Special Supplement: Complete Guide to Park Components & Play Areas

A Place for Everyone

By Emily Tipping

s the Information Age takes a firmer grasp on our lives, the average American spends more than four-and-a-half hours watching television every day, while the open green spaces and park areas that surround us sit unused, or used by just a few.

Most of us understand the importance of being a part of something bigger than ourselves, but many people get that fix by commiserating about their day in chat rooms and watching reality TV, rather than getting together with friends and neighbors in the local park.

But really, what better way is there to build a feeling of fellowship and community? Disconnected moms and stay-at-home dads can reconnect while their kids socialize on the playground. Older adults can meet over chess tables and on active fitness trails. People with similar or disparate interests come together for various activities, ultimately fostering that sense of community we all wish we could get back to.

Whether you're planning a local neighborhood lot or a regional park for a wider community, there are critical steps to take to ensure its success.

One key to the process is furnishing the site with components like benches, picnic tables, playgrounds, water fountains, shelters and so on. But before you start purchasing site components willy-nilly, you need to take a step back and look at your entire park system.

Everything must begin with a master plan. According to the Trust for Public Land's publication, The Excellent City Park System, a master plan expresses far more than your intentions. "It is a document built upon process, demonstrating a path of achievement and expressing a final outcome. The master plan should be substantiated thoroughly, reviewed regularly and updated every five years."

The Trust for Public Land did a survey that determined that nearly two-thirds of agencies were working with outdated master plans—some of which were created more than a decade ago—"back in the days before the rise of computers and geographic information systems, not to mention dog parks, mountain bikes, ultimate Frisbee, girl's soccer leagues, skateboard courses, wi-fi plazas and cancer survivor gardens, among other innovations."

The Project for Public Spaces (PPS) has determined that there are a lot of parks out there that "no longer function as places that capture the hearts of local residents." The problem isn't just maintenance and funding, but a lack of "the right combination of physical amenities and activities that make the park a magnet and an important place within a particular community."

When asked what might make a park unsuccessful, Phil Myrick, vice president and director of PPS' work in parks and plazas, campuses and downtowns, said, "Loneliness."

He added, "But seriously, it's unbelievable how many parks, when they're designed, are thought of as a succession or series of facilities that are spread out evenly across however many acres there are. There's not enough thought given to clustering those facilities or uses in interesting ways that will create a spark of energy. So what you find is that people are spread out doing their lonely activities in their part of the park, and there is no central location where people come together."

When it comes to planning for a specific park, the Project for Public Spaces, a nonprofit organization dedicated to creating and sustaining public spaces that help build communities, begins the process by determining how the space will be used and what activities will draw people there. A successful park, the organization claims, includes multiple mini-destinations within the site that offer different things to different people.

"These destinations should offer many things to do, such as socializing, eating, reading, playing a game, interacting with art and so on," the organization explains on its Web site.

For example, Myrick said the organization worked with a city with a lakefront that was planning a boathouse that initially was very limited in scope.

"It was designed only for boaters, and it was going to store boats, and would have an exercise room inside, but essentially it was going to become a specialty use for that one tiny slice of the population," he said. "Now when you think about a lakefront—especially a relatively new lakefront like this was—pretty much everybody in the city wants a piece of that and wants a way to enjoy the lakefront. It's difficult for them to look at this empty lakefront with these facilities that weren't built for them and don't attract them."

To make the boathouse more attractive for everyone, Myrick said they considered the ways the facility could reach different age groups and ethnicities to offer something for everyone to enjoy.

"The boathouse could cut across all of these different groups and offer a hundred things to do, maybe 10 of which are related to people who actually get in a boat, and the rest of which are related to water and the enjoyment people can get out of watching boats in the water and spending time next to the water in an active place," he said. "You could have a paddle pond that's only 2 inches deep, and now any boater can bring their whole family. Their kids could play with a toy boat in the paddle pond, and their husband or wife could sit in a shady place and watch the water or watch the kids playing."

The problem many parks have, Myrick said, is that they are not designed to be experiences for—and experienced by—everyone.

"I think it's critical to try to make sure that the park fits the community and fills their desires," said Gregg Calpino, a landscape architect and Parks and Recreation Market Segment leader for JJR. Calpino serves as a project designer and manager for major master planning and park design and renovation projects throughout the Midwest.

"You can't just take a cookie-cutter approach and follow the NRPA guidelines that say x number of acres per y number of users," he added. "That's not what brings people to parks. There's usually some inherent draw. Especially in communities and spaces that are growing beyond the urban center, it's about building what people want, providing something that makes them want to come and take part in it and protect it. That's a constant with any park we do. You can't just design to the minimum standards."

