A Place for Everything, Everything in Its Place
Furnishing Your Site Effectively
By Dave Ramont
If you find yourself sitting serenely on a park bench, taking in the surroundings, the last thing on your mind is probably the park bench. But there are people who have given a lot of thought to that bench: Is it plastic or concrete, wooden or steel? Does it have arm rests? Is it backless or slatted, flat or contoured? These days, manufacturers offer a myriad of options when it comes to public-space furnishings, and they're more focused than ever on having these amenities blend in seamlessly with their surroundings.
Austin Bell, product data manager for a North Aurora, Ill.-based manufacturer of site furnishings, said he has noticed a growth in design aesthetics over the years, with innovations in materials and manufacturing allowing contemporary design elements to be incorporated into traditionally utilitarian items. "Durability no longer requires tons of steel or concrete. Outdoor spaces can be more curated, and site amenities can be formed to fit the different themes without loss of function."
Geoffrey Munro, creative director for the same company, agrees. "Innovations have widened the breadth of designs and capabilities of site amenities to meet a greater demand of modern architecture and contemporary landscapes," he said.
Site furnishings can greatly enhance the park experience, said Susan Ross, director of marketing, and Jack Ogden, product development manager for a Batavia, Ill.-based site furnishings manufacturer. Waste receptacles and benches, they said, are a must. "What's a park without a bench? They provide people the opportunity to rest their weary feet, sit and watch the world go by. Benches encourage everyone to linger longer."
Other amenities also encourage longer park visits, they say, including shade structures, bike racks, pet waste stations and dog play equipment. And, "Outdoor message centers effectively publicize—and increase participation in—recreation programs and activities."
A Range of Styles & Materials
When choosing furniture for your home, the styles and choices can seem endless. And over the years, the number of options when choosing outdoor site furnishings has exploded as well. "Twenty years ago, our catalog was 48 pages; today it's 124," said Bob Simonsen, marketing manager for a Cherokee, Iowa-based manufacturer of site furnishings. He reports that all their product lines have expanded to meet the demand for more styles, materials and colors.
Victoria McCallum, marketing coordinator for a Mifflintown, Pa.-based site furnishing manufacturer, said that over the past 20 years they've noticed a transition from wood products to recycled plastic products. "Another change is the use of lighter, more contemporary design features—especially with chairs and especially in urban parks. With the advent of programmed parks, they afford a lot of flexibility."
With so many choices, are there favorites when it comes to materials? McCallum states that each material has its own benefits. "If you want a bench with a soft, natural feel, then you'll probably choose wood. If you value a bench that feels sturdy and can be repaired easily, then you'll probably choose steel. If you want a bench that's durable, colorful and uniform, then plastic might be your best bet."
Simonsen said that while recycled plastic products are still popular, they've seen a big increase in the demand for thermoplastic-coated steel in the bench, table and trash receptacle lines. "We think customers are trending toward product designs and materials that require less maintenance over time."
Of course, geographic location and weather conditions also play a role in selecting materials. For instance, high-humidity and salt-air environments can wreak havoc on steel products. "For these locations we recommend stainless steel with a thermoplastic-coated finish," Munro said. Most agreed that recycled plastic is also good for these coastal regions, though Munro cautions that prolonged exposure to hot sun can soften the material, causing it to warp and bow. He also says that concrete is fairly durable, and making sure the form is sealed prevents moisture from seeping in, which can be problematic in areas where it can freeze. "The water then expands and can cause cracks and chipping."
Munro added that steel products have the potential for solar gain, getting hot to the touch when left in direct sun. "Reducing the solid steel surface area and allowing more air to pass through, such as expanded or punched steel, tends to alleviate any issues related to temperature and allows the furniture to retain its structural integrity." Simonsen added that snow load-rated tables are available that withstand high-elevation snow loads of as much as 1,420 pounds per square foot.
New product innovations like this are always on the drawing table. Ross and Ogden are excited about a new line that's designed around the growing trend of mixed elements and materials. It includes benches and receptacles designed with contemporary steel frames, mixed with their premium recycled plastic lumber, which "have the look of high-end site furnishings that landscape architects look for, but at an affordable price."
They also offer a new wood-grain collection, with each product being constructed with long-lasting recycled plastic displaying the look and feel of natural wood. "These products showcase beautiful finishes with materials that are very new to the industry. The wood grain plastic lumber is extremely durable, and requires far less maintenance than wood."
