A Walk in the Park

Essential elements of modern park design and components

By Kelli Anderson

The Chicago Park District wanted to create a major
regional playground in Ogden Park.

Tot-lots. Skate parks. Splash play parks. Regional parks. Bike parks. Dog parks. Children's gardens. Parks today are as varied as our communities. But the designing and planning elements that make each one a success or a failure are the same: knowing community needs, building community-wide consensus and passion for park projects, using professional designers and planners, and adhering faithfully to Planning and Design 101. It's all a walk in the park—well, sort of.

What's the big idea?

Any good park, no matter its intended purpose, begins with careful research and a long-term game plan. Old adages like "look before you leap" or "measure twice, cut once" are necessary reminders to those of us who love to rush headlong into projects without taking the necessary time to analyze and strategize. Park districts, such as the winner of the 1998 National Gold Medal Award, the St. Charles Park District in St. Charles, Ill., attribute their success, in great part, to the collaborative efforts of the public and private sector.

It's all about communication and gaining consensus with all involved parties—from getting kids' input about designing a skate park, for example, to gaining feedback and consensus from the landowner, the taxpaying public, local businesses, organizations and governing bodies. Developing a community-wide vision for a park district, called a framework plan, is one way to combine community desires and needs into a unified road map. A framework plan can be park specific—identifying the needs for a particular space—or issue driven—such as agreeing to increase the diversity of open spaces as they become available or developing more bike trails. Either way, the process and the results are similar: the model of institutional/public buy-in and testing the projects against the plans.

One mistake that creators of framework plans tend to make, however, is getting too specific. They begin to pick the playground equipment when they should be asking whether the park needs a playground in the first place. Another problem lies in the life span of a framework plan. A 10-year old plan should be looked at and reconsidered, but a 15-year old plan should be looked at with suspicion. They don't last forever since a community's needs are continually changing.

"Unlike a master plan—a call to action to go out and start building—a framework plan allows projects, as they are developed and identified, to be tested against the framework plan," says Bob Megquier, director of planning and development for the Chicago Park District. "If they fit, you know you've got consensus because you know everyone is on board. You've got ownership, and the project can proceed."

On the other hand, projects completely off-the-wall can be identified quickly as a bad fit and a resulting no-go.

We've got spirit, yes we do

As silly as it may sound, rah-rah enthusiasm makes a big difference. In fact, it can make all the difference.

"Develop a passionate team," says Dan Purciarello, deputy director of planning and development of Chicago Park District. "Planners who operate from a distance are not the same."

Enlisting the help of a marketing staff to get the word out about what a park district has to offer—to educate and generate excitement and support for new projects—will also help keep the community supportive and involved, agrees James Breen, director of the St. Charles Park District.

Know your market

OK, this probably goes without saying, but just in case we missed somebody: Know your market. Know the needs of the community.

When it comes to planning, natural areas and bike
trails are high priorities for the St. Charles
Park District in Illinois.

Is the population near a proposed site aging? Transitioning from young family to empty nesters? Will a site need to provide multigenerational use?

The small tot-lots of decades ago are no longer the one-size-fits-all model for playground and residential park use. With double-income families more the norm, parks and recreation areas are increasingly expected to provide entertainment for all, young and old, active and sedentary.

"Today's needs are more for families and kids," says Frank Clements, principal of Wolff Clements and Associates, Ltd. of Chicago. "The regional playground is replacing the smaller neighborhood tot lots. It used to be moms went every day to small parks, but this is less and less the case with working families. It's more about quality time—all together—like the Disney experience. Families want a place to go on a weekend to spend hours where kids can do something and the adults can too."

Urban and ethnic communities also have differing needs. In the early 1920s, densely populated urban areas created parks designed primarily to provide green space. Green space is still a valid need, but urban parks must wear many more hats: providing pleasure grounds for the visiting population while meeting the needs of the local neighborhoods, accommodating daytime and night-time usage, updating park elements while being sensitive to historic landmarks, and celebrating the cultural diversity and needs of the urban population. For example, just as in many Latin American countries where soccer is the most popular sport, the demand for quality soccer fields in concentrated Hispanic communities in American urban areas comes as no surprise.