Jim Figurski, technical director and principal for GreenWorks PC, a landscape architecture firm that designs recreational projects ranging from community playgrounds to trails and natural areas, agreed. And he should know, as he has 22 years of professional experience, with half of that time spent in parks and recreation planning, community involvement, design and project management.

"Probably having come from a public background, I think one of the most important things is will it get used?" Figurski said. "Does it meet the community's needs?"

It's also important to ensure the necessary resources are available, not just to build the park, but to maintain it and its components as well.

"It doesn't matter how beautiful or awe-inspiring it is, if it can't be taken care of, if it taxes the limits of the maintenance people, it's going to fail in the long run," Figurski said.

"It's like putting a top-notch athlete out on the track and never feeding them," he added. "Getting the public to own the new development and making sure the city and neighborhood entities can and want to take care of it after it's developed are key."

What Makes a Good Place?

The Project for Public Spaces has researched parks and social places to determine what good places provide to the community:

  • Uses and Activities: successful parks and public places provide a range of things to do
  • Access: successful parks and public places are easy to get to and are connected to their surrounding community
  • Comfort & Image: successful parks are safe, clean and attractive
  • Sociability: successful parks provide a place to meet with others—both with people you already know and with people who are members of your community

"Stop thinking about recreation facilities in and of themselves," said Phil Myrick, vice president and director for PPS. "And start thinking about destinations. Integrate the facilities with bigger community destinations that are about socializing and mingling and people watching—not just about which muscle group people are going to exercise that day or some narrow group of people that are going to play a particular sport."

PPS is working with Tempe, Ariz., to integrate place-making with the programming of the parks and recreation department.

"We're working to make sure that the capital investment the city makes into upgrading parks and new recreation facilities is integrated with place-making concepts and the ideas of clustering uses and creating these places for socialization, these gathering places," Myrick explained.

"You can actually use the investment in the capital investment plan or recreation plan to build much more sociable places just by tweaking the investment you're going to make anyway," he added. "It's an interesting process that is really led by the questions: What are the destinations we have that we can build on? What new destinations can we create? And how do recreation, parks, amenities and activities help us build these all-encompassing, cross-cutting community destinations?"


In fact, community involvement is critical. The Excellent City Park System from the Trust for Public Land claims that successful city parks have a "robust, formalized community involvement mechanism."

"Portland is committed to an aggressive public input process as part of the design process," Figurski said. "I think if you can get the public involved in the development from the beginning, they take ownership, and I think that makes for success."

For the city of Sacramento, Calif., the master plan for each individual park is developed with public involvement before any development of a new or existing site takes place. Residents help choose which recreational elements and components will be included.

Calpino said that the Chicago Park District also relies on citizen input to help design and outfit its parks. "Especially when you're dealing with playgrounds, which can be communitywide, and especially at the neighborhood level, finding an organized community group is critical, because it's their back yard—literally—especially with the more urban playgrounds," Calpino said. "With the Chicago Park District, for example, the community groups do a lot of the initial process of picking out the furnishings. So we're usually part of an initial public interaction process. Usually this is a very early first step, to engage the user groups and understand what they want, the age groups involved, is there a theme they want."

Figurski said that most of the public park development projects GreenWorks has worked on also involved committees of citizens. "Having a group like that—and it may be more than one group, representing the neighborhood, representing the city, representing all the different entities—it works well when you have layers of groups," he said.

One key to success, Figurski added, is also getting a technical advisory committee, including parks maintenance people, involved, and ensuring that all of the committees come together to discuss their needs and concerns.

"It's important to pull them into the process and get the neighborhood groups to talk to the technical groups so both groups can understand where each other is coming from," he explained. "I've stood in front of groups and given them the budget, and the citizens' advisory committee members might ask why a picnic table in a public park costs $1,500 when they can go to the local Home Depot and get one for $100. It helps to have maintenance there to help the citizens understand that the picnic table is going to be left out year-round, so it needs to withstand the pressures that are out there. When people can see the person who's got to take care of it and see that the person has a passion for what they're doing, it helps everybody to come to a common ground."

Ultimately, getting community members involved in the park planning process up front will encourage ownership, which is critical to the success of the park in the long run. Citizens who take pride in a local park that they helped to plan will also contribute to things like ongoing maintenance, preventing vandalism and getting other community members involved in using the facility.

A Long, Tall Drink

Don't forget to provide your patrons with a place to get a drink of water, especially on hot summer days. Water fountains are an absolutely essential park component.

Most importantly, you should keep the fountains clean. This requires a regular maintenance schedule, when park personnel not only clean the fountain, but also check to be sure it's in working order.

Many cities shut down their water fountains for the winter months to prevent the water lines from freezing and bursting. If you do this, you'll need to flush the lines to make sure no water remains. Then you'll have to go through a sanitizing-and-cleaning ritual in the spring before turning the fountains back on.

