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

As the city's 300th birthday approached, Detroit 300 wanted to embrace Woodward's vision and develop a town legacy. They tapped Indiana-based Rundell Ernstberger Associates to transform a series of asphalt lots into a new square.

Advocates envisioned the park's unique and central location on Detroit's main street—Woodward Avenue—as the critical foundation from which the real revitalization would take hold, connect and spread to other downtown activity centers. But it wouldn't be easy, especially in Detroit, where decay and disinterest had become the hallmarks of its downtown.

Working with the Project for Public Spaces, it would take landscape architects nearly six years to fully realize—and then exceed—Woodward's vision.

"There were times when you say to yourself, 'What am I doing here?'" architect Dean Rundell says. "But the end result made it worth it."

The firm created a park unlike anything Detroit had ever seen. It was designed to be used year-round, offering concerts during the warmer months and ice skating throughout the winter. During Super Bowl week, it hosted the highly praised Motown Winter Blast.

The square boasts several amenities such as an ice rink, Au Bon Pain café and wireless Internet access. All three elements embrace the principles promoted by the Project for Public Spaces by encouraging people to assemble, interact and socialize.

For the park's centerpiece, Rundell installed a year-round fountain with more than 100 jets. A raised central plinth contains jets that can shoot water in excess of 100 feet into the air while water shimmers and cascades down granite walls into the basin below. Water also cascades down perimeter steps while jets arc in from the corners.

During the holidays, the city's annual Christmas tree is placed in the center of the fountain while water cascades down from it. By making it an operational focal point in all seasons, Rundell eliminated the barren, blighted feel created by an unused fountain in the winter.

Elementary, My Dear

With a little imagination, site furnishings can serve a multitude of purposes.

They can offer rest to the weary. They can add color to a drab area. They can promote eco-friendliness. And, in at least one case, they can be combined to provide a safe haven for children.

A few years ago, Sawmills Elementary School in Granite Falls, N.C., had a serious problem. There wasn't a turn-in lane in front of the school.

When the final bell rang, parents created a dangerous traffic nightmare searching for their children. To remedy the problem, the principal pushed all their outdoor benches together to create one giant bus stop.

"We decided to buy enough benches so that the children could sit and wait for their parents to pick them up by grade level," says Alisa Bumgarner, Sawmills administrative assistant. "For example, the kindergartners all sit together at the front of the line of benches because they are dismissed first."

The decision immediately made the area safer for children, keeping them organized and away from the street. The school was so pleased with the super-sized bench that administrators purchased four more after the first year to make it even longer.

"It is also a lot safer and easier for the kids because you don't have them running all over the place, and they have a place to sit," Bumgarner says. "They seem to like it a lot as well."

Parents are also thrilled with the new system. They now can pick up their kids without worrying about a child darting into the street or tying up traffic as they search for their own.

"The parents seem to really like it a lot," Bumgarner says. "They know exactly where to go to pick up their kids, depending on what grade they are in, and there is no more holding up traffic. It is much better organized."

In addition to remedying the traffic problem, the new benches also cured a longtime vandalism headache. For years, skaters had been scratching the school's site furnishings with their boards.

The new super-bench's design fixed that.

"We put handles around our new benches so that there would be no skateboarding," Bumgarner says.