Stunning Shelters

Planning and protecting outdoor structures

By Stacy St. Clair

From the moment Capt. von Trapp professed his love to the free-spirited Maria, gazebos have enjoyed a magical reputation. Society embraced them as romantic sanctuaries, places so enchanting an emotionally crippled naval officer could find the strength to profess his love to a flighty Austrian nun.

Gazebos, however, can be more than just a lovers' retreat or a pretty park ornament. Their purposes extend way beyond that of a graffiti magnet or a shelter in which to sing about being 16 going on 17.

Progressive recreation managers now are finding more creative uses and reasons for their outdoor structures. They rightly view shelters as an opportunity to protect patrons, expand programming, create an iconic location and, in some cases, make money. From arbors and gazebos to pergolas and picnic shelters—whether they be wood, metal, composite or fabric—well-thought-out structures can prove to be a sage investment.

It's no exaggeration to say that outdoor shelters can help save lives. They're invaluable partners in the fight against skin cancer.

Fortunately, recreation managers nationwide have recognized the benefit of providing a respite from the sun. Industry experts report a boom in shade element sales in recent years, a spike they attribute to studies detailing the effects sun damage.

Skin cancer currently ranks as the fastest growing cancer in the United States. Research shows as few as two severe burns during childhood can double the chances of developing often-deadly melanoma later in life.

More than 1 million Americans develop basal cell carcinoma each year, according to the American Academy of Dermatology. Though it's the least dangerous form of the disease, it must be treated to prevent skin deterioration and disfiguration.

As early as 1981, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission recommended playgrounds be shaded to protect children from harmful ultraviolet radiation. Proving shade is even more critical at youth-oriented facilities because 80 percent of a person's lifetime sun damage is done before the age of 18, according to studies by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Such information has prompted recreation managers to reevaluate their parks. In many cases, they have added gazebos, awnings and other coverings as a way to protect patrons from the sun.

The tradition gazebos and picnic shelters offer a familiar, aesthetically pleasing way to provide shade. Several parks and playgrounds, however, have begun taking a more vibrant approach.

Facilities throughout the country have opted for colorful permanent shade structures to shield their patrons.

In addition to blocking the sun, they often give the facility a facelift.

Likewise, the structures have worked well at aquatic facilities. Many managers say their patrons and staff expect a certain level of protection.

"Looking from a facility perspective, if we didn't offer this, people might not come back because they wouldn't be as comfortable," says Roland Harp of Hurricane Harbor waterpark in Arlington, Texas. "Also, I would look at what is being done for staff in terms of sun protection."

In addition to sun protection, outdoor structures also can foster a sense of community. Parks increasingly have used gazebos, pergolas and shelters as a way of honoring their local spirit.

Monumental impact

No place probably has demonstrated the emotional power of an outdoor structure better than Middlesex County in New Jersey. In the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, officials grappled with how to memorialize the tragic event in which 57 local residents died.

They settled on a memorial in the Raritan Bay waterfront park. The site holds a special significance to the community because it offers spectacular views of the New York City skyline.

After county officials selected the location, they announced plans for a design contest co-sponsored by a local newspaper. They asked area children to submit designs and explain their visions.

In the end, they blended the ideas of three high-school students. Judges liked the entries because they embrace the community's desire to honor all victims of terrorism not just those who perished in the World Trade Center.

"The drawings were so good, we couldn't settle on one concept," says Ralph Albanir, director of the Middlesex County Parks and Recreation Department. "So we embraced three general concepts."

The winning entries were then folded into a design created by a professional architect. The memorial's base was shaped like a pentagon to remember those lost in Washington, D.C., and an arbor shading bench provided a place to reflect as visitors look toward Manhattan.

The county also commissioned a bronze eagle statue that seemingly looks over the Raritan to the former World Trade Center site. The piece was sculpted by an artist who worked on the local veterans memorial, giving a patriotic continuity to the county's most solemn monument.

A Middlesex high-school student suggested the eagle because she wanted it to represent a watchful eye intent on remaining vigilant against future terrorist threats. She wasn't the only one to suggest it.

"A lot of children really liked the idea of an eagle," Albanir says.