Getting Framed

Framework plans aren't for everybody or for every project. Because of their scope, they are more suited to generalities rather than detailed specifics. You can have a framework plan for a community of homes, for example, but not necessarily for the individual house. You need to determine at what point a framework plan breaks down and is no longer the tool for the job.

When creating a framework plan, however, the actual movers and shakers—the facilitators of the process—can be either your own staff or hired consultants. The upside of using your own staff is that they are readily available day in and day out and provide for more flexibility since you don't know how long it's going to take to achieve consensus among the participants. It can take months.

A consultant, on the other hand, is more conscious of the clock, and planning necessarily becomes more structured with the realization that time is money. They're more efficient.

When thinking about the essential elements of a framework plan for a particular space, factor in some of the following for consideration: Is the space being considered an historic space requiring more sensitive planning because of things like fountains, field houses or landmarks? Do roads go through the park that have implications for the transportation systems? Does the park transition from neighborhood to tourist uses? Does the park have differing needs based on daytime and nighttime usage? Can you assess adaptive reuses of outdated or unpopular park features? Have you researched the community and identified what are its particular needs? If it is an existing park, is there a better way to organize the composition of the park since over time parks can become a collection of add-ons?

Questions relating to thematic framework plans are much more broad in scope and help identify the collective direction that a community wants to take with its public lands and interests.

Better by design

Once the needs of the community have been identified, getting down the nuts-and-bolts of designing a space is best achieved in the hands of experts.


"You don't draft your own will—don't design your own park," says Joseph Brusseau of Brusseau Design Group, Ltd. with offices in Schaumburg, Ill., and Wildwood, Mo. "The No. 1 biggest mistake people make is not hiring the right people. They just use the vendors. It's shortchanging your public."

Once the elements of a park have been decided by the community or private facility, a planner then puts all the pieces into a creative, well-functioning whole.

In the days immediately following ADA regulations to increase park safety and reduce litigation, park designers and park component manufacturers made a hard-right turn toward safety, but parks became too safe, according to Jim DeRosa, superintendent of Homewood-Flossmoor Park District.

"Parks were no fun," he says. "They were so afraid of litigation that creativity went away."

Dan Purciarello, deputy director of planning and development of the Chicago Park District, agrees.

"What we discovered was that the companies weren't up to speed," Purciarello says. "Ramps went up here and there. A surface changed here and there. They did what was acceptable by the minimum of standards. But now the companies have had time to catch up and creativity is back. Park elements can be more than add-on. The whole playground has changed. Fun and safe are no longer mutually exclusive; park designs can be fun for everyone."

Creativity is key. Instead of just modifying traditional play equipment for wheelchair accessibility, designing has become multidimensional. It's designing with more tactile and sound-generating devices for the sight and hearing impaired. It's adding interactive whimsy. Patriots Park, for example, in Homewood-Flossmoor, Ill., is nearing completion with a price tag of $1.1 million and is considered a signature piece for the Brusseau Design Group, Ltd.

Although named for the park's former use as an Army installation site, the park is actually designed around a circus theme. A big-top tent shades the preschool play area; elaborate signage like "Don't Feed the Lions" posts its warning to the climbers in their cage-like structure; the rubber surfacing is stamped with the indented footprints of lions, elephants and clowns, which, when stepped on, generate their roars, trumpets and laughter through nearby ballard pipes implanted with microchips. Creativity, even in smaller parks, goes a long way to overcoming a limited budget.

Not just for kids anymore
The splash play area is a popular spot at Millennium
Park in Homewood-Flossmoor, Ill.

Creativity also means thinking outside the sandbox crowd.

"You have to provide activities for every age," Brusseau says. "I could go to the park by myself when I was 6, 7 or 8 with my buddies. I'm seeing a lot more moms. We try to involve them in the play. Talk tubes include benches so they can integrate fun for all ages. There's changes with more designs for pre-adolescents like skate parks and bike parks—which are a much needed activity for those too old for playgrounds and too young to drive."

