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Creating Community Through Fitness

August 14th, 2014 by

As the recession ended, we decided we needed something to lift the spirits of our team — it had been a long, slow few years. My instinct is always to throw a party, but that doesn’t have much staying power. Instead, my partners suggested buying a ping-pong table and starting a weekly exercise class in the office.

It’s been two years, and we’ve had regular ping-pong tournaments and weekly stretching classes since. Both are great bonding opportunities — they give us a chance to get to know people we may not work with on a daily basis.

It’s amazing to me that exercise can create community in an architect’s office — I always assumed that required beer. But fitness is actually a great way to bring people together in healthy, community-building ways. I’ve learned this from my own experience at our office, and especially from our more than eight years of work with the Y of Central Maryland.


The Y as a “third place”
For the Y of Central Maryland, we’ve designed renovations, upgrades, additions, and a new facility, the Orokawa Family Center Y in Towson. As a mission-driven organization at both the local and national levels, the Y focuses on youth development, healthy living, and social responsibility. The Y of Central Maryland, in particular, seeks to make its centers a “third place,” or an “anchor of community life” that is highly accessible, welcoming, and used by regulars and new friends alike.

Marks Thomas / Towson YMCA

What do I mean by “third place“?  This concept has generated a lot of buzz in the last 10 years. Coined by urban sociologist Ray Oldenburg in 1989, the term refers to a location outside of the two places in which we spend the bulk of our time — our homes and our work environments. The “third place,” then, is that comfortable, familiar place we can go (outside of work and home) to see friends, meet new people, find out what’s happening in the community, and ultimately just hang out and relax.

The idea of a family fitness center as a third place is unique to the Y. It ties in with Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” program, which emphasizes family awareness of and accessibility to opportunities that promote healthy, active living — much like those offered by the Y year-round. The range of programs at the Y — from its “child watch” activity centers, swim lessons, and summer camps to its basketball skills clinics for kids and Zumba, spin, and water aerobics classes for adults — provide families with a wide variety of affordable fitness activities in a comfortable, community setting.

Fostering community through fitness: challenges, solutions
Designing for this range of activities meant that all spaces had to be flexible. So the challenge was to create each space in an efficient, flexible, and accessible manner. The gymnasium had to adapt easily to a fitness room, fitness rooms to children’s activity rooms, and the pool set up for swim lessons, lap swimmers, water aerobics classes, and even toddlers splashing and playing in the shallow water.

Fitness, like everything in our lives, has definite trends. Who ever heard of spin classes 15 years ago? And what happened to handball? We can expect those trends to change somewhat over the years, and designed accordingly.

We also wanted to visually connect families and youth to the many opportunities in the facility. Using the principles of universal design and clear spatial organization, we created a lobby space from which the remainder of the facility radiates. Families who enter the facility can see at a glance the spacious pool, climbing wall, a bar serving healthy smoothies and snacks, a game room, large fitness center, and more. Every element we integrated in the design, from the entry point to the placement of the gym and fitness centers, was designed to enforce the Y’s mission, and this was unique.

Marks Thomas / Towson YMCA

We have designed aquatic facilities as part of senior communities for many years, and realize what an important element they are for seniors. Recently, however, efforts have been made to create facilities not just with seniors but also with multiple generations in mind. At Charlestown Square, for instance, the new pool facility provides a warmer water environment, and multiple activity zones like lounge spaces, a play area for children, separate spas, and extensive outdoor spaces. Combining these spaces allows the facility to serve not just as a place to swim but also as a family gathering area.

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The sense of community that can be felt in spaces created and designed for exercise makes the idea of fitness more attractive, and allows physical activity to integrate more naturally into our everyday lives. Once it becomes a destination, it can function as an integral component of human interaction, and help push forward the Y’s community-building, socially sustainable mission.

Are you looking for an architect who can design with community (and your mission) in mind? Marks, Thomas Architects can help. Contact us to learn how.