Everything In Its Place

Furnish Your Site the Right Way

When strolling through a park, you might not think that much about the bench you're sitting on, or the trash receptacle nearby, or the table that you use for a family picnic. But actually, a lot of thought can go into choosing those park furnishings.

Selecting the right materials for your park site "often comes down to location, location, location," said Bob Simonsen, marketing manager for an Iowa-based company that manufactures park products.

How to Choose the Right Materials


"Environmental features of different locations can favor one material over others," Simonsen said. "Damp and humid areas would be better served by recycled plastic or thermoplastic-coated steel components rather than lumber. But a hot, sunny location might use lumber, because steel and the dense plastic components can act like heat sinks making them uncomfortable to sit on."

What's more, "High elevation locations that receive lots of snow during the winter need special materials and designs built to withstand tons of snow load until the spring thaw," he added.

Geoffrey Munro, creative director at a Naperville, Ill.-based company that manufactures park and recreation equipment, said that nearly all of the products are engineered for high-volume use in all weather conditions.

"Steel is a very sturdy and malleable material that allows for dynamic designs," Munro said. "The downside is its susceptibility to corrosion—modern thermally applied plastic coating goes a long way to prevent corrosion and offer a wide variety of color options.

"Stainless steel is another way to finish steel to prevent corrosion, but as in the name, it 'stains less'. Galvanizing is another finish that coats the steel with zinc leaving a 'spangled' pattern that is varied depending upon the level of quality of the finishing process, some galvanizing results in a mirror-like shine, while others result in a matted light grayish tone," he said. "Aluminum is naturally corrosion-resistant, lightweight and can be engineered to be very sturdy in a wide variety of forms."


An option that has become popular for sustainability is recycled plastic. "It helps keep plastic out of landfills by repurposing the material," Munro said. "Depending upon color options, it has the look of wood, but does not require maintenance and is easy to repair cuts and gouges and is resistant to paint. It also does not rust or harbor mold, but it has a tendency to lose rigidity in overly hot or sunny environments. Extra reinforcement and bracing can go a long way in these types of environments … due to their rust-free nature they are popular for areas along the ocean and areas with a lot of precipitation and humidity."

Also, "Concrete will last a long time in just about any environment and only needs very minimal maintenance (occasional sealcoating). Concrete does employ steel rebar for reinforcement—if that steel gets exposed to the elements it can begin to rust. It is naturally vandal-proof due to its weight," he said. "They very rarely grow legs on their own. Concrete also works great for perimeter security."

Finally, "Wood has a classic natural look that is always inviting," he added. "Wood amenities are usually engineered with steel or concrete frames."

When choosing park furnishings, "You look for an attractive appearance, but there are two qualities that are equally important—strength and longevity," noted Emma Skalka, Hon. ASLA, vice president of sales and marketing for a Maryland-based company that specializes in site furnishings such as litter receptacles, benches and planters.


Her company's new collection "showcases beauty, strength and longevity to stunning effect. Constructed with ipe wood, one of the toughest hardwoods available, it's extremely resistant to decay, abrasion, insects and weather. This added strength protects against the elements and vandalism, while aging beautifully over time," she said.

"When measuring for quality in your site materials, take into account recycled content, wood species, thickness of the finish and weight," she added.

Mimi Marler, marketing manager for a company in Red Bud, Ill., that manufactures commercial recreation products, said with a wide range of products and materials designed to meet every outdoor amenity need, her company's "products come in a variety of materials including thermoplastic, powder coat, recycled plastic, wood and aluminum."

Marler explained that once the communities' needs are evaluated, her company proposes products within three main categories. For example, some products have a high-end feel and feature powder coating, while another collection features thermoplastic coating for lasting durability and classic design to meet traditional park aesthetics. Another collection features products with 100% recycled plastic. "These products contain recycled material, like your everyday milk jugs, and divert these products that would otherwise end up in a land fill to create beautiful, functional site furnishings," she said.

"Wood allows you to achieve a more natural look while maintaining the traditional park atmosphere, choose between untreated, pressure-treated or redwood stain. Aluminum is perfect for schools or athletic facilities, team benches and tables featuring aluminum planks with powder coated or hot dip galvanized frames," she said.

Choosing the Best Design

When it comes to selecting design elements for a park site, "This can depend on how you will let people use the available site amenities," Simonsen said. "Is it OK if the camper or picnicker moves the picnic table around the campsite or shelter? If 'yes,' then portable table and bench designs are available. If you prefer the furniture stays in one place, the embedded post or surface-mount frame designs are what you need.


"A permanent location," he said, "is usually required for campsite amenities such as grills and campfire rings. Most campgrounds don't want their customers moving fire rings around and burning in multiple locations. Potential theft is also a consideration. Picnic tables, benches, grills, campfire rings, trash receptacles and bike racks that can be permanently installed on site won't be subjected to theft."

Munro noted that "Most products have color samples that can be ordered from distributors prior to purchase to ensure color options [are] acceptable. Distributors do their best to represent the product accurately. If color sensitivity is a priority it's always best to see a sample in the environment it's going to be in."