Regional parks, usually multi-use parks designed around a central feature, have found a successful example in the Ogden Park Regional Playground project, completed in October 1998, and recipient of the Illinois Chapter American Society of Landscape Architect Merit Award in 2000. The 3.5-acre park is part of a larger historical park designed by the Olmsted Brothers (designers of Central Park in New York City). The Afro-American population around the park had historically been without safe or modern park facilities, which the planners and designers of the regional playground project intended to remedy.

The focal point of the park is its pavilion and carnival-style carousel surrounded by shade-covered benches. Playgrounds for a variety of age groups, a splash play interactive area, outdoor classrooms used for day-camp programs, whimsical Alice-in-Wonderland-type precast chairs in an area for readers, and open-air theater describe some of the attractions for young and old.

Design 101
This skate park in St. Charles, Ill., sees a lot of action.

Melding the needs of the many into the one facility means following some basic design rules of thumb. Considerations of adequate off-street parking, comfort facilities like restrooms, shade for hot August days, water fountains, attractive landscaping venues, welcoming entrances, safe equipment, secure surroundings, comfortable benches, trash receptacles, and separating the park by activity and age groups are among the most important.

Even for the most simple of tot-lots, an attractive entrance goes a long way to making it a welcoming site with the use of well placed flowers, shrubs and attractive signage. Benches in shaded areas, well situated within easy access to playing children makes for a more comfortable area for caretakers.

For larger parks with multiple uses, or regional parks, adequate parking is a must. But creatively connecting one community park to another doesn't always have to mean using a combustion engine. One emerging design trend is to develop greenways from park to park to offer alternative forms of transportation and linear connects. Bikers and walkers gain more territory, and fewer trips in the car are necessary, reducing carbon monoxide emissions and saving fuel.

No matter what the current trend, however, addressing the visual component of a park is always a sure thing. When you combine the best that landscapes have to offer with the best that a playground element offers and add comfortable amenities, the result is a park experience that appeals to everyone.

And let's not forget transitional spaces. In multi-use parks where various features are stationed throughout, paying attention to the landscaping and aesthetics of the transitional space enhances not only the overall look of the park but adds a greater element of continuity of the facility.

The matrix

Once the major components of a facility have been determined, a good designer will be sure to consider how those components relate to one another and will arrange them by such criteria as activity level or age grouping. For Purciarello, this process uses what they have coined a "matrix" in which his team graphically lays out the park elements on a grid with an A and B axis to develop concepts of component relationships on a site. Senior-citizen areas will be placed near the passive areas of the park. Basketball and skate parks should be kept at a distance from playgrounds. Playgrounds and splash play areas relate well and are kept together. Thinking through the age usage and activity level of park components keeps the peaceful scenes peaceful, the kiddie locales safe for the kiddies, and the high-energy sports of the tweens, teens and more serious athletes, well, high-energy.

Green fees

Then there's the issue of how the park will benefit the community financially. A dog park, for example, shouldn't be placed near a residential area—being next to a "barking lot" doesn't do great things for property values. Providing a park with attractive and multifaceted features, on the other hand, is a residential plus.

"The biggest issue is living across from a park," Purciarello says. "You want it to be an asset, not a liability. If it's a very congested park, it won't be good for property values. So how do you do it? Have stuff available that people really want: aesthetics, appropriate security, and have it well lit to avoid the turnoff of loiterers hanging out there."

From picnic tables to play areas, good design begins
with all the essential elementsin Millennium Park.

People want to feel secure and safe and for larger parks, which can mean providing a local presence in the washroom or providing an aid to help with injuries.

Not only does a park benefit a community financially when it is well designed, but it can also generate some meager revenues for itself. Increasingly, parks are using fees as management tools to regulate the more popular features of their facility.

In the case of Millennium Park in Homewood-Flossmoor, the splash play portion of the park (a facility that also has paths, playgrounds, picnic shelters and soccer fields) was in such demand that it forced the park to rethink its management strategies.