One way to avoid this potential maintenance headache is to purchase fountains with freeze protection. Some of these must be attached to buildings, so the water lines can be housed indoors. Others provide a catch-basin below the freeze line.


As a part of your master planning process, you should also consider developing a system of standards that will help determine which furnishing materials and components are most appropriate for your parks. These standards can help narrow down choices based on the local environment, including anything from cultural and historical considerations to the impact of typical weather patterns. In addition, these standards will help you establish consistent quality levels and ensure constancy when it comes to maintenance.

The Department of Parks & Recreation for the city of Sacramento, for example, has guidelines that suggest things like providing a single main entry to the park, with a sign naming the park in a landscaped area with flowering trees, as well as special paving and drop-off seating.

It's also important, though, to ensure that a certain amount of flexibility is built into these standards. Even if your community is small, your parks are not all the same, and a one-size-fits-all approach to park planning will not do. Each site will feature different issues, and you need to take these into consideration. For example, one park may be more wooded, requiring different maintenance than a park that receives full sun. Another park might be more exposed to strong winds. Yet another park might be part of a historical district, requiring a different approach to site furnishings than a more remote, natural area.

You also don't want to tie your landscape architect's hands. A certain level of creativity as part of the design process will ensure your parks stand out. Unique parks will keep residents coming back for more.

Sacramento's design guidelines take this into account, stating, "The City shall strive to emphasize unique and innovative design and promote individual character in the design of each park site. Sites, facilities, structures or landscapes of historical or cultural significance within each park shall be identified and included where possible in the park design."

Preventing problems proactively

No part of your park will be perfectly able to resist graffiti and vandalism, but there are a few things you can keep in mind to prevent problems:

  • Get the community involved in the park planning process. A community that feels involved and cares about its park will help you by keeping an eye out for problems and reporting them promptly when they occur.
  • The Project for Public Spaces states that blank, smooth surfaces are most attractive to graffitists. Lighter colors and highly visible surfaces are also more popular.
  • Dense plantings near walls can make it harder to get to the surface.
  • Provide good lighting. This discourages vandals, but also makes it easier for security personnel to keep an eye on things.
  • PPS also suggests mounting dummy cameras or motion detectors in highly visible areas as a very inexpensive means of prevention.
  • Use vandal-resistant materials. If you like the look of wood, you can get plastic lumber, or you can use protective coatings to make it easier to remove graffiti.
  • Maintain a park presence, whether it's occasional sweeps by the police or uniformed park rangers and security guards.
  • Beat them to the punch by painting a big surface area, like a restroom wall, with a multicolored mural.

Of course, the best way to deter vandals and graffitists is to provide a great park that attracts heavy use. The more people present, the less inviting your park is for the ne'er-do-wells.

When all of your protective measures fail, and someone does manage to vandalize or tag your park with graffiti, swift action is essential. Graffiti that remains for more than 48 hours is a sign to other graffitists that "no one cares" about maintenance. In other words, vandalism begets more vandalism. Prompt attention and removal shows graffitists and others that you care about the park, and their work will not be rewarded.

Before you remove the graffiti though, PPS suggests taking a moment to take a picture and make notes about the time it occurred and other conditions like special events. They also suggest phoning the police.


Once you've got a plan in place, you can decide how to utilize the space. One of the most critical aspects of any park is providing people with a place to sit. But there's more than one way to rest your feet. You need to provide spaces where people can gather, like picnic areas, shelters, groupings of benches, fire pits and game tables. But you also need to provide more secluded places where people can sit and read a book or just contemplate the natural beauty that surrounds them.

"I think simplicity is the key, and flexibility," Figurski said. "If the space can do more than one thing, if people can gather in it in more than one way—in small groups and in large groups—it's going to be more successful. For example, where two or three people can own that spot without feeling exposed, that really helps. Yet you want them to have a clear view of something going on from that spot."

Calpino at JJR is currently working on a large picnic facility for Urbana, Ill., and flexibility is key here as well. "They want to be able to have a small event one day, and then the next day be able to tweak the area to accommodate a larger group," he said, "so being able to move tables around depending on the need is important."

The five picnic shelters at the site will be organized in clusters. "If this grove has three shelters, they can have three individual picnics going on one day, and one big picnic at the same site the next day," Calpino said. "The park district can diversify the programming or can change what they charge to maximize their revenue capability from those sites."

Once you have your benches and picnic tables, you don't just want to slap them on the site. The Project for Public Spaces asserts that accessible, comfortable and well-maintained seating must be located in the right places to make a park successful.

