Public Rec Centers Reimagined for Metropolis


The Rec Center Reimagined: How Cities are Designing for Wellness, Metropolis, Oct. 10, 2022. 


We’ve come to think of fitness and wellness as luxuries to be enjoyed only by members of private clubs or participants in yoga retreats. But two new public recreation centers shift this assumption, updating stale municipal models for a new era and a much wider audience.

The decision for cities to invest in new facilities that nurture public health and well-being should be intuitive: The benefits of physical activity for educational outcomes and the prevention of illness have been well established by the scientific community for more than a century. But local spending on such resources has been steadily falling, while private fitness has become a $30 billion industry in the United States, essentially filling this void. Luxury fitness clubs like Equinox and pricey training classes like SoulCycle have exploded, while corporate offices have begun to push fitness amenities and the rhetoric of well-being to attract workers back to the office.

But some public facilities are smartly incorporating attributes of the wellness world. By paying close attention to the desires of their neighborhoods and leveraging municipal funding, Baltimore’s Cahill Fitness and Wellness Center and El Paso’s Eastside Regional Recreation Center—both begun before the pandemic made public health a primary concern—deliver something equally tied to the health benefits of fitness: a sense of community belonging.


This shift toward the language of wellness shouldn’t be such a surprise in a public recreational facility. Many rec centers originated in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when social reformers advocated for public bathhouses and playgrounds as ways of improving the hygiene and development of poor children and the population in general. Hundreds of parks and recreation departments established during that time continue to operate, along with school sports facilities. But the defunding of the public sector in the past half century has tended to leave these facilities feeling outdated and a little depressing.