Feature Article - April 2002
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A Walk in the Park

Essential elements of modern park design and components

By Kelli Anderson

Better by design

Once the needs of the community have been identified, getting down the nuts-and-bolts of designing a space is best achieved in the hands of experts.


"You don't draft your own will—don't design your own park," says Joseph Brusseau of Brusseau Design Group, Ltd. with offices in Schaumburg, Ill., and Wildwood, Mo. "The No. 1 biggest mistake people make is not hiring the right people. They just use the vendors. It's shortchanging your public."

Once the elements of a park have been decided by the community or private facility, a planner then puts all the pieces into a creative, well-functioning whole.

In the days immediately following ADA regulations to increase park safety and reduce litigation, park designers and park component manufacturers made a hard-right turn toward safety, but parks became too safe, according to Jim DeRosa, superintendent of Homewood-Flossmoor Park District.

"Parks were no fun," he says. "They were so afraid of litigation that creativity went away."

Dan Purciarello, deputy director of planning and development of the Chicago Park District, agrees.

"What we discovered was that the companies weren't up to speed," Purciarello says. "Ramps went up here and there. A surface changed here and there. They did what was acceptable by the minimum of standards. But now the companies have had time to catch up and creativity is back. Park elements can be more than add-on. The whole playground has changed. Fun and safe are no longer mutually exclusive; park designs can be fun for everyone."

Creativity is key. Instead of just modifying traditional play equipment for wheelchair accessibility, designing has become multidimensional. It's designing with more tactile and sound-generating devices for the sight and hearing impaired. It's adding interactive whimsy. Patriots Park, for example, in Homewood-Flossmoor, Ill., is nearing completion with a price tag of $1.1 million and is considered a signature piece for the Brusseau Design Group, Ltd.

Although named for the park's former use as an Army installation site, the park is actually designed around a circus theme. A big-top tent shades the preschool play area; elaborate signage like "Don't Feed the Lions" posts its warning to the climbers in their cage-like structure; the rubber surfacing is stamped with the indented footprints of lions, elephants and clowns, which, when stepped on, generate their roars, trumpets and laughter through nearby ballard pipes implanted with microchips. Creativity, even in smaller parks, goes a long way to overcoming a limited budget.

Not just for kids anymore
The splash play area is a popular spot at Millennium
Park in Homewood-Flossmoor, Ill.

Creativity also means thinking outside the sandbox crowd.

"You have to provide activities for every age," Brusseau says. "I could go to the park by myself when I was 6, 7 or 8 with my buddies. I'm seeing a lot more moms. We try to involve them in the play. Talk tubes include benches so they can integrate fun for all ages. There's changes with more designs for pre-adolescents like skate parks and bike parks—which are a much needed activity for those too old for playgrounds and too young to drive."

Regional parks, usually multi-use parks designed around a central feature, have found a successful example in the Ogden Park Regional Playground project, completed in October 1998, and recipient of the Illinois Chapter American Society of Landscape Architect Merit Award in 2000. The 3.5-acre park is part of a larger historical park designed by the Olmsted Brothers (designers of Central Park in New York City). The Afro-American population around the park had historically been without safe or modern park facilities, which the planners and designers of the regional playground project intended to remedy.

The focal point of the park is its pavilion and carnival-style carousel surrounded by shade-covered benches. Playgrounds for a variety of age groups, a splash play interactive area, outdoor classrooms used for day-camp programs, whimsical Alice-in-Wonderland-type precast chairs in an area for readers, and open-air theater describe some of the attractions for young and old.