Carefully consider the placement. Bench seating, for example, will be more effective in groups that are angled toward one another to encourage interaction, rather than lined up in a row. Also, don't make people sit with their backs to the action. Place seating so that people's backs feel supported and secure, not exposed to a vast expanse of space behind them. You can do this by placing benches in front of a wall or a grouping of trees.

You'll probably know if you got it wrong. People usually aren't shy about grabbing a moveable bench or picnic table and dragging it where they want to sit.

"Setting is important," Calpino said. "In an urban area, you might concentrate on a cool view. You have to provide the seating where people want to go. And they'll tell you where they want to go—they'll just move the tables."

Tables and benches should be both grouped as well as placed on their own to encourage contemplation or conversation. Give people options, and they won't have to move things around—potentially damaging your site furnishings in the process.

Consider all of the different reasons people want to sit, and then provide seating suited to those purposes.

People watching is a key activity for many park visitors. Provide seating near playgrounds so moms and dads can keep an eye on their kids at play. Give skaters a reason to show off by placing benches near skateparks for onlookers to watch the action. A bench with a water fountain nearby also is a good idea for playgrounds as well as skateparks, so kids can stop and get a drink on a hot summer day.

In pedestrian-friendly locations like waterfronts and plazas, benches should be placed out of the way of walkers, but close enough so people can stop, rest and watch to see who else might be walking by.

Places where a lot of activity is taking place, or where people are engaged in exercise, are also good places to provide a "rest stop." Park entries and exits are logical places for a person to rest, since many people walk to the park or stop on their way out to wait for a ride.

Provide seating near trail heads, and offer an occasional place to sit along a trail. People tire out as they walk, especially on hilly terrain or warmer days, and well-placed seating can give them a place not just to catch their breath, but also to stop and contemplate their surroundings. Another good place for benches is by a pond or lake where people might want to stop and feed ducks or other waterfowl.

Anywhere people gather to eat will require special consideration. Obviously you'll want to provide picnic tables near a concession area, but it's also wise to provide separate picnic areas for people who are bringing their own lunch. Combining different site furnishings is an important consideration for these types of locations. A picnic area should be close to a restroom. You should also place water fountains and possibly a grill at the site. The city of Sacramento recommends placing rest areas along trails and including bike racks, drinking fountains, shade and picnic facilities as part of those areas.

The Project for Public Spaces also recommends placing seating in relation to other amenities, including concessions, shelters, kiosks, telephones, waste receptacles, water fountains and bathrooms. The organization explains, "Clustering amenities attracts people and activity and helps to increase people's level of social comfort, which in turn, helps to facilitate spontaneous social interactions and activities."

In Urbana, Calpino is planning the picnic groves to combine five picnic shelters with toilets and other supportive amenities.

"You typically want an attractive setting," he said. "You also want to have the proper support—a shelter, tables and nearby toilets. And you want to be able to not have a half-mile walk from the car—you need a certain amount of access."

Combining different site components is also important, Calpino said. Don't look at your park as a series of separate spaces.

"Another thing we're seeing with picnic facilities is placing other things nearby like a small play lot or an open grass area where you can kick a soccer ball around," he explained. "It's not a field for high-end sports, but just those basic things that if I go there with a group of kids who are different ages, I can keep them all going without changing parks. It's like creating a mini-park in itself. Those open turf areas and smaller playgrounds are important."

Beyond just providing places to sit, take a look at the environment around you. Are there sunny spots and shady spots, or will your patrons be stuck in the glare? Take advantage of wooded areas, or provide shaded seating with an umbrella, shelter or shade structure so patrons have options.

Some places are made for people to gather. At Riverview Park in Independence, Ore., for example, there is an amphitheater and a large playground.

Other places are designed for contemplation. Tanner Springs Park in Portland, Ore., was designed on former wetlands. The park was designed to evoke the feel of a wetland and is meant to be a destination for contemplation, with modern benches to sit on, water to listen to and art to view.

When it comes to materials, there are lots of angles to take into consideration. Price is important, but it's not the only point you should consider. Sure, all things being equal in terms of quality and service, you'll want to go with the lowest bidder. But sometimes a low price also means low quality or poor service. Ongoing maintenance requirements can make a cheap picnic table much more expensive in the long run.

Your site furnishings should all be constructed of durable materials that suit the particular site. Formal parks and gardens in urban areas call for more formal designs in classic or modern styles. Rustic natural areas might benefit more from wood or plastic lumber furnishings.

To build sustainability into your parks, look for indigenous materials, Figurski suggested.

"In the Pacific Northwest, we use cedar, fir and hemlock in terms of woods. We see a lot of stone, and we use a lot of water in design," he said. "Use things that speak of your local area."

When you do have to select other materials, some options are more sustainable than others, he added.

