Feature Article - October 2005
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Stunning Shelters

Planning and protecting outdoor structures

By Stacy St. Clair

From the moment Capt. von Trapp professed his love to the free-spirited Maria, gazebos have enjoyed a magical reputation. Society embraced them as romantic sanctuaries, places so enchanting an emotionally crippled naval officer could find the strength to profess his love to a flighty Austrian nun.

Gazebos, however, can be more than just a lovers' retreat or a pretty park ornament. Their purposes extend way beyond that of a graffiti magnet or a shelter in which to sing about being 16 going on 17.

Progressive recreation managers now are finding more creative uses and reasons for their outdoor structures. They rightly view shelters as an opportunity to protect patrons, expand programming, create an iconic location and, in some cases, make money. From arbors and gazebos to pergolas and picnic shelters—whether they be wood, metal, composite or fabric—well-thought-out structures can prove to be a sage investment.

It's no exaggeration to say that outdoor shelters can help save lives. They're invaluable partners in the fight against skin cancer.

Fortunately, recreation managers nationwide have recognized the benefit of providing a respite from the sun. Industry experts report a boom in shade element sales in recent years, a spike they attribute to studies detailing the effects sun damage.

Skin cancer currently ranks as the fastest growing cancer in the United States. Research shows as few as two severe burns during childhood can double the chances of developing often-deadly melanoma later in life.

More than 1 million Americans develop basal cell carcinoma each year, according to the American Academy of Dermatology. Though it's the least dangerous form of the disease, it must be treated to prevent skin deterioration and disfiguration.

As early as 1981, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission recommended playgrounds be shaded to protect children from harmful ultraviolet radiation. Proving shade is even more critical at youth-oriented facilities because 80 percent of a person's lifetime sun damage is done before the age of 18, according to studies by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Such information has prompted recreation managers to reevaluate their parks. In many cases, they have added gazebos, awnings and other coverings as a way to protect patrons from the sun.

The tradition gazebos and picnic shelters offer a familiar, aesthetically pleasing way to provide shade. Several parks and playgrounds, however, have begun taking a more vibrant approach.

Facilities throughout the country have opted for colorful permanent shade structures to shield their patrons.

In addition to blocking the sun, they often give the facility a facelift.

Likewise, the structures have worked well at aquatic facilities. Many managers say their patrons and staff expect a certain level of protection.

"Looking from a facility perspective, if we didn't offer this, people might not come back because they wouldn't be as comfortable," says Roland Harp of Hurricane Harbor waterpark in Arlington, Texas. "Also, I would look at what is being done for staff in terms of sun protection."

In addition to sun protection, outdoor structures also can foster a sense of community. Parks increasingly have used gazebos, pergolas and shelters as a way of honoring their local spirit.