The Right Furnishings Bring Park Space Together
Site furnishings are essential to any park. Picnic benches, tables and trash receptacles seem simple enough, but actually can give parks the cohesiveness that bring people together. Choosing the right materials and colors is especially important to ensure that you have the right balance for your site.
A wide variety of aesthetics are available for park sites, and often will have materials that complement one another. "Many customers want the materials used in their site elements to match with each other. If a picnic table is built using perforated steel, then a nearby trash receptacle or bench is often made using perforated steel also," said Bob Simonsen, marketing manager for a Cherokee, Iowa-based designer and manufacturer of park equipment. "This has become common enough, that if a customer requests a quote for site furniture using different materials, we will usually confirm the selection with that customer.
"Color choice is another aesthetic for most sites, from rustic trails to picnic shelters to streetscapes. Brown, green and cedar (tan) are popular color choices for trails, campsites and parks. Streetscapes, playgrounds and schools often select brighter colors," he added.
Mimi Marler, marketing manager for a company in Red Bud, Ill., that manufactures commercial recreation products including site furnishings, picnic tables and park benches, said "The aesthetics for park sites vary greatly across the country. They are about as different as the weather. Some parks have more of a modern feel, while others feel more traditional. Some parks are lush with greenery, while others may be in the middle of a concrete jungle. The natural aesthetic of a park is really shaped by the terrain. And it is always a good idea to try to choose your site furnishings in a way that complements this."
She added, "No matter how different park sites feel, they all have the same goal, and that is to bring people together from all walks of life, in an inviting, outdoor setting," explaining that her company has products to cater to every park site aesthetic.
Parks without a lot of green space have the challenge of trying to feel inviting. But adding pops of color to bring more life to a space is a great way to accomplish that. Marler's company offers 17 standard powder-coat colors, though just about any powder-coat color can be custom-ordered.
"If your park has a ton of shade trees and greenery, I would recommend more understated pieces to blend with the aesthetic," she said.
Matt Erickson, sales director for an Iowa-based company that designs and manufactures commercial-grade outdoor furniture and amenities, said "There are many variables with aesthetics. Some cities are looking for a clean look. Others are looking more for viability and longevity in their site furnishings."
Paul Hart, president of a furniture company in Bunnell, Fla., that specializes in park benches, picnic tables, pool furniture and more, noted that "The aesthetics of a well-designed park site are always going to be tied to its surrounding area and how well it caters to the community.
"If I visit a beach popular with tourists, I would expect to see a splash park for children perhaps with palm trees, sea creatures, etc. If the surrounding community is made up of more retired and local folks, I would expect a park that emphasizes relaxation, health and enjoying the natural beauty of the location," he said.
Material Pros and Cons
Depending on the materials you choose for your site, there are a few pros and cons to keep in mind.
For example, "Lumber is the least expensive material, and most readily available in most areas so replacement of damaged components is easier. But lumber does not last as long," Simonsen said. "Recycled plastic lumber will not rot and isn't susceptible to insects. It will last a very long time and comes in many colors. But it is more expensive, and usually not available from local stores for replacement."
In addition, "Coated expanded steel and perforated steel offer great strength, longevity and a variety of colors. The coated steel is protected from the weather and won't rust, as long as the coating is not vandalized. But this material is more expensive, and replacement components have to be purchased from the original manufacturer," he explained.
Similarly, Erickson pointed out that "Steel-coated furniture will last longer than other materials, i.e., wood, wrought iron," and that "there are different types of coated furniture that can withstand weather and outdoor elements. Some offer much better quality. The priority of consumers with outdoor furnishings is ROI."
Materials available for site furnishings are growing every day, Marler noted—"from thermoplastic-coated steel to recycled plastic to newer materials, such as thermally modified ash."
Powder-coated steel is a great option if you are looking for bright pops of color, she added. "It is very durable and offers a more high-end look. If you prefer a more natural look, there are tons of different wood options on the market, as well as recycled lumber that are great for enhancing outdoor environments."
What's more, Marler feels that "the most resilient finish for outdoor furnishings is thermoplastic-coated steel." She explained that the coating bonds to steel that has been heated and then allowed to cool, resulting in a gloss or textured finish—depending on the look you want to achieve. "The seal tight bond of the thermoplastic coating is more resistant to cutting and vandalism, and it does not fade due to harsh UV rays."
While most products on the market today are suitable for a number of environments, it's important to understand that there might be more maintenance required for certain types of material.
"As we know, with any furniture [that] we purchase whether indoor or outdoor, there is some maintenance required," Marler said. "Equipment should be checked for wear, loose hardware or vandalism at least every six months. Depending on the location of the equipment (i.e., high-use areas), it may need to be inspected more frequently. Damage caused by wear or vandalism can be major factors in injury-causing situations. If a part is broken or worn, it should be replaced immediately."
