Supplement Feature - April 2012
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Site Spectacular

Finding the Right Park Furnishings

By Rick Dandes

Smartly designed furnishings can have a huge impact on the way people use public spaces such as parks and public gardens. But for many financially strapped parks and recreation departments, functionality, durability and price are also key criteria when deciding upon the kind of materials to purchase, according to Guy Hagstette, project manager for the Buffalo Bayou Park Project in Houston.

"Your decision will almost certainly depend upon the park setting," he said. "If you are putting together a sculpture park it's one thing; if it's a heavily used park, it's quite another. You want your furnishings to be beautiful, but you also want them to be beautiful five or 10 years down the road. So the materials you use have to hold up to the weather and to abuse."

Not to worry: There are a variety of materials to suit most any requirement, added Todd Saner, president of a Mifflinown, Pennsylvania-based manufacturer of site furnishings.

At the same time, you want the materials to feel good and be comfortable for park users, Hagstette said. That's where procurement decisions can become difficult, because most people are attracted to wood, and there are many varieties of woods that don't hold up over the long haul. The ones that do tend to be pretty expensive.

"You're always trying to come up with the right balance." Hagstette noted. "The heat, of course, can cause the expansion and contraction of materials and the fading of paints. Here in Houston, you don't have the freeze and thaw cycle like you do in the north, which helps. My point is that you have to be looking at all those challenges."

Alessandra Galletti, a landscape architect with Project for Public Spaces, based in New York City, essentially agreed with Hagstette. "Amenities for a public park should be both durable and comfortable," she explained. "Wood is best for temperate climates. …But the wood should be sustainable, and if possible a recycled wood is preferable."

Many parks and recreation areas use wooden picnic tables, concrete picnic tables and plastic-coated or plastisol picnic tables and the environmentally friendly recycled plastic. In some cases, park officials prefer pressure-treated wood for its natural characteristics and low price.

Saner explained some of keys to deciding upon the right material. For example, steel components are zinc-rich epoxy primed prior to top coating, and test results have proven that a part coated with zinc-rich primer can outperform a part coated with only a polyester powder topcoat by at least 300 percent, he said.

"While zinc-rich primer increases the longevity of your site furnishings," Saner continued, "marine, costal areas and other harsh conditions, such as constant water from sprinklers could require alternatives such as hot dip galvanizing, aluminum or even stainless steel. In areas where intense sunlight and dry conditions prevail, recycled plastic may be a good solution."

Meanwhile, chairs and movable furniture are a good addition to any public (or private park) space, as people like moving the furniture at their leisure and stating their ownership, Galletti said. Picnic tables also can be movable.

Shade structures have become a really necessary amenity, and people are requesting shade more and more, she noted. "Trees, of course, are the best way to provide shade, but in a park there should also be pergolas and vines, umbrellas, a tensile structure on a playground or a park open shed."