Feature Article - April 2006
Find a printable version here

Special Supplement: A Complete Guide to Site Furnishings & Park Components

Planning the right park components

By Stacy St. Clair


The Project for Public Spaces (PPS), which has helped communities plan parks worldwide for more than 30 years, offers a series of steps on how to turn any place around. And, the truth is, it's a lot easier than it may seem at first.

"It's hard to design a space that will not attract people," sociologist and PPS inspiration William H. Whyte once said. "What is remarkable is how often this has been accomplished."

The first step is to identify the talent within your community. In each town, there are people who understand the needs and wants of local residents. Obtaining this information at the beginning of the process will help prevent future headaches.

If you plan to turn an under-used space into a vital place, the right sight furnishings must be introduced to make people feel welcome. Select benches, chairs and tables that encourage people to spend long periods of time in an area without having to go elsewhere to have their needs met.

The best way to accomplish this is to think of your park as a series of spaces rather than one massive recreation opportunity.

"A good park should have at least 10 separate places," Madden says.

For example, if you want your park to have a playground component, you must consider that area's needs. In addition to being close to the parking lot to make it easier for kids and care-givers to reach it, there also should be picnic tables, benches for parents to sit and trash cans.

There also should be fountains that both parents and children can use, as well as a shade element to protect children from harmful ultraviolet rays.

"You need to ask yourself what's going on there now and how you can improve it," Madden says.

Madden and other PPS experts recommend triangulation, which Whyte defined as "the process by which some external stimulus provides a linkage between strangers as if they knew each other." In a public space, the selection and arrangement of site furnishings can put the process in motion. For example, if a bench, trash receptacle and a recycling bin are placed with no connection to each other, they may receive limited use. But stick them next to a hot-dog stand, and they will bring people together.

On a broader level, Madden says, if a new playground is placed next to a children's library and food kiosk, more activity will occur than if these facilities were located separately.

"We're trying to teach this view all over the world," Madden says. "Triangulation is the best way to encourage activity in a public space."

Quick Quiz

Is your picnic table wheelchair-accessible? Take the following quiz. If you answer "no" to any of the questions, you might need rethink your park's accessibility.

1. Does the table's knee space allow a minimum of 27 inches in height, 30 inches in width and 19 inches in depth?

2. Does the toe clearance have a minimum 9-inch height and extend an additional 5-inch minimum from the knee clearance?

3. Is the clear floor space a minimum of 30 inches by 48 inches, with one fully unobstructed side connected to an outdoor recreation route?

4. Does the table clearance have a minimum 36 inches of clear floor or ground space surrounding the usable portion of the table, measured from the seat?