"Steel, for example, tends to be highly recycled," Figurski said. "And you should choose things that are not just recycled, but that sustain themselves: materials like steel benches or things like that have a long life cycle so you're not replacing them as often. Look for things in site elements that have components that can be easily replaced so you don't have to rebuild the entire structure—you can just replace a piece of it."

Using materials that exist on site is another way to build sustainability into your park.

"At Tanner Springs Park, which we finished two years ago now, we actually incorporated some old railroad track," Figurski said. "It just happened that in another area, the local railroad was tearing out railroad tracks, and that got incorporated into the art component of that park as a very nice wall."


Bollards might not be on the top of your list of considerations for park furnishings, but here are five reasons why they should be:

  1. They can provide boundaries between vehicle traffic and pedestrians.
  2. They can prevent vehicles from driving where they're not supposed to or from parking too close to buildings or other structures.
  3. Lighted bollards can provide low-key, low-profile illumination to walkways to increase a sense of safety for pedestrians using the site at night.
  4. They can illuminate areas for security personnel.
  5. Planters that double as bollards can enhance the site and can also separate different uses in the park, such as playgrounds and open fields.


Playgrounds provide the opportunity for children to explore their world and stretch their abilities, to develop their bodies as well as their social skills. Climbing boulders and skateparks offer similar challenges for tweens and teens. Kids can spend hours at play on slides and climbers, or skating, climbing and biking—exercising their bodies and minds while having a grand time.

But planning to include a playground is far more involved than simply deciding which equipment to throw on your park site. As with the rest of the park, you have to start by determining the purpose of the play area.

This means asking questions about the number of children who will use the park on a regular basis and their age distribution, special uses and needs, an inventory of existing equipment that can be used and any specific themes you want to incorporate into the park.

Here again, community involvement in the process is essential. They'll not only give you answers to these questions, but they also might enjoy contributing to the design process and will help ensure the playground is well maintained once it's installed.

"Different age groups have a different impact on the type of site furniture and play equipment you pick out," Calpino said. "One age group will have higher equipment that impacts the design of the fall zones. Your goal is that it looks uniform, but each piece has a different implication on the design."

The National Program for Playground Safety (NPPS) recommends selecting equipment that is age-appropriate, which means designing different play areas for three different age groups: children who are 6 months to 23 months old; preschoolers from 2 to 5; and school-age children from 5 to 12.

For the little ones, play areas can provide a place for exploring their abilities and their environment. These play areas might include places for crawling, standing and walking, but don't need to be terribly complex.

For 2- to 5-year-olds, playgrounds should have small steps and crawl spaces. Low platforms with multiple points of access, including ramps, ladders and climbers with pieces attached for grasping might be appropriate. Tables that can hold sand or water, allowing kids to work with their hands, are fun for this age group as well. Spring animals are also fun for these kids. Slides for this age group should not be taller than 4 feet, with appropriately planned fall surfacing beneath.

For school-age children, taller equipment is OK, and might also include rope and chain climbers, as well as other climbing pieces, tire swings, sliding poles and more.

When the city of Sacramento needed to upgrade its parks to meet newer ADA and safety guidelines, it developed standards of design that applied to all of its playgrounds—including playgrounds that would be built as part of any new park developments. With one to two playgrounds in each of its existing 75 or so parks, it made sense to standardize across all of those locations, rather than going back to the drawing board for each park.

Things such as space allotments and equipment heights for "Tot Lots," designed for 2- to 5-year-olds, "Adventure Areas," meant for 5- to 12-year-olds, and Combination play areas are outlined in the design guidelines. For example, for Tot Lots, Sacramento suggests 3,500 square feet with a small sand area if space allows, with no deck higher than 4 feet. For Adventure Areas, 5,000 square feet is the suggested area, with deck heights from 4 to 6 feet. A list of specific manufacturers is provided as well.

"We had to come up with some standardization," said Dennis Day, a landscape architect for the city of Sacramento. "The first thing was we selected manufacturers that we thought had the best equipment. We were looking for equipment that is durable, long-lasting, easy to maintain and easy to get parts for. Most of the playground equipment has to last for 20 years, so we have to have companies that are going to be in business 20 years from now and can get parts for us if we need them in 15 years."

Sacramento has since used its guidelines to help direct the design of an additional 60 parks.

"When the ADA and safety guidelines changed, we had to redesign 75 parks, and we had one to two playgrounds per park," Day said. "Now we have another 60 parks that we've built since those. So the city of Sacramento has around 150 parks, and each has a playground. We're designing 12 to 15 new parks a year, so we prepared these standards to give to our consultants to help guide the design."