The most striking element, however, is the white pergola that provides the monument's focal point. The custom arbor structure is made entirely of bolted steel.

White slats rest upon curved support beams. Twelve-inch circular columns boast decorative bands and bases. The student designers recommended the columns to represent the liberty upon which America has developed and the base to symbolize the country's strong foundation.

The base also includes an inspirational quote from Daniel Webster.

It reads:

"May our country itself become a vast and splendid monument, not of oppression and terror, but of wisdom, of peace and of liberty, upon which the world may gaze with admiration forever."

Vulnerable to Vandalism?
Suggestions to stop the spray

To beat graffiti communities must go on the offensive. Here are some proactive tips for combating the problem:

1. Organize a local paint out. Local businesses often are willing to donate paint and brushes for volunteers to use for graffiti cleanup.

2. Keep your park clean. A neglected appearance invites vandalism. Make sure litter is picked up, fences mended and shrubbery trimmed.

3. Install quality lighting. Poorly lit structures are more vulnerable to nighttime vandals.

4. Plant shrubbery. Trees and shrubbery provide natural—as well as psychological—barriers.

5. Remove graffiti promptly. Statistics show graffiti removed within 24 to 48 hours results in a nearly zero reoccurrence rate. Conversely, graffiti removed after two weeks has a near 100 percent reoccurrence rate, according to the Keep American Beautiful campaign.

6. Encourage citizen reporting. Educate the public about the effects of graffiti vandalism and provide a way for them to report it. Many cities have established an 800-number, a dedicated telephone line or an Internet site for this purpose. Be sure to respond promptly to graffiti reports.

7. Enforce graffiti laws. Help your community develop tough anti-graffiti laws and make sure they're enforced. When asked what would stop them from tagging, vandals in a recent study listed "fear of getting caught" as their top deterrent.

8. Educate local youth. Sponsor programs that explain the negative impact of graffiti. Waco, Texas, for example, developed a mentoring program in which high-school students teach fourth- and fifth-graders about stopping graffiti.

9. Use an adopt-a-spot program. Some communities provide citizen volunteers with graffiti clean-up kits to keep an area they have adopted "graffiti-free." The programs improve awareness and engage citizens in the process.

10. Keep a watchful eye. Ask local law enforcement to increase patrols around structures most susceptible to graffiti. Neighborhood watches also have proved beneficial to reducing graffiti. Some communities have begun installing security cameras in the most heavily vandalized areas.

11. Provide alternatives. Here's a preventive measure that all recreation managers should be able to handle. The Institute for Law and Justice Inc. suggests diverting criminal graffiti to positive alternatives. Options can include youth centers, art programs and civic activities such as mural painting and graffiti cleanups.

12. Create a paint-brush mural. Use a community mural to spruce up the wall of an outdoor structure frequently hit by graffiti. Murals can involve local artists, students and community volunteers.

Forms of I.D.

Not all outdoor structures, however, need to be memorials to have a powerful impact. Some communities have used their shelters to foster an identity.

In Blaine, Minn., for example, officials wanted to create opportunities for resident input and suggestions. They achieved this goal by holding a planning gathering on a Saturday to discuss recreation ideas.

The suggestions helped the park board shape its plans for a town square park with a picnic and performance shelter, as well as a trellis structure and seat wall enclosure.

The park currently is being built in front of city hall. In order to compliment the surroundings, the trellis and kiosk post columns replicate the municipal building's roof and post columns.

"We're creating something new, a park for everyone in the community," says Jim Peterson, Blaine Parks and Recreation director. "We wanted a focal point of the city. We've never had that before."

The park, which is being funded by the municipality, will be finished this fall. Construction, however, has successfully piqued residents' interests.

"People in Blaine are curious about what's going on," Peterson says. "People keep stopping in and asking about it."

Iconic outdoor structures can lead to more than just happy patrons. In some cases, they can glean additional dollars.

In Vienna, Va., for example, the gazebos at Meadowlark Botanical Gardens have become wildly popular wedding sites. The regional park—with its blossoming cherry trees, irises and wildflowers along Lake Caroline—hosts about 100 weddings a year, each one revenue-generating.

