Find Your Fit
Site Furnishings to Suit Every Space
Furniture is an important part of our living spaces, and choosing that furniture means considering many factors. It has to be functional, of course, but it also reflects who we are, our personal style and taste. But there's also budget and space to consider, and just how much use and abuse the furniture will need to withstand. How many couches do we sit on before we decide which one to purchase?
These same types of considerations come into play when choosing furnishings for public spaces like parks, playgrounds, campgrounds and other sites. Choices need to be functional and practical, while also presenting a certain aesthetic. Of course, a particular site's needs will help dictate these decisions. Is the site active, where people gather to picnic or play or watch sports? Is the site along a walking path, or maybe in a quiet area reserved for reflection in nature? What about climate, and vandalism or maintenance concerns?
"There are many factors to account for when selecting site furnishings for park sites," said Jason Wiesemann, a senior landscape architect with the City of Sacramento's Department of Youth, Parks & Community Enrichment. "Park type (neighborhood, community or regional), frequency of events or park usage, hours of operation of the park, visibility to the park, historic park sites vs. modern park sites, publicly maintained vs. HOA (Homeowners Association) or special maintenance district."
Using these criteria, Wiesemann said they select the best fit for each site, preferring for each park to have its own identity. "We have some historic parks where we try to maintain the historic feel, using wood or concrete," he said. "We don't want every park in our system to look exactly the same. However, we do try to keep consistency when we can. There is benefit to buying bulk replacement items to replace equipment as it needs to be replaced. We try not to limit ourselves to certain product types, but durability and product longevity are high on the list."
There are many site amenities to consider, including benches and tables, drinking fountains, trash and recycling receptacles, planters, bike racks, message centers, shade solutions and more. There are more specialized items like grills and fire rings, mobile bleachers and portable stages, pet amenities, bollards and crowd and traffic control products. More ADA-compliant and accessible furnishings are becoming available, such as wheelchair-accessible tables, picnic tables and drinking fountains.
"The site context and recreation amenities offered play a key role in selection," said Andy Howard, design principal at Hitchcock Design Group, a landscape planning and architecture firm with offices in Illinois, Indiana and Texas. He listed some of the site characteristics that might steer these decisions: urban park setting vs. natural park setting; orientation (facing south/west) and sun exposure vs. shaded area; traditional park style vs. more contemporary; park amenities within the park (i.e., shelters or sports areas that may require certain types of site furnishings); park capacity—anticipated amount of users at different times of the day. "The ability to customize a site furnishing with a logo or name that gives a branding identity to a family of site furnishings is sometimes wanted for larger park projects," added Howard.
While clients do make the final decisions, Howard said they will suggest material choices or recommend more durable site furnishings for vandal-prone areas. "Longevity, warranties, ease of installation (surface mount vs. in-ground), durability, the ability to customize and price points are all considered when making recommendations to clients."
There are many product materials and finishes to choose from, all with pros and cons, including fiberglass, thermoplastic, vinyl, concrete, recycled plastic, aluminum and various metals. Wood can be treated or untreated, and some wood choices, like Balau hardwood or Ipe, are very durable and resistant to elements, insects and warping.
Bob Simonsen is the marketing manager for an Iowa-based manufacturing company that's been making park, street and campsite furnishings for 60 years. He explained that a particular site—as well as the local environment—should have influence on the materials and equipment features.
"In facilities near water, especially salt water, we recommend a hot dip galvanized finish for steel frame components," said Simonsen, explaining how the galvanizing process coats the inside and outside of the frame pipes, providing a durable finish against natural weather elements. He added that recycled plastic and thermoplastic-coated steel components also hold up well in humid areas, but pointed out that some customers in desert areas are concerned about steel components becoming too hot when exposed to the sun for long periods. "Aluminum is a great material because it doesn't rust and is lightweight, but it doesn't lend itself to as many product applications."
"Beyond some basic, obvious environmental issues, the material selection often comes down to personal preferences," Simonsen added. "Some customers want to use recycled plastic to demonstrate recycling efforts. Some customers prefer perforated steel (round holes) to expanded steel (diamond-shaped holes) because of the appearance."
