Feature Article - April 2006
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Special Supplement: A Complete Guide to Site Furnishings & Park Components

Planning the right park components

By Stacy St. Clair


It's no secret that many recreation managers consider site furnishings an afterthought, the last mundane task in an otherwise exciting project. But here's the real truth: The right combination of tables, benches and chairs help make the impossible possible.

Many saw proof of this magic during Super Bowl XL in Detroit, where the newly opened Campus Martius shined like a community diamond during the week. The public square was the focal point for many events, helping to shed a better light on the much-maligned Motor City.

The project began nearly six years ago, when a group called Detroit 300 decided to honor the city's tercentennial. The civic organization aimed to revitalize the blighted downtown and decided to make the park the centerpiece of its effort.

The group raised $25 million to create the downtown square. They wanted a place that would be more than just beautiful: They wanted it to be a lively, energetic place where people would interact with one another.

A little history, after Detroit's fire of 1805, President Thomas Jefferson tapped Judge Augustus Woodward to oversee the layout of new streets, squares and lots with the assistance of Canada's best surveyors. The judged used instruments and astronomical devices to determine the city's "true north." He called this the Point of Origin and made it the center from which Detroit's coordinate system was created.

The judge's plans also called for the site to be used as a public square, but it never happened. The site was used as a drill site and gathering place for Michigan residents to march off to war, but it remained a vacant lot for nearly 200 years.

Bench Marks

Ten places to put benches:

  • Playgrounds
  • Entrances
  • Exits
  • Nearby bus or public transportation spots
  • Trail heads
  • Areas conducive to waterfowl feedings
  • Near fountains
  • Near concession vendors
  • At lookouts and overviews
  • Near historical markers

Six ways to get a bigger bang for your benches:

1. Provide shade. Benches are not just for people who want to bask in the sun. Take advantage of leafy canopies or buy table umbrellas so everyone can enjoy the furnishings.

2. Be wary of placing wooden benches in a grassy or natural setting. Without diligent care, they're susceptible to rot. Consider a more durable material.

3. Resist the temptation to put benches far off the beaten path. In addition to making it difficult for handicap patrons to reach, it also causes a mowing nightmare and can be a graffiti magnet.

4. Place benches along cement or paved paths. It creates a connection to the path and reduces mowing problems. It also spares visitors from having to trek through the mud after a heavy rain.

5. To deter skateboarders from riding on your benches and scratching them, install armrests. They'll thwart the free ride.

6. Seatbacks provide comfort. If you need to limit the amount of time people spend sitting around, purchase backless benches.