That’s teamwork: How Rebuild could bring more to rehabbed rec centers than just better sports facilities.

Philadelphia’s churches are being converted into apartments, it’s public schools made into office space, and inside some local libraries you can now expect a lot more than just books. But while old parks, churches and schools have been resurrected for new, improved — and sometimes controversial — uses across the city, the nearly ubiquitous recreation center has remained stolidly static.

Until now, rec centers have been treated like the jocks of public places: simple, sweaty spaces often ignored by urbanist intelligentsia. It’s been the nerdier spaces — schools, libraries, churches, and parks — that have captured academic and media attention for their innovations and cutting-edge design. But Rebuild, Mayor Jim Kenney’s $500 million initiative to change public facilities, including rec centers, is putting the spotlight on their potential, too, as buds of civic infrastructure.

“Along with libraries, [Rec centers] are the spaces with no barriers to entry in your community,” says George Matysik, executive director of the Philadelphia Parks Alliance. “You don’t have to go to a specific school. You don’t have to be a member of a service. This is the best representation of government in action. But how can we make this space more than just one where someone comes to play basketball?”

The idea of turning the Rec Center into a locus for more than youth athletics has been dreamed about since the advent of the Department of Recreation in 1951. Robert, Crawford, the first ever Philadelphia rec commissioner, wrote this passage about his initial impressions of the city’s facilities, while seeing their full potential: “I found a recreation program of very limited scope and reach, focusing almost exclusively on children and teenagers and offering little more than playground activities and sports. I knew that recreation could and should be much more, and should reach all of the citizens, not just a few.”  

While the post-World War II era was marked by an expansion of recreation centers — from 81 centers in 1952 to 230 in 1981 — and efforts to improve access to previously overlooked groups (African-Americans, the disabled, and adults among them), government cost-cutting of the 1980s curtailed a robust continuation of Crawford’s legacy. Today, although many neighborhood rec centers reach beyond athletics — some having added computer labs, art centers, and senior classes — on a whole, they’re still mired in an connotation from Crawford’s day: a facility of last resort for anything other than sports.

Rebuild, aside from being a generational makeover in the physical condition of these facilities, also aims to inspire a revolution of thinking around rec centers (along with parks, libraries, and playgrounds). To get there, community engagement will play a key role. But also, the Kenney administration has been analyzing each existing rec center in concert with services, both public and private, in the surrounding neighborhood. In the terminology of Rebuild, the administration aspires to facilitate “colocation” of services at many of the sites eventually chosen for rehabilitation. (Last Wednesday, the Inquirer published an initial proposal of 60 sites that would receive Rebuild funding. On Wednesday evening, during a public meeting on Rebuild, executive director Nicole Westerman said the published list, while authentic, is still subject to change.)

Colocation refers to places where multiple facilities share a singular space (for example, a library inside a park) or clustered within a few blocks of one another. The idea is to offer one-stop civic service shopping for city residents or foster economies of scale in regards to hyperlocal delivery of civic needs.

The evolution at the South Philadelphia Health and Literacy Center provides an example of colocation: the University of Pennsylvania runs  a community health center on the upper floors of the library, which had been at the location since 1965. Behind the building, the DiSilvestro Playground offers jungle gyms and three basketball courts. It was the first new-look library built under the Building Inspiration: 21st Century Libraries Initiative, a $25-million project funded by the William Penn Foundation that promotes the benefits of colocation. This fall, a second 21st Century Library is set to come online in Logan, this one focused on incorporating family literacy services.