Hart stressed that there are some materials that are going to be more resistant to salt water and air, such as marine-grade polymers, resins, etc., while "other materials will excel at providing longevity and vandal resistance, such as concrete, [and] plastic-coated steel."
Noting the advantages and disadvantages of certain materials, Hart said the pros of concrete are that it is "heavy, durable, and will not clash with most other outdoor furniture," while the con is that it can be "difficult to rearrange." The pro of thermoplastic coated steel is that it is "durable, easy to clean/maintain, variety of color choices"; however, the con is that it's "easier to scratch/mar than concrete or other materials, [and] may rust if coating diminishes."
With the many furnishings that are available in a variety of materials, such as various metals, concrete, wood and recycled plastic, the "best choice for your site will depend on your needs," noted Geoffrey Munro, creative director at a company in Naperville, Ill., that specializes in park and recreation equipment.
For example, with metal furnishings, often made from aluminum and steel, make sure that you look at the "gauge of the metal used," he noted. "Lower gauges mean sturdier furnishings."
What's more, a variety of coating options are available for steel furnishings, such as powder-coated, galvanized or thermoplastic-coated.
Powder-coated steel is highly durable and "features a high-gloss paint-like appearance, giving you many color options," Munro said, adding that it features "exceptional corrosion resistance." In addition, "Thermoplastic coated steel also offers excellent corrosion protection." It also has many color options and "inhibits the growth of microorganisms," which makes it a "great choice for picnic tabletops."
With concrete, it's "versatile and durable," he said, adding that the weight of it makes it a great choice if you are concerned about theft or vandalism.
As park usage has increased substantially, it's important to take that into account when arranging your furnishings.
"The best design is one that will be used where people gather regularly. It can be an extension of a school cafeteria or under a picnic shelter at the local park," Marler said.
"When project planning, it is important to keep in mind how the patrons will be using the area, and walk through several scenarios. For example, will there be a lot of bike riders? If so, make sure you have adequate bike parking. Next to the bike parking, it would be great to have a bench in case someone needs to change their shoes, or take a break after a long ride," she said. "While they are sitting on the bench, they may need a snack. To help keep your park clean, you will want to make sure they have a trash receptacle nearby."
She added, "We see it all, from large concert venues to the simplest of park renovations. No matter how big or how small of a project, make sure you speak with an expert to help you plan."
When arranging furnishings, Hart suggested to "Place shade structures/umbrellas over playground equipment, picnic tables or commonly gathered areas for sun protection and reprieve." And, have "benches and trash receptacles available throughout the area and along trails for waste control and rest."
Munro said to consider "user comfort" when it comes to arranging furnishings. You have to consider, are there enough "park benches and picnic tables located in aesthetically pleasing and shaded settings?" In addition, if your site does not have enough trees, then "consider commercial-grade outdoor umbrellas to offer some protection from the sun."
Erickson added that "You want to have enough furnishings and amenities for the parks to be inviting. Consumers want to feel comfortable in parks. That is what keeps them coming back."
Preventing Damage, Vandalism
When it comes to vandalism and damage, industry experts concurred that it's very difficult to prevent.
"Unfortunately, all products that are used in public spaces are subject to misuse," Marler said. "The beauty of the thermoplastic-coated products is the relative ease of removing unwanted graffiti from the surface. We have found that the affected area can be sprayed with various penetrating fluids like WD-40 to dissolve the ink or paint without damaging the original finish. In general, these types of fixes can be done on site, but that may not be the case depending on the severity as well as the material of the product. Be sure to contact your supplier and they will be happy to walk you through the best solution for your circumstance."
Similarly, Erickson stressed that "Damages and vandalism are tough to prevent. Manufacturing with durable materials can prevent damages over the course of time. Vandalism seems to be an ongoing issue that all cities are navigating through."
To help get rid of graffiti, Hart said it can be "removed from thermoplastic using WD-40. Concrete furniture has a Permaclean finish to repel spray paint and makes it easier to pressure wash." In addition, he said to [use] "skateboard stoppers to prevent scraping and scuffs. Better yet, add a local skatepark in the community to encourage kids to gather there instead."
Munro explained that many of the products and site amenities that are on the market for parks and recreation are "engineered specifically for high-volume use in all-season spaces. The vandalism is a condition that is a part of that engineering equation."
He added, "Mounting the site amenities is a helpful deterrent to theft or movement. Most products can be surface-mounted with anchors and some are available to be in-ground-mounted, anchored in sub-grade concrete.
"Steel with a thermoplastic coating is very popular for the durability and the color options. It also can be wiped clean if spray-painted—and scratches can be repaired with a kit. Recycled plastic is also a popular choice that resists paint and scratches can be basically ironed away," he added. "Concrete is so heavy that it naturally deters theft, paint can be scrubbed off and it's almost indestructible. Wood has a beautiful natural aesthetic, but is not ideal if vandalism is of high concern." RM