Materials and finish selections can also have a dramatic impact on maintenance requirements, according to Simonsen. "Recycled plastic components, thermoplastic-coated steel components, aluminum and the hot dip galvanized frame finish will eliminate the need for painting." He added that while these materials can be more expensive, they can reduce labor requirements over the long haul.
Many products can be cleaned effectively with soap and water, which can also restore the luster of metal amenities with thermoplastic coatings. Certain materials can also be power washed, and harsh chemical graffiti removers won't harm plastic lumber.
Vandalism can be a problem for everyone, even when the products are designed for constant exposure to the public and natural elements. "Almost anything—even concrete—can be damaged if the vandal is determined enough," Simonsen said. "Site elements that have a permanent embedded installation can reduce theft. Steel components are harder to vandalize vs. wood or plastic, but the finish can still be damaged. Hot dip galvanized frame finishes might be a good choice for vandal-prone sites."
Wiesemann pointed out that with more than 200 parks in their system, they can't afford to be constantly replacing damaged equipment. "We have found that the steel strap equipment is very durable, but on the downside it gets very hot in the summer months here in Sacramento. Also concrete, which is not always the most attractive, is durable and vandalism is easily cleaned off. We have not had much luck with recycled plastic products or plastic-coated due to Sacramento heat and vandalism."
In Minnesota, the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board (MPRB) is an independently elected, semi-autonomous body responsible for governing, maintaining and developing the Minneapolis park system. The 6,800-acre system consists of 180 park properties, 55 miles of parkways, more than 100 miles of walking and biking paths, 22 lakes and 12 formal gardens, as well as golf courses and recreation centers.
Jon Duesman, the construction project manager for MPRB, explained how they've worked the past few years to develop material and product standards. Since their park system is so diverse, they know that not every style or type of amenity will work for every location, so they strive to find a balance. "We in the Planning Department tend to think beauty/aesthetic first, whereas our Trades and Maintenance staff think longevity and function. Therefore, we worked collaboratively with them to gain insight and feedback into finding out their concerns and what it might take for them to repair or replace something when it breaks."
Duesman said they settled on different furnishing styles to provide variety in their parks, while also leaning toward stronger materials over things that might look a bit more ornate. "Surprisingly, there are lots of great manufacturers offering products that are both durable and attractive, so we don't have to compromise aesthetics for durability." He said they do tend to use higher-end products and different styles for their regional parks since they tend to draw visitors from all over. "We also have facilities like the Sculpture Garden where the amenities there are certainly some of the nicest we have."
Duesman pointed out that oftentimes, higher-end products have to be repaired sooner or the replacement parts come from outside the United States, so in neighborhood parks they stick with tried-and-true products. "Many times our neighborhood parks see the harder use, so finding more durable products for those parks makes perfect sense to us."
"A goal is to fix something as soon as possible once it breaks, so having materials readily available helps with that," Duesman added, explaining that while they thought composite wood was better than natural wood, their carpenters preferred natural wood because they could easily get the materials locally. "A lot of what we have is stainless steel, and that holds up the best over time, with no rusting. We commonly go with a standard non-painted product because we know things that are painted will eventually be scratched or vandalized and then we have to repaint things. We know that some touch-up will be required, so we looked to standardize certain colors so that our paint shop doesn't have to keep 15 different colors on hand."
Since some Minneapolis park sites tend to use many of the same products, like shade structures at pools, Duesman said they'll deal with the same vendor for those items. "Many of our maintenance staff will move around our system routinely, so keeping things consistent for them makes the most sense. That way they know how to maintain something or winterize something because it was the same at the park they were just at."
For those entities looking for specialized furnishings, some manufacturers do make custom products. Simonsen's company will do custom metal fabrication, and he said they also have the capability to custom-fabricate components for other manufacturers upon request. "We do quite a bit of custom work for a variety of customers," said Simonsen. "There must be some volume involved to make the custom design and production affordable. Being a small company, we can react quickly to a customer's request. We are currently designing some custom campfire rings for a state DNR project."
