Feature Article - April 2007
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Special Supplement: Complete Guide to Park Components & Play Areas

A Place for Everyone

By Emily Tipping


Once you've got a plan in place, you can decide how to utilize the space. One of the most critical aspects of any park is providing people with a place to sit. But there's more than one way to rest your feet. You need to provide spaces where people can gather, like picnic areas, shelters, groupings of benches, fire pits and game tables. But you also need to provide more secluded places where people can sit and read a book or just contemplate the natural beauty that surrounds them.

"I think simplicity is the key, and flexibility," Figurski said. "If the space can do more than one thing, if people can gather in it in more than one way—in small groups and in large groups—it's going to be more successful. For example, where two or three people can own that spot without feeling exposed, that really helps. Yet you want them to have a clear view of something going on from that spot."

Calpino at JJR is currently working on a large picnic facility for Urbana, Ill., and flexibility is key here as well. "They want to be able to have a small event one day, and then the next day be able to tweak the area to accommodate a larger group," he said, "so being able to move tables around depending on the need is important."

The five picnic shelters at the site will be organized in clusters. "If this grove has three shelters, they can have three individual picnics going on one day, and one big picnic at the same site the next day," Calpino said. "The park district can diversify the programming or can change what they charge to maximize their revenue capability from those sites."

Once you have your benches and picnic tables, you don't just want to slap them on the site. The Project for Public Spaces asserts that accessible, comfortable and well-maintained seating must be located in the right places to make a park successful.

Carefully consider the placement. Bench seating, for example, will be more effective in groups that are angled toward one another to encourage interaction, rather than lined up in a row. Also, don't make people sit with their backs to the action. Place seating so that people's backs feel supported and secure, not exposed to a vast expanse of space behind them. You can do this by placing benches in front of a wall or a grouping of trees.

You'll probably know if you got it wrong. People usually aren't shy about grabbing a moveable bench or picnic table and dragging it where they want to sit.

"Setting is important," Calpino said. "In an urban area, you might concentrate on a cool view. You have to provide the seating where people want to go. And they'll tell you where they want to go—they'll just move the tables."

Tables and benches should be both grouped as well as placed on their own to encourage contemplation or conversation. Give people options, and they won't have to move things around—potentially damaging your site furnishings in the process.

Consider all of the different reasons people want to sit, and then provide seating suited to those purposes.

People watching is a key activity for many park visitors. Provide seating near playgrounds so moms and dads can keep an eye on their kids at play. Give skaters a reason to show off by placing benches near skateparks for onlookers to watch the action. A bench with a water fountain nearby also is a good idea for playgrounds as well as skateparks, so kids can stop and get a drink on a hot summer day.

In pedestrian-friendly locations like waterfronts and plazas, benches should be placed out of the way of walkers, but close enough so people can stop, rest and watch to see who else might be walking by.

Places where a lot of activity is taking place, or where people are engaged in exercise, are also good places to provide a "rest stop." Park entries and exits are logical places for a person to rest, since many people walk to the park or stop on their way out to wait for a ride.

Provide seating near trail heads, and offer an occasional place to sit along a trail. People tire out as they walk, especially on hilly terrain or warmer days, and well-placed seating can give them a place not just to catch their breath, but also to stop and contemplate their surroundings. Another good place for benches is by a pond or lake where people might want to stop and feed ducks or other waterfowl.

Anywhere people gather to eat will require special consideration. Obviously you'll want to provide picnic tables near a concession area, but it's also wise to provide separate picnic areas for people who are bringing their own lunch. Combining different site furnishings is an important consideration for these types of locations. A picnic area should be close to a restroom. You should also place water fountains and possibly a grill at the site. The city of Sacramento recommends placing rest areas along trails and including bike racks, drinking fountains, shade and picnic facilities as part of those areas.

The Project for Public Spaces also recommends placing seating in relation to other amenities, including concessions, shelters, kiosks, telephones, waste receptacles, water fountains and bathrooms. The organization explains, "Clustering amenities attracts people and activity and helps to increase people's level of social comfort, which in turn, helps to facilitate spontaneous social interactions and activities."

In Urbana, Calpino is planning the picnic groves to combine five picnic shelters with toilets and other supportive amenities.

"You typically want an attractive setting," he said. "You also want to have the proper support—a shelter, tables and nearby toilets. And you want to be able to not have a half-mile walk from the car—you need a certain amount of access."

Combining different site components is also important, Calpino said. Don't look at your park as a series of separate spaces.