Feature Article - September 2007
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Special Accommodations

Meeting Special Needs with Shelters, Shade and Other Park Structures

By Stacy St. Clair

Shade structures have become popular additions at outdoor swimming pools and family aquatic facilities, as well as over playgrounds—especially in parts of the country where the sun can be relentless.

In a sports complex setting, cities often combine fabric and permanent pavilion-type structures where fabric works well at the fields themselves, with pavilions providing central meeting and gathering spots.

"I can't emphasize enough the importance of shade to us," Groves said of DreamCatcher's covered dugouts and bleachers. "We have 320 days a year of sunshine and over 120 days a year with temperatures over 100 degrees. Our great weather creates its own problems."

Indeed, the depletion of the earth's ozone is increasing our exposure to the sun's dangerous ultraviolet rays. With more than 1 million cases diagnosed each year, skin cancer currently ranks among the fastest-growing cancers in the United States. More than 10,000 people die from skin cancer each year, according to the American Cancer Society, and a baby born today is twice as likely to develop skin cancer as a child born 10 years ago. Research also shows that as few as two severe sunburns during childhood can double the chance of developing potentially deadly melanoma later in life.

With those staggering statistics in mind, progressive-minded recreation facility managers have made it a priority to protect the public—particularly children—from sun exposure.

Synthetic materials like polyethylene mesh are used in most fabric shade structures today, making them tear- and fade-resistant. More importantly, they're able to block out up to 96 percent of the sun's harmful UV rays. The latest materials also feature water resistance, while advances in engineering of the structures allow them to bear significant wind or even snow loads. In addition, they do something that many solid-roofed structures cannot: They breathe. Fabric is permeable, so hot air rises through it. It creates a movement of air that can reduce the temperatures beneath the structures by as much as 30 percent. So in addition to blocking UV rays, the structures help reduce the risk of heat stroke and other overheating-related ailments. They also can protect spectators from errant foul balls. In short, they make the games a fun (and healthy) experience for parents and grandparents, too.

"The parents really enjoy the sidelines because they're shaded," Groves said. "Some of these parents are the kids' caretakers 24x7. This is their chance to relax."