Supplement Feature - April 2008
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Room to Live

Outfitting Your Parks to Provide Space for All

By Emily Tipping


Formal parks and gardens and historic districts in urban areas call for much different considerations than a neighborhood park with a simple picnic shelter and ballfields. More formal areas call for more formal designs in classic styles or modern looks.

For a park in a historic district, you'll need to select your site furnishings carefully. Many suppliers offer classic, historic looks made from modern materials, but you also might consider custom designs. On the other hand, if you're furnishing a site in a modern, downtown area, contemporary styles and clean lines might fit the bill better.

If you have multiple styles of parks to furnish, find a supplier that offers a wide variety of designs. This way, you might be able to unify your park system's look by selecting the same paint color and materials for instance, while choosing styles that suit each individual site.

The PPS suggests clustering amenities within your park to help attract people and activity, as well as to increase people's comfort, which can in turn "facilitate spontaneous social interactions and activities." Provide plenty of places to sit and interact, and consider placing that seating in relation to other park amenities, such as next to a playground, near a concession stand, within shelters, next to water fountains, outside of bathrooms and so on. Whatever you do, make sure that the seating gives people a wide range of choices for places to sit down and rest their feet. Consider offering places to sit:

  • Alone or with others
  • In the sun or in the shade
  • Close to or far from various activities
  • To enjoy a pleasant view
  • To rest along walking paths
  • To wait for others using amenities such as restrooms
  • And so on

When considering furnishings like benches and picnic tables, you want to select durable materials that can withstand the weather conditions—and potential vandalism—unique to your site. An oceanfront park will need to take blowing saltwater into consideration, a park in the Midwest will need to consider strong winds and blowing snow, and a park in sunny Texas will want to look for coatings that are resistant to fading from UV rays.

PPS considers wood to be the most comfortable and durable material out there, and it is still the preferred choice of many parks and recreation professionals. Other options include concrete, iron, steel, fiberglass and plastic. For a rundown of the pros and cons of these materials, see "Material Matters" on page 28.

Another consideration for more formal public spaces is the inclusion of a water feature—from ponds and lakes to beautiful fountains. In "The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces," William H. Whyte writes, "Water is another fine element, and designers are doing creative things with it. New plazas and parks provide water in all sorts of forms: waterfalls, waterwalls, rapids, sluiceways, tranquil pools, water tunnels, meandering brooks and fountains of all kinds."

But he adds that you should remember that people like to touch water. They'll enjoy putting their feet in the fountain to cool off on a hot summer day. They may even want to climb in and splash about.

"It's not right to put water before people and then keep them away from it," Whyte writes. "But this is what has been happening across the country. Pools and fountains are installed, then immediately posted with signs admonishing people not to touch."

At Millennium Park, visitors have multiple opportunities to touch and feel the water. The Crown Fountain, designed by Spanish artist Jaume Plensa, invites people to splash as the two 50-foot glass block towers at each end of a shallow reflecting pool reflect video images of faces representing a broad spectrum of Chicago citizens. And in the parks' Lurie Garden, a boardwalk floats over stepped pools, where visitors can get intimate with the flowing water.