In addition to specifying manufacturers and sizes for playgrounds, the budgets and costs for each playground were defined. Then, Day determined the specific types of equipment desired for each type of playground. For example, for Adventure Areas, Sacramento suggests slides, overhead events, a bridge, climbers, a turning or chinning bar, arch and tire swings and a roof. For Tot Lots, slides, crawl tunnels or a bridge, activity panels, tot swings and spring riders are suggested.

In order to avoid duplication across the age groups, Sacramento's design guidelines further recommend a specific number and type of slide for both playground types. For the Adventure Areas at least three slides are recommended, including a spiral, a slidewinder and one slide of choice; and for the Tot Lot, two or more slides are recommended, with one being a double slide or side-by-side slide.

"As I was designing the 75 parks, we standardized the sizes of the playgrounds so we have some equity. Then we standardized costs. I met with both manufacturers' reps and representatives from the communities, and we found the things that are desirable to have," Day said. "So we list the specific kinds of items, like kinds of slides, and we didn't want duplication. We came up with these things as a starting point for the design. We wanted to be state-of-the-art and make each of the playgrounds different."

Sacramento went beyond requesting specific types and sizes of equipment to also suggest that playgrounds should suit the themes of their parks.

"We're big on themes and not making every park look the same," Day said. "It would be easy to look in the catalog and pick one piece of equipment and repeat the same structure in every park, but we want them all to be different. We know, for example, that there are mothers' groups out there that travel around to different parks in the city, and it makes it more interesting and fun for them."

Creative themes are not limited to California. Calpino said that JJR often works closely with artists to help create great play areas with specific themes for the city of Chicago, too.

"Public art is becoming really big in Chicago," he said. "For a lot of the playgrounds we work on, we are paired up with an artist who will help develop that theme. That way you don't end up with a fire truck next to a dolphin. Of course, no matter what you put in there, the kids are going to love it. But typically, we'll work with an artist who will help tie it all together." Calpino said that building creativity into the play areas of a park is another part

of the park design process where the community should get involved.

"Sometimes we'll get the neighborhood kids involved in that as well, like having the artist design a mosaic that the kids put the tiles in," he explained. "Projects are becoming more sophisticated in a way, but also more grounded. And in the end, you end up with more buy-in from the local community, and you see less vandalism because of that."

Sacramento helps prevent vandalism by avoiding play equipment that is more prone to damage. The design guidelines state, "High-maintenance and vandal-prone items such as bubble panels, Lexan panels, tic-tac-toe panels, enclosed slides and cubes and rotationally molded climbers shall not be used."

Security and safety are also critical issues to consider when designing play areas. You need to consider everything from materials and maintenance requirements to accessibility and traffic issues.

"Sight lines are important for security," Calpino said, emphasizing that parents should be able to see their children at play and that you should make sure you don't have an open fence next to a slide that goes by a busy road. If you're in an urban situation, you want to be able to see everything. If you have a parent with three kids, you need a common viewing area so the parent can feel in control and can see everyone in the park. Surveillance is important. You don't want it to feel like a security perimeter though—it still has to feel like a park."

Sacramento recommends providing a shaded group seating area and individual benches so adults can directly supervise their children in the play area.

When it comes to choosing playground component materials, there are safety and maintenance considerations too. Wood playgrounds used to be a lot more common, but are less so today because of the significant maintenance requirements, as well as the fact that wooden equipment can rot in the ground or splinter, creating hazards. Steel equipment can rust, so aluminum and stainless steel are more common. Vinyl-coated metal and plastic parts are popular since they protect children from a cold or hot shock due to temperature variations and come in bright colors that suit playgrounds well.

To really ensure the safety of the playground, you have to consider what's underneath the play equipment, too. The Consumer Product Safety Commission reports that falls to the surface account for nearly 70 percent of all playground injuries. You can help lower the number of children who end up in doctor's offices and emergency rooms due to playground accidents by ensuring that there is a safe surface beneath the equipment.

The manufacturer of your play components can help explain things like the critical height rating of the equipment, which will help you determine the best surfacing option, but generally speaking, surfaces come in two types.

Loose-fill material is a common choice for playgrounds and can include wood fiber, sand, pea gravel, recycled rubber products and other materials. Maintenance is required to ensure that the fill level remains adequate. At the ends of slides, for example, the constant movement of the fill can result in a less-than-adequate depth, requiring occasional raking of the fill.

Poured-in-place rubber surfaces and factory-engineered tiles are another option, and can be found in many different colors. They are relatively durable and require less maintenance than loose fill, but might cost more up front. These surfaces are often ideal for playgrounds that attract a lot of wheelchair users.

Signs can also help keep kids safer. For the city of Sacramento, play signage is placed at the entrance to each play area to inform kids and parents of the appropriate ages for the equipment.

Placing equipment so that children at play don't run into one another is also an important factor. Sacramento recommends orienting swing areas away from "active play" areas to avoid problems with circulation, for example.

