Supplement Feature - April 2012
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Site Spectacular

Finding the Right Park Furnishings

By Rick Dandes

Budgets and Space: Bare Minimums

Budgets are very tight these days, but in any park, at the very least, you should have furnishings appropriate for seating, said Galletti. Even if you have only two benches they should be next to each other so as to encourage people to talk and linger.

When talking about the bare minimum number of furnishings, it does very much depend on the site. "In fact," said Hagstette, of the Buffalo Bayou Park Project, "we've been going through this exercise to decide on some final placements of various items like benches and bike racks. Buffalo Bayou Park is a very large space, 124 acres, which is used for passive recreation, hiking and biking, so the number of benches per acre is radically lower than it is at Discovery Green, also in Houston, which is a 12-acre destination park downtown. Discovery Green is very heavily used, especially on weekends during the summer. You have to look at the specific conditions and the anticipated usage. Just like every building isn't built to accommodate the same functions, with every park you have to look at the circumstances."

Like Hagstette, Ken Hughes, superintendent of parks, Norwalk, Conn., explained that when you're talking about bare minimum furnishings, buying decisions are highly dependent on site usage. "I would say benches, tables (umbrellas), litter/recycling receptacles, cigarette disposal units would be needed, at least. Obviously, a beach environment would have different needs than a dog park."

Another factor that needs to be taken into account is required maintenance.

Kathy Madden, an environmental designer with Project for Public Spaces, explained a brilliant concept that takes into account the use of furnishings—for either small or large public spaces—called triangulation. This means that a "combination of amenities—for example, a bench or another other place to sit, in either the sun or the shade—be located in close proximity to each other so that the activity of one builds off the activity of the other," she said.

Triangulation, when used as a technique for planning public spaces, means locating elements in a way that greatly increases the chances of activity occurring around them. The idea is to situate them so that the use of each builds off the other.

"In order to determine where the amenities should be located," she continued, the site should be thought of as a series of places, each having a specific function and specific activities that would go on there. The amenities that are provided reflect those activities.

"Generally we say that a site should be broken down into at least 10 places with sub-areas in each, and each sub-area should have 10 things to do within it," Madden suggested. "The activities can be as simple as sitting and waiting, reading, people watching, or eating. They don't need to be very active things. When this is understood and agreed upon by the people who are planning, managing and using the site, it is then quite simple to determine what types of amenities are needed and where they need to be located."

A Customized Look

"In my opinion," said Hughes, of the Norwalk park system, "one of the best ways to be unique is to standardize the look throughout your entire park system. Instead of keeping the same theme throughout one park, carry that theme through several. For us, this has created a sense of identity to the properties we manage."

You can also create a unique space through the use of custom pieces. A radius bench, for example, can create a sense of community and can be unique to that space, said Saner. "Use your imagination and work with a trusted site furnishings manufacturer to get a truly custom bench or trash receptacle."

Every park or site already is unique in some way; what makes it so is something that needs to be emphasized and highlighted. You can also learn a lot, Madden added, by "asking the existing or future users to evaluate the site. This can help you develop a program for how each part of the site can be used."

Galletti agreed. Local community members often know what their needs are and how to make their place unique. "But the unique look is not as important as activities and a look that will attract residents and users," she said. "It is the comfort and the sense of place that will attract people and the level of activities planned."