The gardens charge local residents $250 for a minimum two-hour rental. Bridal couples who want to have a rehearsal or live outside the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority's jurisdiction must pay more.

"This has become an increasingly lucrative business opportunity for places like ours over the last 20 years," Meadowlark Director Keith Tomlinson says. "The marriage industry is big business. It has grown exponentially for the last 20 years."

The demand has grown, in part, because of the organized manner in which the site is run. Couples must reserve the gazebo and atrium several months—sometimes more than a year—in advance.

All bridal parties must agree to park policies, including no alcohol or electronic music. They also are reminded not to trample through flowerbeds.

The reservation additionally guarantees that there will be only one bride on the premises at a time. The gardens even have a contingency plan for weddings parties that show up without a reservation.

While park officials cannot prohibit the crashers from entering the public gardens, they do try to keep them out of eye's view if another wedding is going on at that time.

An unexpected wedding party is sent to a secluded spot on the far end of the parking lot, out of view from the other bridal party. They may conduct their ceremony, but only after agreeing to park rules and paying entrance fees for all guests.

Overseeing a wedding hot spot, however, comes at a price. The park staff must dedicate significant amounts of time and energy to ensure things go smoothly.

"It's important to remember that doing it in an organized way is extremely management-intensive," Tomlinson says.

The hard work ensures the park does not become a wedding mill. Instead, the gazebos have become what they were always intended to be: cherished spots for both bridal parties and average visitors in a park dedicated to conservation, education and aesthetics.

"There is a delicate balance to having a place the public can enjoy and having a business in the park," Tomlinson says. "You definitely don't want a wedding to overpower the beauty of the park."

Marriage Wows

Striking gazebos and other shelters that attract weddings and other special events bolster a park's image—and prove to be lucrative investments. Just ask Meadowlark Botanical Gardens in Vienna, Va., which ranks among the top wedding sites in the Washington, D.C., area. The park has become a coveted location, in part, because it has clear rules on how ceremonies and receptions will be conducted. It also has a policy on how to handle unreserved wedding parties.

Here are a few of the regulations that help Meadowlark weddings go off without a hitch:

  • Weddings only may be held in a garden gazebo that has no reserved function taking place at that time. If bridal parties see a function taking place in a gazebo, they are instructed not to enter. Instead, they are required to go to the visitor center upon arrival and ask if a gazebo is open.
  • Weddings must take place in designated gazebos or the atrium. They are not allowed in any other areas of the park.
  • The bridal party and guests are instructed not to stand in or walk through flowerbeds or any planted garden area without a path. Grass areas are open to walking and picture taking.
  • The atrium building and gardens are strictly off limits to unreserved wedding parties during reserved atrium events. Patrons should check the atrium schedule at the visitor enter front desk.
  • Unreserved wedding parties are required to pay all garden entrance fees. There is no group discount for wedding parties regardless of the size.
  • All patrons vehicles associated with unreserved wedding parties must use the visitor parking lot.
  • Limousines may discharge passengers in front of the visitor center but must wait in the parking lot until passengers return. Limousines are not permitted to wait in front of the visitor center or in fire lanes.
  • No musical instruments, chairs, tape recorders or radios are permitted.
  • Guests are reminded not to block pathways or doorways as to impede garden visitors.
  • No food is allowed. Alcohol of any kind is strictly prohibited.
  • Failure to follow these rules can result in the wedding party being asked to leave the gardens.

Got graffiti?

Of course, no patrons want their wedding—or weekend picnic—to be plagued by a vandalized shelter.

No matter how quaint George Lucas tried to make it in his 1973 film, American graffiti is a real problem.

In fact, it's a crime.

Graffiti makes up 35 percent of all vandalism in the United States, according to U.S. Bureau of Justice statistics. The federal government estimates the country spends roughly $12 billion each year to clean it up.

Of course, it's more than just a drain on tax dollars. The National Association of Realtors estimates properties located in areas with heavy graffiti lose 15 percent of their value.

