Feature Article - April 2002
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A Walk in the Park

Essential elements of modern park design and components

By Kelli Anderson

Design 101
This skate park in St. Charles, Ill., sees a lot of action.

Melding the needs of the many into the one facility means following some basic design rules of thumb. Considerations of adequate off-street parking, comfort facilities like restrooms, shade for hot August days, water fountains, attractive landscaping venues, welcoming entrances, safe equipment, secure surroundings, comfortable benches, trash receptacles, and separating the park by activity and age groups are among the most important.

Even for the most simple of tot-lots, an attractive entrance goes a long way to making it a welcoming site with the use of well placed flowers, shrubs and attractive signage. Benches in shaded areas, well situated within easy access to playing children makes for a more comfortable area for caretakers.

For larger parks with multiple uses, or regional parks, adequate parking is a must. But creatively connecting one community park to another doesn't always have to mean using a combustion engine. One emerging design trend is to develop greenways from park to park to offer alternative forms of transportation and linear connects. Bikers and walkers gain more territory, and fewer trips in the car are necessary, reducing carbon monoxide emissions and saving fuel.

No matter what the current trend, however, addressing the visual component of a park is always a sure thing. When you combine the best that landscapes have to offer with the best that a playground element offers and add comfortable amenities, the result is a park experience that appeals to everyone.

And let's not forget transitional spaces. In multi-use parks where various features are stationed throughout, paying attention to the landscaping and aesthetics of the transitional space enhances not only the overall look of the park but adds a greater element of continuity of the facility.

The matrix

Once the major components of a facility have been determined, a good designer will be sure to consider how those components relate to one another and will arrange them by such criteria as activity level or age grouping. For Purciarello, this process uses what they have coined a "matrix" in which his team graphically lays out the park elements on a grid with an A and B axis to develop concepts of component relationships on a site. Senior-citizen areas will be placed near the passive areas of the park. Basketball and skate parks should be kept at a distance from playgrounds. Playgrounds and splash play areas relate well and are kept together. Thinking through the age usage and activity level of park components keeps the peaceful scenes peaceful, the kiddie locales safe for the kiddies, and the high-energy sports of the tweens, teens and more serious athletes, well, high-energy.

Green fees

Then there's the issue of how the park will benefit the community financially. A dog park, for example, shouldn't be placed near a residential area—being next to a "barking lot" doesn't do great things for property values. Providing a park with attractive and multifaceted features, on the other hand, is a residential plus.

"The biggest issue is living across from a park," Purciarello says. "You want it to be an asset, not a liability. If it's a very congested park, it won't be good for property values. So how do you do it? Have stuff available that people really want: aesthetics, appropriate security, and have it well lit to avoid the turnoff of loiterers hanging out there."

From picnic tables to play areas, good design begins
with all the essential elementsin Millennium Park.

People want to feel secure and safe and for larger parks, which can mean providing a local presence in the washroom or providing an aid to help with injuries.

Not only does a park benefit a community financially when it is well designed, but it can also generate some meager revenues for itself. Increasingly, parks are using fees as management tools to regulate the more popular features of their facility.

In the case of Millennium Park in Homewood-Flossmoor, the splash play portion of the park (a facility that also has paths, playgrounds, picnic shelters and soccer fields) was in such demand that it forced the park to rethink its management strategies.

The solution was twofold: regulate the times of day the splash play area would be on and charge fees for larger groups such as the church and day-care groups that had been previously bringing out their many children and overwhelming the facility. The fees charged don't earn a profit for the park but do help to offset maintenance costs since such groups generate more trash, and the water pH has to be checked more frequently.

"There is a trend toward recreation and park districts looking to generate some revenue to cover some elements of maintenance costs," Brusseau says, "things like mini-golf, rental picnic shelters for groups or reserving a water playground."