other.
  • Communities need to preserve their great natural spaces and associated ecosystem services that provide community resilience and sustainability, and allow people to connect to the natural environment.
  • Communities need to support social equity with public access to amenities and programs.
Clark County Wetlands
Clark County Wetlands Nature Center, Las Vegas, Nevada. This 30,000sf, LEED Gold certified educational facility is designed to draw people into the wetland ecosystem by creating physical and visual connections to the outdoors. Photo credit: Kirk Gittings.

The Science of Wellness Design

Good design is part art and part science. As designers, we have always loved the art, but now we have more science at our fingertips than ever before.

Dekker/Perich/Sabatini (D/P/S) supports the use of evidence-based design solutions on our projects to improve human health and wellbeing, and is actively integrating the concepts and strategies found in the WELL Building Standard, SITES, and LEED certification rating systems into our design discussions and solutions with a team of D/P/S accredited professionals (AP’s) leading the conversations.

The science behind these rating systems is extensive, and the concepts and strategies for design, which are based on credible research, provide a solid foundation for decision-making. For projects where wellness is a primary focus—like park, open space and recreation facilities—the synergies between rating systems provides a broad palette of opportunities for improving human health and wellbeing both outside and inside.

CNM Wellness Path
Central New Mexico College (CNM) Wellness Path, Albuquerque, NM. The Wellness Path is a multi-modal network of new bike routes, a pedestrian trail, and wellness stations – where the campus community can chill, learn, connect to nature, workout, play music, and get inspired to improve their health and wellness.

WELL Building Standard. A rating system for buildings and communities that is focused on design and facility operation strategies that support human health and wellbeing. This system is all about wellness. Examples of park or recreation-relevant design considerations include pesticide and herbicide management, Biophilia, exterior active design, structured fitness activities, waste stream management and active transportation support. D/P/S has more than 10 WELL Accredited Professionals and one registered project.

Sustainable SITES Initiative. A comprehensive rating system for creating sustainable landscapes. Examples of recreation-relevant features include limiting development on farmland, conserving and restoring native plant communities, designing functional storm water features as amenities, creating a soil management plan, designing to minimize pesticide and fertilizer use, and creating a sustainable site management plan. D/P/S has two SITE Accredited Professionals.

People bicycling across Rio Grande bridge
Bosque Access Improvements, Rio Grande Valley State Park, Albuquerque, NM. Improvements consist of two separate implementations of the Rio Grande Vision&mdasha concept and visioning document prepared by D/P/S that was intended to grow environmental stewardship of the Bosque and Rio Grande. Access improvements included a multi-use trail and bridge, accessible parking and an accessible trail connection.

LEED Green Buildings. The most widely used green building rating system designed to create better buildings and communities that are sustainable, safe, and high performing. Examples of wellness-related concepts include access to quality transit, a reduced parking footprint, reduced outdoor water use, site development that protects and restores habitat, the preservation of open space, rainwater management, light pollution reduction, and construction and demolition waste management. D/P/S has more than 20 LEED Accredited Professionals, and 52 LEED certified projects.

Designing for Happiness is Designing for Wellness

Did you know there are classes in Happiness? Did you know that having a predominantly positive outlook and positive emotions has been linked to leading a longer, healthier life with greater well-being? While there does not appear to be consensus on the nature and relationship of wellness and happiness (Is happiness the by-product of wellness? Is wellness achieved through the positive state of being that is happiness?), there is certainly some connection that should be acknowledged in design.

Hobbs Center of Recreational Excellence, rendering
Hobbs Center for Recreation Excellence (CORE), Hobbs, New Mexico. This 160,000sf, highly interactive, multi-generational recreation facility is designed to expand the identity of Lea County as an economically vibrant, energy-based, business-friendly, and desirable community in which to work and raise a family.

Both the WELL Building Standard and the SITES rating system have features that call for design elements and amenities intended to bring delight, celebrate culture, nature, spirit and place, and facilitate human interaction.

So, there is a scientific foundation for designing for happiness – which is AWESOME, because there is an undercurrent (sometimes not so subtle) of happiness in our wellness projects. We strive to make parks and recreation projects compelling – with splashes of whimsy, beauty, the unexpected, and local references that reinforce a sense of place and belonging. These are the characteristics that draw people in and help create memorable experiences and improved health and wellbeing.

Prickly Pear Cactus Playground
Photo Credit: Exerplay. Prickly Pear Playground, Civic Plaza, Albuquerque, NM is an imaginative playground installed on top of the existing parking roof deck that serves as Albuquerque’s largest community plaza. Besides being deliberately whimsical and fun, the playground was designed to celebrate New Mexico’s most iconic cactus-establishing a sense of place, and connecting visitors to nature.

Our Commitment to Designing Healthy Communities

We love our work—helping communities connect to the outdoors and helping people live healthier, more active lives. As designers and advocates for healthy cities and communities, we believe creative,  evidence-based design can make significant changes in the way urban and natural areas coexist, and in the design of effective and compelling parks, open space and recreation facilities.

Let us help your community Get Well!


Read more about Dekker/Perich/Sabatini's commitment to health and recreation: