If You Build It

Welcome the Community Outside with Site Furnishings


One good thing that came out of 2020 was the fact that so many more people got outside to visit parks, campgrounds and other greenspaces since entertainment and exercise options were so limited. At the North Carolina Art Museum in Raleigh, landscape supervisor Lauren Barry shared that they had twice the number of visitors to their Museum Park in the spring of 2020 compared to the same time in 2019, though the museum was closed.

"What we learned is that parks and rec services are essential to our communities, because they were actually overwhelmed with people going out and using parks and trails after restrictions were lifted," said Mick Massey, a senior associate at architecture firm Barker Rinker Seacat.

As these spaces experienced more visitors, the importance of site furnishings became even more evident. Tables, benches and other seating can create places to sit and reflect, socialize, spectate or enjoy a meal. They can be strategically placed to encourage gathering in certain areas, or quiet time in others. Trash and recycling receptacles, as well as ash urns and pet waste collection centers, encourage visitors to keep environments clean. Bike amenities promote sustainability and make spaces accessible for more visitors. Bollards can define perimeters and keep people safe. Planters add beauty, while grills and fire rings encourage gatherings. Signs can inform, and drinking fountains and shade amenities can provide comfort and increase lengths of stay.


Site furnishings bring functionality and offer opportunities for social interaction, as well as shaping the identity of a space and creating orientation. There are many considerations when choosing site products and how they'll be situated: Who do you hope to draw to the site, and how will these amenities help attract visitors? Is it a neighborhood park, a destination park or a streetscape where people will eat lunch or wait for a bus? Is the space appropriate for quiet reflection or fitness, sports and recreation activities? Will public gatherings like art shows or farmers markets take place there, and what might pedestrian foot traffic look like? And it's important to consider things like views, privacy and sun patterns when deciding on seating layouts.

Oftentimes, planners will consider nearby building designs or aspects of the area's natural setting when selecting furnishings. Shape, color, texture and material can help furnishings complement the surroundings. "Color choices have become very important to customers, and it seems we add new colors frequently," said Bob Simonsen, marketing manager for a Cherokee, Iowa-based manufacturer of park, street and campsite products. "Colorful recycled plastic and thermoplastic-coated steel products are popular."

George Blevins, sales manager for a Dunkirk, Md.-based manufacturer of site furnishings, said that aesthetics can certainly play a role in material selection. "For example, an all steel bench may work well for a streetscape, but a wooden bench—which may appear a little warmer—may be preferred for a park."


Furnishings should be considered early in project designs, as with other architectural design elements. Therefore it's important for designers, planners and suppliers to work together at the outset. "We often work with specifiers during the planning stages of a project to help them with plans for their clients and give them all the product information they may need, as well as custom renderings when requested," said Blevins, explaining how they maintain relationships with designers and landscape architects, participating in various organizations like the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA). The ASLA website lists several continuing education sessions focused on site furnishings, including "Site Furniture Selection & Placement" and "Site Furnishings: Connecting People to the Landscape."

Climate and geography should be considered when selecting materials, and Blevins said they strive to design for all types of environments and weather. He explained how they use an extra-thick powder coating on their products to help protect against rusting, as well as act as an insulator to keep benches from getting too hot. "However, we recommend that coastal areas have the products hot dip galvanized for extra protection from the salt water and sand." In this process, a layer of molten zinc is added to the steel, preventing rust for up to 70 years, according to Blevins. "We can offer powder coating on top of the galvanizing to finish the product." Additionally, he said that places with dry, arid climates typically stay away from wood, and may decide to go with steel or recycled plastic instead.

Simonsen agreed that locations near lakes or oceans are better served with galvanized steel frames, or recycled plastic or coated steel components. "Stainless steel charcoal grills and campfire rings are good choices for beach areas where the humidity and salt air can accelerate the corrosion of steel."


He also pointed out that cost is a factor. "Recycled plastic and coated steel products are more expensive to buy initially, but require less maintenance so may be less costly to own. Wood products are the lowest cost to buy, but may require more maintenance such as water sealing or painting over time. The cost/benefit analysis is something each customer must consider."

Simonsen said wood is still a popular material choice. "We sell many bench and picnic table frame kits only—no seat/back/top materials. These benches and tables are then built with lumber purchased from a local source. Since wood is so available, it's easy to get a replacement board when one is damaged."

If a customer would like to match their furnishings, there are many collections available. They might be modern or traditional, elegant or subtle, urban or nature-inspired. "We find this is becoming more common, especially with streetscape applications," said Simonsen, explaining that it's common to match benches or tables with trash receptacles.

Blevins said that with their collections, the goal is to give end users the ability to create a cohesive look. "We try to offer a full range of products within each family of site furnishings, but depending on the collections, products can be mixed and matched as well. We also don't retire products very often, so a city can feel comfortable using a certain product today, knowing they'll be able to match it years from now."


Many furnishings are wheelchair-accessible, an important consideration. Tables come in sizes for adults and children, round, square or rectangular, portable or stationary with optional umbrellas. Benches come in straight and curved sections; they could even encircle a tree or make serpentine configurations. They could be backless, have optional armrests or skateboard guards. Sign benches feature custom, replaceable signs for advertising. "Custom plaques, engraving and steel-cut letters in benches are popular features," said Simonsen. "Benches used as a memorial to a loved one are very common. We have a number of park agency customers buying memorial benches with money provided by a donor."

Trash receptacles come in many sizes and styles, including double and triple models often used for recycling. "Our receptacle designs offer the option for many styles of interchangeable lids. So the same receptacle can be used for collecting trash or recyclables based on the lid choice," said Simonsen.

Blevins said he's seen more and more venues using recycling containers, and in addition to utilizing different lids and decals, some customers like to use a different powder coating color for recycling, oftentimes blue.

To help organizations streamline their maintenance, Blevins' firm offers a system that utilizes sensing technology via sensors located in litter receptacles and lids. "The system automatically monitors the fill levels of all containers, taking measurements at set intervals—e.g., hourly or every 15 minutes—and then reports that data to the operations team. There are fully customizable alerts that can notify whoever is responsible for servicing the containers. You can also call up a list of exactly which containers require collection—ones that are 90% full or more, for example—and dispatch collection crews accordingly," said Blevins. Customers pay a monthly subscription fee for the service.


Blevins explained how the routing system provides an optimized route, "ensuring waste collection trucks don't have to spend any unnecessary time driving to containers that don't need servicing, greatly reducing the amount of emissions produced in the process." With an eye on eco-friendliness, an upcoming environmental sensor can also track data on air quality, odor levels, noise pollution, pedestrian activity and changes within the local climate.

The program can save on collection expenses while reducing fuel costs, manpower, vehicle maintenance costs and carbon footprints. The technology has been in the field for nearly five years, according to Blevins, who said that more than 100 organizations—including parks and rec departments, business improvement districts, universities, neighborhood parks and municipalities are utilizing the system. "Pittsburgh is the largest, with over 1,300 smart containers."

In 2016, the city of Pittsburgh sought to reduce inefficiencies in their trash collection process, as well as maintain cleaner streets. They implemented a staggered rollout of 200 litter receptacles utilizing the data-driven sensing technology, and three years later they'd added over 1,000 more. Data gathered from the program showed that on any given day, an average of only 13% of the containers reached a 90%-full threshold. The stats also reflected which containers were over-used and under-used, so crews could adjust accordingly. "As a result of our utilizing the smart litter cans, we reduced the amount of people collecting litter by about two-thirds by condensing the responsibility of collecting street litter cans into one central crew of about eight people," said Matthew Jacob, senior enterprise applications minister with the Department of Innovation and Performance in Pittsburgh. "As a result, our other Public Works divisions that had been responsible for litter can collection are able to reallocate resources to other work."


According to Jacob, it made sense to utilize Blevins' company when starting the new collection program, since lots of their containers had been purchased in the past and were still in use. "Since our receptacles are built with longevity in mind, it's sometimes the case that even 10- or 15-year-old containers are still in good shape and don't require replacement," said Blevins. "In those situations, you can easily retrofit new (sensor)-enabled smart lids, which are swapped out for the old lids."

As far as any issues with the technology and the hardware or software, Jacob said things have gone pretty smoothly. "We've had a handful of sensors that have malfunctioned that we returned, but out of nearly 1,300 sensors that's to be expected. We also have cans that get damaged, tampered with or set on fire—which the sensors will alert us to when that happens—but that's also to be expected with any public property in the right-of-way." He explained that Pittsburgh's topography can be challenging for the GPS technology that is used to map the can locations, but the manufacturer has worked closely with them to address these issues.


Considering wages and equipment and fuel costs, it's been estimated that the program can save Pittsburgh more than $1.5 million per year. But Jacob points out that this is tough to pinpoint, since the manpower has actually been shifted to other jobs, and trucks and equipment are still being used in other tasks. But he does believe that the cost and effort to implement the technology has been well worth it. And the city is considering expanding the program to other areas, including larger parks and trails, as they've found benefits with using the sensors in one of their large parks already. Jacob also reported that many other municipalities have inquired about the program. "I think a lot of cities could benefit from using the technology either in a city-wide fashion like we've done or by using it in targeted areas where they're likely to see the most gain in efficiency."


When selecting products for outdoor spaces, installation is important to consider, with options including surface mount, in-ground mount and post mount, although some venues find moveable furniture to be more adaptable. And maintenance is a big consideration, as site furnishings must withstand exposure to the elements as well as heavy use by the public and potential vandalism. Therefore, the availability of replacement parts should be factored in.

Blevins said that it's important to plan ahead with regard to maintenance. "Scheduling and budgeting for preventive maintenance—wiping down the products, clearing debris, touching up nicks and scratches, etc.—is a good way to help make the products last longer and look good as well."

It's also important to remember that saving a few dollars up front may result in higher repair or replacement costs in the future. "If a city, park, etc., wants something that will last a long time without major maintenance requirements, they should order with quality and durability in mind."

Creating a schedule for inspection and maintenance is helpful, along with establishing a detailed checklist for products that need to be cleaned and maintained. Document who is responsible, as well as a sign-off process. Some general maintenance considerations include checking fasteners, bolts, screws and other parts that can work loose, and checking for any missing hardware. Any parts that require lubrication should be done regularly and according to specifications. Any weld joints that are cracked or broken should be fixed. Repair loose seats, legs, armrests, planks, braces, frames, etc.


Galvanized finishes are more resistant to scratching and rusting than painted finishes, but painted frames are popular because they come in many colors. If paint is chipped or scratched, the area should be cleaned, sanded and repainted. Thermoplastic-coated steel can also be subject to rusting if high heat or vandals deface the coating, and manufacturers should be able to supply touch-up paint or thermoplastic repair kits. Aluminum is not affected by weather, insects, rusting or rotting, and can be kept clean with water and detergent. In fact, all furnishings should be kept clean and free of grime and grease, and manufacturers can recommend appropriate cleaning products.

Recycled plastics are impervious to weather and insects and can be regularly washed. Several graffiti removers are on the market, and while harsh removers typically won't harm plastic, it's important to wash off any residue. Pressure washing with a detergent added is effective on dirt and markings, but with plastic lumber it's wise to start with the washer tip far away and gradually move closer to avoid gouging. If there's a carving in the plastic, heat can be applied with a small torch and the surface smoothed over with a putty knife.

When it comes to wood products, different species react differently to sunlight, temperatures, moisture and insects. Pressure-treated wood is stronger than untreated. In general, most lumber should be regularly water-sealed or painted for protection, but first the wood should be sanded. Wood cleaner can remove any buildup, grime or grease. Look for splintering, which can be repaired by sanding to a smooth touch or replacing.


When discussing what's new with regard to site furnishings, Blevins pointed out how the COVID situation has created unknowns, and seems to be affecting the industry. "For example, with the need for social distancing, some places are using shorter benches, but adding more of them. So where you might have seen one or two six-foot benches you might now see a handful of four-foot benches. Other things resulting from COVID like increased outdoor dining, the need to redesign an area on the fly (i.e., lighter weight furnishings), and more people using an area in general (so additional seating, bike racks and/or receptacles) are all playing a role as well. As we work with landscape architects and designers, we're learning that they're starting to change how they design for the future." RM