The solution was twofold: regulate the times of day the splash play area would be on and charge fees for larger groups such as the church and day-care groups that had been previously bringing out their many children and overwhelming the facility. The fees charged don't earn a profit for the park but do help to offset maintenance costs since such groups generate more trash, and the water pH has to be checked more frequently.

"There is a trend toward recreation and park districts looking to generate some revenue to cover some elements of maintenance costs," Brusseau says, "things like mini-golf, rental picnic shelters for groups or reserving a water playground."

Bark parks grant dogs public places to play,
Going to the dogs? And more

As Americans continue to enjoy new trends in exercise and play, it naturally follows that their interests will be reflected in their play areas. The shear variety of parks now available to a more sophisticated, informed and demanding public is evident everywhere. Skate parks are popping up in noticeable numbers as communities are catching on to the advantages of providing a contained and creative site for determined skateboarders.

Dog parks are also proving to be very popular. With Americans still being a nation of avid dog-lovers, it makes sense to provide areas for doggie exercise and socialization in residential areas where adequately large backyards are few. These parks should not necessarily be placed too close to a residential area and need to provide lots of space for owners to walk and run their pets off the leash.

Components of dog parks share some things in common with their human park counterparts such as provisions of comfortable seating, restrooms, and so on, but they also have some unique needs. Because dogs are allowed to run free, it is essential that the parks be fenced. Additionally, drinking areas for the animals, wood-chip paths, puppy training or "time out" areas, bulletin boards for the exchange of information, and the establishment of membership and park rules also contribute to a happier, healthier Rover and his human best friend.


Somewhat lesser known but definitely growing in number are children's gardens and therapeutic gardens. As the name suggests, children's gardens are not equipment-based parks. Instead, they're designed to appeal to a child's natural tendency to explore, discover and create. It's all about igniting a child's imagination—give them sand and water and see what they can do with it. Four-foot hedge mazes irresistibly beckon them to explore. It's back to nature and the imagination.

Therapeutic gardens, by contrast, tend to be designed for older populations. Certain plants produce calming fragrances while others are planted for their tactile qualities—textures to be touched. Raised flower beds enable the less agile to reach them while water features provide a soothing sound. These gardens are more commonly used for their healing qualities and are found in hospitals and senior residential areas but can certainly be utilized and enjoyed by the general population or segments within a park district's own community.

Green parks, parks intended to teach about the environment, are also designed for a connect to nature. Wetlands and bird sanctuaries that incorporate paths dotted here and there with informational signage, ponds where children can explore what wriggles in the mud and in the water, preserved historical farms—all are part and parcel of a more educational park design.

As we continue to expand our repertoire of play and health interests, our parks and park design will naturally follow to change and adapt. And with the right elements of thoughtful planning, lots of creativity and professional input, the possibilities are boundless.

Accessorize, Accessorize

No matter how parks change over the years, park components will remain an essential element of good park design. Comfort and aesthetics are key factors in determining the success of your facility, and choosing the right park components should not be an afterthought. Now more than ever, park components are not only safer, but they are more durable, designed to require less maintenance and offered in more aesthetically pleasing colors and designs.


  Cost is always a major determiner, which comes as no surprise, but maintenance is the next runner-up in the search for quality products. Components that do not require painting and that can withstand some abuse are a valuable asset. Graffiti-resistant properties lessen maintenance costs as well.

  Although the ADA has helped bring park components a long way in the realm of safety, we still bump into the occasional problem. Wooden components need to be checked for chemical treatments, for example. Several Florida parks were recently shut down when it was discovered that a chromated copper arsenate (CCA) treatment used on the playground's lumber was seeping into the soil. (CCA is a chemical compound mixture containing inorganic arsenic, copper and chromium that has been used for wood preservative uses since the 1940s.)

  Comfort features, such as benches, trash receptacles, toilets and drinking fountains, need to be provided. They should be placed to maximize their use and effectiveness, which will keep park users happy and coming back.

  If you've been in the habit of one-stop shopping—buying all your components from one vendor—you might consider mixing and matching manufacturers. Taking the best from a variety of vendors while being careful to keep within the color schemes and themes of your facility can be very effective.

© Copyright 2020 Recreation Management. All rights reserved.