Great sports and play facility projects begin with great ideas. And the idea of providing people with improved facilities – say, by replacing an ageing sports court with a modern MUGA (multi-use games area) – is as good as any.
The initial thought is only the first meaningful step of the project journey, however. The second one is to come up with a plan.
Redeveloping an ageing facility can be a daunting prospect. For one, there are so many things to consider. What should you replace it with? What are the ground conditions under the playing surface – will it need replacing too? Do you need new lighting? What about fencing? Should you go with a similar layout as before and simply renew what’s there? Or completely change the design and make space for new facilities? Should you even change the sports that can be played – say, from football to tennis or vice versa? In any case, creating a strong project brief in the early stages is essential.
Your starting point should be to figure out the exact sporting, play and non-sporting needs – including access and parking. Crucial to this process is to decide on the type of sports you want the MUGA to be able to host – as this largely dictates the type of playing surface you need. When determining the possible activities, it’s a good idea to also consider whether there needs to be a business case for the facility – are there certain clubs/societies playing certain sports you want to accommodate for rent?
For all of this, there are a plethora of hugely useful resources available on the SAPCA website (https://sapca.org.uk) – from technical information to a “project journey” roadmap, which outlines everything from funding and designing to building and maintaining your facility.
But what I want to highlight is that, when deciding on the nature of your new facility, you need to engage with your partners to ensure it’s got all the relevant bits in. And by partners, I mean the end-users. Yes – the children, the young people and the mums and the dads (and other carers, of course).
Talk to them. Consult them in some way. They are, as facility users, your ‘consumers’. What would they want to see included? Which sports would they like to play? While it’s impossible to please everyone, a well-managed consultation will give you an overview of what the surrounding community requires – and what it wants.
This is the part of a project journey that I, personally, am most passionate about. Listening to, understanding and considering families – and ensuring their needs are at the heart of the project.
Once, I was working with a lovely group of people at a Town Council, which was (and is) of historic significance. They wanted to create destination parks and playgrounds that they could feel proud of. The budget was £500,000 – long before the spending cuts came in.
Happy that I had a forward-thinking customer, I sourced a range of play equipment that was of extremely high quality and play value. A range that had been vigorously tested by kids (and adults) and included an exceptionally high percentage of green credentials to boot. The colours were vibrant and the materials consisted of tactile, non-flammable materials, such as high-density, recycled plastic, super-tough galvanised steel posts, additional timber posts made out of robinia and rope climbing parts.
It was a perfect mix of durability, feel-good materials, textures, play value and challenges for children of all ages and abilities. It got even better when I was invited to present my initial plans at a meeting with the Town Clerk, Parks Manager, Community Liaison and a councillor – all of who were hugely impressed by the samples, the quality and, in particular, the green credentials.
When the official invitation to tender for the works was released, I eagerly opened my copy to get stuck in, only to find something along the lines of the following statement:
“Due to past reported incidents of vandalism, all specified equipment and materials should be of 100% steel material. No timber or plastic, no ropes. Moving parts should also be avoided in order to reduce maintenance cost and probability of vandalism.”
I called them immediately and spoke with the Town Clerk and the Parks Manager, who told me that the councillors had insisted on the equipment being of all steel. Apparently, they had a historical problem with vandalism and one of their parks had previously been burned down.
I couldn’t believe my ears.
I asked them directly: “So you’re telling me that instead of taking the opportunity of spending half a million pounds in your community, creating inspiring playgrounds for children to thrive, learn and bond in – and for visitors to return and feel inspired – the council is going to spend it on cold-looking, low play value play areas designed with vandals in mind?”
The answer was a begrudging “Yes”.
The decision had been made by the ‘old school’ council members. There was no turning back. Shortly after that, the Town Clerk retired and the community liaison officer resigned, saying that she had had enough. In the end, we refused to tender for the project.
This experience (and some other, similar ones) has led me to have a primary aim in my professional life – to persuade everyone that, when it comes to creating play or sports spaces for towns, schools, communities or even private enterprises, people should feel inspired to think about it from a position of freedom and creativity.
Think about making decisions based on how the end-user (the child, the family, the shy child, the disabled child, etc.) will feel and seek out designers and manufacturers not because they are cheap, but because they are innovative. And certainly not because “it might be burnt down”.