Many of the same factors you would consider in playground design are also important when selecting skatepark components, including safety, durability of equipment and ensuring proper circulation of skaters and bikers. Some cities offer different types of areas and ramps to allow skaters and BMX-ers to take part in the fun, but separately.

You should also consider some specific site furnishings to include with a skatepark area. Remember that skaters are likely to try out their skills on any piece or equipment or furnishing they can roll to. That means durability is essential. Taking that into consideration, here are some types of furnishings to consider for your skatepark:

  • Bleachers or benches so parents and passers-by can watch the action. It's not a bad idea to look for benches that can't be skated, so people can actually find a place to sit.
  • Fencing, not to keep people out, but to keep skateboards in.
  • Water fountains and possibly a concession area with a public phone.
  • Outdoor lockers or skateboard racks, as well as bike racks.
  • Signage posting the rules of the park.
  • Lighting if you want skaters to be able to use the park after dark.
  • Trash and recycling containers.

As with the rest of the park, when you're working on a skatepark, you should be sure to get the community involved in the planning process. Local skaters will be able to help you choose the elements they're most likely to skate (which will keep them off the streets and out of the downtown business district), and park neighbors can air any concerns about noise and safety.

Made in the Shade
The importance of sun protection

According to the American Cancer Society, more than 1 million people in the United States develop skin cancer each year, and 10,000 people die every year as a result. Skin cancer—and melanoma, which is the deadliest form of the disease—make up around 50 percent of all types of cancers that are diagnosed, despite that fact that skin cancer is one of the most preventable forms of cancer.

Most skin cancer is caused by overexposure to the sun, and according to the Skin Cancer Foundation, most of a person's exposure to UV radiation occurs during the childhood years. A single sunburn in childhood can double the risk for melanoma later on.

How can you help prevent skin cancer? Provide shade.

Kids playing on the playground, parents watching nearby, people picnicking in the park, trail users stopping for a rest—all can benefit from a little bit of shade.

Whether you provide shade by planting trees or by erecting shade structures, you can help decrease people's risk of skin cancer, as well as simply helping them cool off on a hot day.

If your park is short on trees, or if you want to throw a picnic area or playground in a wide-open space, fabric shade structures or park shelters can provide an aesthetic appeal.

Just be sure when you're shopping to select a structure that blocks as many harmful UV rays as possible.


According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's "Preventing Chronic Diseases: Investing Wisely in Health, Preventing Obesity and Chronic Diseases Through Good Nutrition and Physical Activity," $5.6 billion in heart disease costs could be saved if just 10 percent of adults began a walking program. And as the baby boomer generation grows older and faces increasing risk of heart disease and other chronic illnesses, the number of people walking for fitness will only grow. It's already among the 10 most popular exercises in the United States, with more than 36 million fitness walkers in 2005 reported by the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association (SGMA).

Parks provide an ideal outlet for people looking to get some exercise, whether they're just strolling along paved park trails, engaging in more strenuous workouts using fitness equipment placed along park trails, or going for a hike into park open space and natural areas.

Park trails can be designed differently depending on use. Some trails are designed for fitness, with wellness stations and workout gear placed sporadically along the trail. Other trails are designed for easy walking. Some trails include room for bikes and even horses. Other trails are meant to provide hikers and walkers with a natural view. But no matter what the purpose of the trail is, there are some things to keep in consideration.

Every park needs paths so people can circulate through the different areas. You should especially consider any areas that may need to be serviced by vehicles, and be sure to build those paths wide enough to accommodate your fleet. Also take ADA requirements into consideration.

Before you plan any path, Figurski of GreenWorks suggests some simple observation to be sure you get it right the first time.

"I think the first thing to do is to spend some time just observing the site so you really understand what's going on—in terms of drainage patterns, sun patterns and topography," he said. "It helps to stand back a little bit, and if you're designing a trail and you're on a specific site, what are the connections and attractions outside the site. People are coming in multiple modes, coming for different reasons, and they may not leave the same way they came."

He also suggested looking for "desire lines" that already exist on the site—places where people have already worn a path getting from one desired activity to another.

Signs can help people figure out how the trail should be used, and can include information about accessibility, distance, safety information and educational opportunities.

Several manufacturers offer fitness equipment that can be placed along a park trail to allow adults to get in a workout while they enjoy the great outdoors. This equipment can include cardio-enhancing machines, strength-building opportunities and stretching stations. Generally, the equipment is manufactured to be extra-durable to withstand the weather pressures not seen by indoor gym equipment.

One manufacturer even offers support through a club for older adults who are taking part in a more active lifestyle, using the wellness stations. Program directors who use the equipment get user performance and programming kits to help promote the exercise trails.