Rec centers are relatively large spaces, offering huge blank canvases for colocation. How they’ll take shape over the course of Rebuild — whether through supplemental additions, like adding clinics or programs from outside providers, or, going as far as an all-out merger with a library or other facility — won’t be clear for some time. The first slate of Rebuild sites has yet to be announced, largely because of the ongoing legal challenge to the soda tax, which partially funds Rebuild. “It’s too early to say exactly what colocated Rebuild projects will look like, but the South Philadelphia Health and Literacy Center is a great example of what is possible,” says Kira Strong, deputy director of design and construction for Rebuild. “Other cities, such as Chicago and New York, have done a good job with [colocating] police stations and other public spaces. They’ve examined what services exist in a community and which ones are needed. They are also being intentional about how the development of the centers can bring appropriate programming to the community, fill those gaps in services and promote positive civic interaction. Through Rebuild, we hope to pursue a similar approach.”

Chicago placed public basketball courts in the parking lots of police stations, bringing together two populations — law enforcement and youth — that often interact in the urban fabric, though rarely in positive circumstances. Strong also pointed to New York, where various criminal justice facilities now also provide mental health services.

Other cities have leaned on private funds to experiment with colocation at  recreation centers.  A nongovernmental organization runs a state-of-the-art rec center in Copenhagen that caters to adults as much as children and brands itself as a community gathering spot.  In 2004, the province of Alberta, Canada, opened a 195,000-square-foot, LEED gold-certified facility that holds a library, three gymnasiums, and community organizing spaces — and it’s  adjacent to a couple of schools, too.* This was part of a city-led program to reinvest in public spaces while turning over day-to-day management to nonprofits.

Pursuing a path to privatization is not, of course, anywhere near the stated intent of the administration’s Rebuild plans. But critics have charged the administration with that much regardless. In April, Council President Darrell Clarke called out the unique organizational structure of Rebuild, which relies in part on nonprofit “project users” to manage the projects, saying it amounted to “some level of privatization of our parks and rec centers.” The final structure for delivering Rebuild, passed by Council, decreased the role of nonprofits, though the sector will still manage a significant amount of the sites selected for the project.

Colocation, according to the administration’s Rebuild staff, shouldn’t warrant any more anxiety about privatization, if those concerns haven’t been put to bed already. “There could be instances where a Rebuild site could provide space for a nonprofit to offer services,” says Strong. But the administration says adamantly that no type of privatization is occurring; Parks and rec staff currently operating these facilities will continue to do so.

As the Kenney administration worked to pass Rebuild legislation, the nonprofit sector, including the Parks Alliance, has pursued a parallel track to promote colocation opportunities . Matysik has overseen the ongoing development of Rec Center Advisory Councils — the rec center equivalent of a school’s parents-teachers association —  in neighborhoods that were previously missing active ones. As city funding for the Department of Parks and Recreation has lagged — Philadelphia invests only $59-per-resident in parks and rec facilities, compared to $80 on average in the top 100 major cities — the influence of advisory councils has grown exponentially.

When Matysik moved over to the Alliance from Philabundance two years ago, he gained a new understanding of the integral role that hyperlocal fundraising plays in the condition and maintenance of individual rec centers. Advisory councils in wealthier pockets of the city could fundraise in multitudes of what their counterparts in outlying neighborhoods, exacerbating the uneven playing field. “The areas with more wealth are able to raise more wealth,” says Matysik. “They were furthering an inequitable system.”

The Parks Alliance aims to level that playing field, while trying to stoke the imagination of neighborhood residents so they begin to think expansively about their rec centers. The Parks Alliance has also begun efforts to map out who uses rec centers, trying to  map out an effective catchment areas with GIS precision. They’ve also been connecting advisory councils with prospective partner organizations, in order to create new collaborations at rec centers that can blossom independently of Rebuild. For example, Matysik has had conversations with The Clay Studio, which is in the process of moving to South Kensington, to provide some type of programming at a rec center in their new neighborhood.

While the Alliance’s work is running parallel to that of the administration, it has the chance to coalesce with Rebuild and accelerate the remaking of Philadelphia’s public assets — especially how we rethink our rec centers. “Rebuild is the great equalizer,” says Matysik. “We could have a real gamechanger on our hands.”  

*CORRECTION: This line erronously referred to the “city of Alberta, Canada”. Alberta is a province. 

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