And, in the recreation industry, graffiti-riddled structures can impact patronage. A gazebo sullied by vandalism gives the impression of a neglected park. Even worse, it may suggest that more serious crimes—such as theft and assault—also may go unchallenged there.

When purchasing an outdoor structure, you're also accepting a civic duty. You assume responsibility for keeping it crime-free, protecting property values and making patrons feel safe.

"It's very insightful to prepare [a graffiti-prevention plan] for new construction," says Bob Hills of the Maryland-based Anti-Graffiti Project. "Most people think of it as an afterthought."

The first step in combating graffiti is understanding it. Experts classify it one of four ways: hip hop, gang, hate and generic non-threatening messages such as "Class of '91" or "Billy Bob Loves Charlene."

About 80 percent is hip hop, or tagger, graffiti. Gang graffiti accounts for about 10 percent, according to Keep America Beautiful Inc.

Most studies show that taggers usually are males between 12 and 21 years old. Only 15 percent are females.

Arrest data from 17 major cities shows up to 70 percent of street-level graffiti is done by teenage boys from the suburbs.

Towns across the United States have come up with anti-graffiti polices with varying success. Some communities have toyed with so-called legal walls, areas that permit graffiti. Experts, however, warn against the initiative after several communities in California and Illinois experimented with them and failed.

They faltered, in part, because they send a mixed message. To paraphrase Albert Einstein, a community cannot simultaneously prevent and encourage graffiti.

Studies back this up, too. Community records indicate the legal walls may work initially, but graffiti eventually spreads to surrounding areas. Data also shows vandalism arrests do not decline in communities with free walls.

Studies also suggest the media can play a role in keeping a new outdoor structure free from graffiti. Recreation managers, however, must be willing to reach out to local journalists to make sure this happens.

Experts suggest meeting with reporters and their editors to discuss the negative impact of graffiti. After outlining the emotional and financial toll of vandalism to the community, ask the media to help fight this crime.

Specifically request that newspapers and television stations avoid showing graffiti, using the tagger's name or referring to vandals as artists whenever possible. Such measures are critical because media exposure often provides vandals with a sense of accomplishment and spurs them to commit more acts.

If the news outlet must show graffiti, ask the journalists to show only a small, unrecognizable portion. Try suggesting the graffiti be shot slightly out of focus or from an angle that makes it difficult to read the tag.

In addition to a face-to-face meeting, recreation managers can share their anti-graffiti message in several other ways. Experts suggest hosting a breakfast meeting in which reporters are invited to an informal meal with neighborhood groups, law enforcement and public officials.

You can use this valuable opportunity to educate journalists about local efforts. During the meeting, officials should provide the reporters with a media kit.

Keep America Beautiful suggests issuing a press release highlighting a new study, information about a local increase or decrease in vandalism, area cleanup or mural painting efforts. All packets should include local contact information, as well as facts sheets provided by a national organization such as Graffiti Hurts.

Such efforts, however, will not ensure perfect media coverage. There will be times when journalists offer stories that seemingly contradict or undermine local efforts.

When these occasions arise, recreation managers have more options than just calling the journalist to complain. A letter to editor is often more effective because it gives readers an opportunity to hear your side in your own words.

Graffiti Hurts provides a sample letter, which perfectly details how an agency can take a negative story about graffiti and turn it into a proactive measure.

Graffiti Gurus

Once facility managers decide to combat graffiti, there's a multitude of resources willing to help. Here's a look at two of the best.


Developed by Keep America Beautiful Inc., Graffiti Hurts aims to reduce vandalism through grassroots education.

The organization encourages communities to take a proactive stance against vandalism with a variety of preventive tools. It offers lesson plans, posters and videos all designed to discourage graffiti.

Its Web site provides invaluable information on every thing from removing graffiti and creating clean-up kits to launching a media campaign and engaging youth.


An offshoot of the National Council to Prevent Delinquency, the project works with communities to help reduce vandalism.

It boasts a wealth of information on what other communities do and provides networking opportunities. Its Web site also offers sample legislation used to bolster anti-graffiti efforts around the country.

The project provides invaluable supply-side control assistance. It has programs and materials aimed at curbing the illegal purchase and shoplifting of graffiti products.

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