Munro said that modern manufacturing techniques are yielding exciting design possibilities, with products featuring a more robust focus on aesthetics. He mentions a new line of products made from 100 percent recyclable aluminum that are contemporary and lightweight, but very durable. And soon they're going to unveil a new finishing process for these products. "It's a very cool textured finish that's similar to aged or crinkled paint. In gray tones, it has the look of aged stone or concrete."
Finding the Right Spot
While product manufacturers may advise customers on things like material and finish durability, they don't normally participate in design or product placement. That task typically falls to landscape architects, park designers, consultants and park staff. Oftentimes, a park's master plan will include recommendations for site amenities, or suggest a style or color scheme, according to Heidi Bringman, senior landscape architect at Minnesota-based LHB Corp. She said it's common practice to include a symbol with an associated label on a schematic design or construction document illustrating exact placement of where a site furnishing should be installed.
"Usually park furniture is chosen during the early part of construction document preparation," said Michelle Kelly, principal and landscape architect at Upland Design, based in Illinois. She added that design development combines site analysis information with the proposed walks and recreational space layout, and site furniture and other amenities are chosen, along with colors and finishes. "This is when the stage is really set to create a deeper look for a park with the site furnishings."
Bringman explained that furnishings are usually situated to supplement pedestrian circulation flows, and their placement is intuitive to the overall design. "Often we ask for community input at a public meeting or stakeholder gathering to gauge what type of site amenities are needed or desired, and then have a discussion about where is the best placement for certain items."
Tables and benches are often placed near building entrances and along walks. Wayfinding signs should be placed at key intersections with considerations taken for angle-of-sun or other weather patterns, and picnic areas with trash receptacles are generally situated close to recreational land uses or near natural resources.
Setting a Standard
Kelly relates how they sometimes suggest that agencies consider using standard park furniture for most of their sites. "Choosing and specifying a standard bench, litter receptacle, picnic table and bike rack can be very helpful for the maintenance staff and shows a unifying look across the park system." Though she said there's always room for exceptions, using the Chicago Park District as an example. They have a standard set of site furnishings, but deviate at some sites such as Maggie Daly Park, where the fun "log" benches in part of the site help to define them as different from other themes in the same park.
Many parks departments do have guidelines for site furnishings—some rather general, some very specific. The Scottsdale, Ariz., guidelines state that one system of amenities should be selected for a park, in order to establish consistency in color and style. The predominant color selection should be similar to the natural tones of the desert, so as not to dominate the existing beauty of the natural areas and views. Accent colors should be the colors of the desert in bloom. Other guidelines state that furniture should be a secondary park element, and shouldn't clutter or dominate. Benches should be oriented to facilitate social interaction. A source of drinking for pets should be included, etc.
The Los Angeles County Park Furnishings guidelines give very specific directions for different amenities, including location, sizes and how they're to be anchored. Some of the many guidelines include: provide benches designed with a center armrest or center break to discourage patron sleeping; provide one barbecue grill for every two picnic tables; all drinking fountains shall be vandal-resistant.
What about vandalism—how can parks and product manufacturers minimize this problem? Bell said site amenity designs tend to focus less on vandal prevention and more on remediation. Most products incorporate mounting fixtures to prevent theft or movement, and coatings are designed to be impermeable and easily repaired or cleaned. "This keeps vandals' artwork as a surface stain, which usually can be removed with cleaning solutions and a little elbow grease." He added that scratches and carvings in recycled plastic furniture can be repaired on-site with sandpaper and a heat gun.
Munro added that furnishings with slats or expanded or perforated metal tend not to be targets as the surface doesn't provide a large canvas.
McCallum believes that vandalism is primarily a security issue, and that proper location, lighting and surveillance are the greatest deterrent. From a product standpoint, she agrees that recycled plastic is more graffiti-resistant due to its closed-cell physical properties, and powder coatings are available in anti-graffiti formulations for an upcharge.
Inclusive products are becoming more prevalent. Bringman said it's fantastic to see so many choices for universally designed site elements these days. "Some favorites that I've used in my designs include sensory playscapes, raised planting beds for elderly citizens, and ADA-accessible rolling kayak launches."
