Site Spectacular

Finding the Right Park Furnishings

By Rick Dandes

Smartly designed furnishings can have a huge impact on the way people use public spaces such as parks and public gardens. But for many financially strapped parks and recreation departments, functionality, durability and price are also key criteria when deciding upon the kind of materials to purchase, according to Guy Hagstette, project manager for the Buffalo Bayou Park Project in Houston.

"Your decision will almost certainly depend upon the park setting," he said. "If you are putting together a sculpture park it's one thing; if it's a heavily used park, it's quite another. You want your furnishings to be beautiful, but you also want them to be beautiful five or 10 years down the road. So the materials you use have to hold up to the weather and to abuse."

Not to worry: There are a variety of materials to suit most any requirement, added Todd Saner, president of a Mifflinown, Pennsylvania-based manufacturer of site furnishings.

At the same time, you want the materials to feel good and be comfortable for park users, Hagstette said. That's where procurement decisions can become difficult, because most people are attracted to wood, and there are many varieties of woods that don't hold up over the long haul. The ones that do tend to be pretty expensive.

"You're always trying to come up with the right balance." Hagstette noted. "The heat, of course, can cause the expansion and contraction of materials and the fading of paints. Here in Houston, you don't have the freeze and thaw cycle like you do in the north, which helps. My point is that you have to be looking at all those challenges."

Alessandra Galletti, a landscape architect with Project for Public Spaces, based in New York City, essentially agreed with Hagstette. "Amenities for a public park should be both durable and comfortable," she explained. "Wood is best for temperate climates. …But the wood should be sustainable, and if possible a recycled wood is preferable."

Many parks and recreation areas use wooden picnic tables, concrete picnic tables and plastic-coated or plastisol picnic tables and the environmentally friendly recycled plastic. In some cases, park officials prefer pressure-treated wood for its natural characteristics and low price.

Saner explained some of keys to deciding upon the right material. For example, steel components are zinc-rich epoxy primed prior to top coating, and test results have proven that a part coated with zinc-rich primer can outperform a part coated with only a polyester powder topcoat by at least 300 percent, he said.

"While zinc-rich primer increases the longevity of your site furnishings," Saner continued, "marine, costal areas and other harsh conditions, such as constant water from sprinklers could require alternatives such as hot dip galvanizing, aluminum or even stainless steel. In areas where intense sunlight and dry conditions prevail, recycled plastic may be a good solution."

Meanwhile, chairs and movable furniture are a good addition to any public (or private park) space, as people like moving the furniture at their leisure and stating their ownership, Galletti said. Picnic tables also can be movable.

Shade structures have become a really necessary amenity, and people are requesting shade more and more, she noted. "Trees, of course, are the best way to provide shade, but in a park there should also be pergolas and vines, umbrellas, a tensile structure on a playground or a park open shed."

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."

Maintenance Issues

A critical part of any park project is not only what kinds of furnishings are appropriate and affordable, but also how to maintain them once they are set in place.

"I've been involved in two park projects," Hagstette said. "In both, we had to come to terms with the maintenance budget and the maintenance plan before our private donors were willing to sign on to provide the private funding. So, I think it's best to have that figured out early on and that you know the scenario you are dealing with as you make decisions about benches, fountains, trash receptacles and just about anything else. Because if you are not going to have the money to maintain things, that should be a huge factor in your decision-making."

Maintenance costs are determined largely by the quality and features of the material initially installed, explained Mike Elmore, product manager of a Tulsa, Oklahoma-based fence manufacturer. Cost of installation, amortized over the expected life cycle (how long is the product expected to last) should be looked at, he said. "Choosing proven products that are currently installed in other locations for extended periods of time and that have documented performance, should be number one on the list of parameters for product selection. Choosing products that are suitable for the intended purpose is equally critical."

Once installed, a simple, regular maintenance program is a smart way to protect your investment, Saner explained. "Cleaning and inspecting should start at the time that the products are installed, ensuring that construction materials such as concrete, paint and any other foreign materials are removed."

The best method of cleaning is by regularly washing off your furnishings with a solution of warm water and a non-abrasive, pH-neutral detergent solution. Also, any scratched areas should be touched up immediately. Wood slats over time will weather to a rustic grey and can be very attractive, however if this is not the appearance that you are looking for you will need to regularly apply a clear wood preservative to maintain the new wood appearance.

"This would be the same method used to maintain a wood deck," Saner said. "Maintenance schedules will vary anywhere from once a month to every six months depending on your environment."

Madden, of the Project for Public Spaces, has altogether another perspective on maintenance. She suggested working to establish a sense of ownership by the users—both from the outside and staff.

If you've broken the larger site into sub-sites, Madden said, ask the "stakeholders" around each place to evaluate it, come up with recommendations for how each would be used (the activities that would take place within each place), and ideally state how they could be involved.

"This develops a sense of ownership, and because of that, furnishings are maintained," she said. "An example of such a stakeholder is a chess club, who could take responsibility for the area where people play chess; they could do the programming for that area and would also make sure that it was well used and maintained. Clearly, they would have a vested interest in doing this well."

Don't Break the Bank

Everyone is facing a budget crunch these days, Hughes said. In Norwalk, "we have had some luck with sponsorship programs, where a bench donation will get the donor a bench with a plaque. If you have the manpower, some fixes on furnishings can be done in-house. Our carpenter just renovated all of our picnic tables. A quick coat of paint, and they look like new at a fraction of the cost. We recently purchased some concrete refinishing kits to address wear issues on some concrete tables."

Hagstette, in Houston, noted that with the situation in Washington, D.C., all bets are off when it comes to grants. "But if the park is popular," he said, "I would think that re-sold benches could make you some money. We did that at Discovery Green. We sold 20 at $4,500 apiece. That's a classic way to raise some funds, which we used to buy other benches. You can also try to get money from individuals, asking them to make charitable donations. You could offer some type of sponsorship to companies that are interested in having their brand or their name in the park and be seen as a good citizen."

Hagstette, however, said his group had to decline one company that wanted to give them all the trash receptacles—with their name on it. "We decided that was not a good idea," he said.

"The projects I've been involved in have been privately funded," Hagstette continued. "Whether it's benches, lawns or garden areas—whatever it may be you're thinking about—trying to identify individuals, foundations and companies in the area that might be interested in having their name associated with it is the way to go. It's worked pretty well for us. Parks are becoming a more popular civic initiative in Houston, and local individuals and organizations are willing to give bigger dollar amounts to help fund them."

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