According to Duesman, they haven't placed many fire rings on their sites, though he said their new Outdoor Recreation Center has been utilizing them on their outdoor patio. However, grills have remained popular. "Grills are really big for us. We see them in our regional parks as well as our neighborhood parks. Many families like to take advantage of them during the summer months. They get quite busy and it can be quite competitive trying to get one on a weekend."
If you're supplying grills, you may want to consider having hot ash receptacles strategically placed. Cigarette receptacles—often called snuffers—or trash receptacles with ash urns are also important. The nonprofit group Keep America Beautiful tells us that the number-one source of litter by far is discarded cigarettes. Where pets are allowed, dog waste receptacles are also a great way to keep your facility clean, with many of them supplying the bags as well.
In fact, there are many sizes and styles of trash containers and lids, and facilities can keep tabs on which ones are constantly full and which ones aren't, moving them around accordingly to accommodate the most frequented areas. Many manufacturers offer receptacles as part of their different collections, which might also include benches, tables or planters, so that a consistent style can be achieved throughout a site. More facilities are also supplying recycling receptacles, though some have reported mixed results. "We've tried to include recycling receptacles at our parks, however we have found that most people will treat them as a trash receptacle," said Wiesemann.
As far as other eco-friendly efforts or products, Howard said they strive to use more "green" or recycled materials when possible. "We always recommend recycling containers and bike racks at connections to adjacent trail systems and public walks."
In fact, as more people are getting around on bicycles, having ample bike racks available only encourages this trend. "The great California weather and the flat terrain in the valley is ideal for biking," said Wiesemann. "With the new addition of bike rentals throughout the city, the need for additional bike racks has become a priority."
Duesman agrees that non-motorized transportation has grown in popularity. "We look to not only add more bike racks, but we also look to install bike service stations where it might make sense for people to maintain and repair their bikes."
He added that they're also working to accommodate bike share organizations, providing places in some of their parks where people can temporarily dock and rent out their bike share bikes. "We are now starting to see electric scooters around the city, so I imagine we will need to start considering how to possibly provide areas for those if people come to a park with one."
Drinking fountains are another site staple, with a myriad of styles available, whether wall-mounted or freestanding. Some feature pet fountains or dog bowl attachments, which are very popular, as well as bottle fillers. There are also outdoor shower components and foot washes, ideal for sites near beaches or lakes, as well as campsites.
Other campsite products include lantern poles and food storage lockers. Simonsen's company markets lockers and trash and recycling containers that are certified bear-resistant. He described working with the U.S. Forest Service many years ago to design picnic tables that could withstand high-elevation snow loads. "We used the same expanded steel top and seats, but we built a unique substructure to create tables that can withstand up to 1,420 pounds per square foot without failure. These tables are also popular with customers who aren't in snow load areas but want a stronger table for locations subject to hard public exposure," said Simonsen.
Howard said they welcome feedback from the public regarding existing site furnishings, and Duesman said they'll often engage the public during the early phases of a project. "We always like to hear what they prefer or don't like seeing so we can see if there's a better product or better way to design something."
He explained that they present options that have already been vetted internally, to discover what a particular neighborhood might want in their park. "We don't want to be too restrictive, but at the same time we want to make sure we don't end up with 50 different types of benches in our system," said Duesman.
And what about current trends with regard to site furnishings? "For a number of years we've seen a trend toward more color choices for site elements, especially picnic tables and benches," said Simonsen, explaining how customers are coordinating the colors of products to the surrounding landscape. "Earth tones are popular in camps and parks. But brighter colors might be selected for schools, playgrounds and other public areas."
Solar charging tables are available now, and Howard said they've been getting more requests for phone charging stations in seating, tables and plaza areas. "Having Wi-Fi in urban park locations and using solar-powered lighting for parks and shelter lights is increasing. Providing QR codes on signage for using a smart phone to learn more about the park site or park programming is increasing."
So next time you're relaxing on a park bench or getting a cool drink from a drinking fountain, remember that a lot of thought went into selecting that component. Just like when you sat on all those couches before you brought home the winner.