Simonsen said that wheelchair-accessible products have played a big part in their expanding product line, adding that, "Almost every picnic table we make has an accessible version to it. We also make accessible benches, charcoal grills, campfire rings and camping lantern poles."
Ross and Ogden said their trash and recycling receptacles are also ADA compliant, while Munro said the majority of their products are also available in configurations that allow for universal access. And McCallum pointed out that "Many people envision accessible tables as tables with a missing seat or an extra-long diving board top, which do a great job. But there are other products on the market that offer accessibility without standing out so much."
Even with the wide array of products available, some customers still prefer the customizable route. "We provide custom and fabrication options to meet the needs of designers, architects, and project planners whose requirements aren't always met by off-the-shelf site furnishings," McCallum said. One can choose from their selection of materials or simply customize with plaques and lettering options.
Simonsen said they do a lot of custom signage for customers using plaques, cut steel, or engraved letters. "We also make a Sign Bench, which has a backrest frame to hold a large custom sign that can be changed when needed."
Outdoor benches are a perfect way to remember loved ones or showcase local organizations, according to Ross and Ogden, and they offer several styles of personalized and memorial benches. "Customers decide the exact text that appears on the benches, which is either engraved onto the bench or cast into a heavy bronze plaque." They also offer turnkey memorial and donor bench programs for communities, where organizations can create a simple and profitable program with residents supporting the cost of the benches.
The Campbell River, British Columbia Parks Department offers a Park Furniture Donation program, and interested parties can schedule a park/trail site visit with a parks staff member to select a location. They then provide their plaque wording—which must be approved by the Parks Department—and payment: A bench is $2,500, a table is $3,000. This includes the park furniture, the plaque, installation, maintenance and repair for 15 years. After that, the donor has the option to renew for an additional 10 years for a $500 maintenance fee.
Let's take a look at some of the most widely-used furnishings—things we're so used to seeing in public spaces that we barely notice them. Of course, there are hundreds of varieties of benches and picnic tables, some with shade options. "Shade is seeing widespread adaptation and is being applied in inventive ways," explained Munro.
Many trash receptacle options are available, as are lid options: drive-thru, push-door, funnel, dome, swing-top and pitch-in lid. Some containers are animal-proof, while others can feature advertising. Ross and Ogden point out that parks and facilities are becoming more eco-conscious, increasing the need for recycling receptacles. "Various communities recycle in different ways, and it's important to give custom options for recycling containers."
Simonsen's company offers a food storage locker designed for campgrounds in areas where bears are a natural part of the environment.
Cigarette receptacles and ash urns are commonplace. "Since smoking has moved more and more to the outdoors, cigarette receptacles are designed for high-volume use with less maintenance," Munro said.
Pet waste receptacles and litter bag dispensers are also appreciated additions.
Bicycles are everywhere, and so are bike racks, including grid racks, loop racks, circular racks, inverted 'U'-shaped racks, bollard racks and designer racks. "To encourage biking, communities are adding bike repair stations on bike trails, at parks and on city streets," said Ross and Ogden. These typically include a bike mount, air pump and retractable tools. Skateboard security racks are also available.
When thirsty, a drinking fountain is a welcome sight. Choose from freeze-resistant, dual-height, wall-mounted and vandal-resistant—with many featuring pet fountains, along with leash hooks, as well as bottle fillers. There are hand-wash stations and hand sanitizer dispenser stands.
Grills are a staple—Munro's company invented the ubiquitous park-grill featuring a swivel design, so users can turn away from prevailing winds, preventing fires. Grills can be multi-level, with optional covers, shelves and warming baskets. Hot ash receptacles and lantern posts can be handy.
Fire rings are popular, too—some have optional cooking grates. "I love the addition of a fire ring as part of park programming. The fire ring and its seating at Peck Farm Park in Geneva, Ill., is perfect for storytelling and group gatherings," Kelly said.
Signs and message centers are common components. There are single or double-sided versions, or three-sided kiosks. Many varieties of planters are available—some with seats or benches. And bollards, speed bumps, and car-stops provide safety and traffic control.
All of the above products come in a myriad of finishes and colors, shapes and sizes, made from many different materials. And that brings us back to the common bench—a product that helps inspire community, according to Munro. "Utilizing benches provides a great chance for the public to see or be seen, to relax and enjoy the landscape, maybe even make a new friend or two."
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