In addition, "Budget always comes into play. If you don't see what you like on the shelf, there is always custom design, but it will inflate the budget," he said. "Local building codes may require certain specifications be met, especially when it comes to universal access (ADA guidelines). Space constraints also need to be factored in and volume of use. For trash receptacles, intervals of servicing may dictate the capacity required."

"There are three popular ways to install most amenities: portable use, surface mount and in-ground mount. Portable obviously offers freedom to adjust placement (although concrete may require extra muscle), surface mount typically use when the installation surface is pre-existing so the amenity can be bolted down. In-ground is where a section of the frame is inserted below grade (sometimes filled in with concrete) for ultimate permanence," Munro said.

Furnishings to Suit Your Needs

To decide on furnishings for a park site that best suit your needs, you have to "Consider the environmental conditions, volume of use, resources to maintain and aesthetics. Some amenities need to stand out and attract attention, while some are best when they blend in and almost disappear in their environment," Munro said.


Simonsen noted that "Almost all public facilities need to include some ADA-compliant wheelchair-accessible site features—picnic tables, benches, trash receptacles, even charcoal grills and campfire rings. How many people use your facilities at one time? You want to be sure to have plenty of trash receptacles nearby. People will use trash receptacles if they are within convenient reach. Seating is another consideration: Do you have enough benches in the area?"

Also consider, "What is your landscape theme? Playground areas and schools might want bright colors for children. Recycled plastic and coated steel components are available in many colors. Parks and campgrounds might prefer muted colors in the landscape," he added.

If there is a need to boost efficiencies, consider waste receptacles available with special added technology. "Through embedded sensors in each receptacle, [the technology] measures fill levels, temperatures, nearby foot traffic and countless other variables," Skalka said. "This real-time data is helping cities dramatically reduce wasted time, expenses and environmental impact by eliminating unnecessary collection runs."

Maintenance Tips

Any outdoor site amenity eventually will require maintenance. "But, you can minimize it," Simonsen said.


"For many steel components, we recommend the hot-dip-galvanized finish for maximum protection from the elements. These parts will never need to be painted," he said.

In addition, "thermoplastic-coated steel components are also very weatherproof as long as the coating is not violated. Recycled plastic is impervious to rot and insects," he said. "Coated steel and plastic parts can be washed off when required, but never need painting. The colors include a UV stabilizer to better withstand outdoor exposure."

Lumber components will require the most maintenance over time. "Treated lumber is better," Simonsen said, "but all lumber will be subjected to weather checking, sun fade and cracking caused by exposure. Untreated and treated lumber can be painted to slow down these weathering effects, but painting is labor-intensive."

Skalka said that "It's not easy being a piece of outdoor furniture that's expected to endure abuse from all kinds of hazards—baking sun, torrential rain, disrespectful pigeons, skateboarders and amateur graffiti artists—and still do it with style."

Her company's steel products, she said, are "coated with a polyester powder coating that averages 8 to 10 mils thick and is applied in-house to ensure the highest level of quality, providing a low-maintenance, high-durability protective layer.

"This," she said, "saves on labor, energy and material for replacements in the long run. Joints are sealed to prevent liquids getting into the areas where it is hard for the powder coating to adhere, while signature friction-eliminating hinges on our receptacle side-doors are composed of embedded precision stainless-steel pivot pins and oil-impregnated bronze bushings for reliable all-weather durability year after year.


"Best of all, to ensure longevity, just clean with non-pressured water or a damp rag regularly," she added.

While wood can look great, it "requires annual maintenance (application of stain/sealer) to maintain its like-new look and to prevent splinters and rotting," Munro said.

"Concrete maintains best when seal-coated annually, especially polished surfaces," he said. "Coated steel will last as long the lastic is virtually maintenance-free. Any scratches or cuts can be repaired by applying heats and smoothing the area. Aluminum might need to be washed once in a while to keep its like-new sparkle, but is for all intents and purposes maintenance-free."

While Marler said her company's products are highly durable and low-maintenance, she stressed that it is important to follow routine steps to "help protect your investment by extending the life of the products, manage potential risk and empower community pride with a great-looking outdoor space."

They comprise the following:

Installation: "A bad installation can derail any great product. During the installation process, please make note of safety warnings and follow installation instructions closely. Installation instructions include a specifications sheet which list every part used in the product and can make the requesting of replacement parts more seamless."


Frequency: "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."

Finishes and materials: "All equipment should be free of rust and should be repaired whenever necessary to deter further rusting and damage."

Hardware: "Proper maintenance of equipment requires regular tightening of all bolts, nuts and setscrews. All protruding bolts should be covered or cut off and finished smooth. Sharp edges on pipes should be capped or removed."

Modifications: "Adaptations or modifications to the product in the field could create a safety concern and can void the warranty."

Cleaning: "Products can be wiped down with a mild cleaner … or just soap and water. Graffiti can typically be removed by using a cleaner …" she said. "Regular maintenance is necessary in this and all park and recreational equipment to ensure the safety of the user." RM