Some larger parks may offer a more natural path through a changing landscape, along with educational opportunities for hikers, bikers and other trail users. It's important to include occasional places to sit along the way for weary travelers. You also can include rest stops at particularly beautiful vistas.

"Look at orientation so you get good exposure," Figurski said. "Most people like a little bit of sun, especially here in the Northwest. You also look for interest in visual quality—creating a ranging pathway or aligning the path so you are at one point focused on a unique and interesting feature, and then diverted away from it. You should get long views and close views. There's a sequence that is set up in the journey and process where you get there. Natural systems are the same—observing what's going on, trying to work with what's there and build upon it, rather than redirect it."

Choosing the Right Material

Selecting the best material to suit a specific site means more than just accepting the lowest bid. You need to consider the site carefully. What components are already there? Will the new materials fit in with those existing furnishings? What's different about this particular site's environment? Is it more or less prone to graffiti and vandalism? Is it more or less exposed to damaging weather conditions like wind, sea salt or snowstorms? Are there a lot of trees shading the area, or it is exposed to the bright sun?

The city of Sacramento's Park Design guidelines suggest avoiding wood furniture unless it is specifically requested to match what already exists in the park, for example. The guidelines also suggest that only in-ground mounted furniture should be used, and that while colors should be approved in advance by the city, the colors selected should be compatible with existing playground and site pieces.

Also, consider the pros and cons of specific materials. Here's a quick list to help you narrow your choices:


PROS: strong; lightweight; affordable

CONS: fewer aesthetic options; can corrode if not coated or anodized; subject to vandalism in some locations as a scrap metal


PROS: durable; heavy; available in a variety of colors and textures

CONS: can crack; can be difficult to clean unless coated


PROS: naturally beautiful; conducts heat well, comfortable; lower cost (softwoods); durability (hardwoods); rust- and stain-resistant

CONS: requires regular painting, staining and/or sealing; can splinter (ouch!); easily damaged; difficult to clean unless coated


PROS: lightweight and portable; conducts heat well, comfortable; self-cleaning in the elements; durable with lifespan of around 15 years

CONS: may fade without UV protection


PROS: environmentally friendly; moisture-proof; does not corrode, rot or rust; does not splinter; virtually maintenance-free; durable; vandalism-resistant; heavy

CONS: more expensive initially; may fade without UV protection; may sag in high heat without steel reinforcement


PROS: lightweight, moveable

CONS: easier to damage than some other materials


PROS: conducts heat well, comfortable; corrosion-resistant; durable; virtually maintenance-free; heavy

CONS: can be scratched, may fade without UV protection


PROS: durable, beautiful, heavy

CONS: must be treated to prevent rusting


Truly making a place for everyone means including some spots for pets in your parks. Outfitting a dog park can be particularly challenging, since you have to take two user groups into consideration—the four-legged kind as well as the two-legged variety.

"I think there are two components to consider—socialization for the dogs, but also for the dog owner," said Trudy Wakeman, director of parks and recreation for Lake in the Hills, Ill.

Lake in the Hills has one of the most popular dog parks in its area, and recently approved plans to add an additional 14 acres to the 3.5-acre park to accommodate the high usage.

In fact, Wakeman said that year-round the dog park is one of the most popular amenities in the community.

"We have baseball fields, tennis courts and soccer fields, and there are statistics out there that show that a good number of households have animals, and some of those don't have kids," she explained. "We've attracted that group. We've attracted some seniors. It's a great social outlet for adults, and some great friendships have developed out there. Hopefully, we're training those dog owners and their dogs are a little better trained out in public. This is the highest-used facility year-round that we have. We have a four-month sports facility that's busy April through October, but this is the highest used year round that we have, and it shows it."

That's why maintenance is also an important consideration, Wakeman said.

"Really an ability to maintain a dog park is pretty tough," she said. "It's hard to do, but we all talk about it, and weather is a huge factor."

As far as furnishing the dog park goes, Wakeman and others suggest providing shade so dogs and their owners can relax, as well as offering a big open space for dogs to run, fetch and play. Providing water is essential for both canines and their owners.

"We've actually added some small lighting, so in the middle of fall, owners who get home at 5:30 can still take their dog out there," Wakeman said. "A bathroom is important too."

Altogether, you should consider the following when outfitting your park for canine use:

  • Doggie waste receptacles (preferably with baggies provided for those who don't bring their own, to encourage them to scoop that poop).
  • Water fountains for dogs and for humans.
  • Enclosed fencing to provide for off-leash play, with a separate enclosed entry way to allow dogs to ease into the situation.
  • Wheelchair accessibility, with paths and seating that allow for the disabled to use the park too.
  • Signage announcing the rules, etiquette and schedules. This can also include a message center, especially for innovative programming offerings like obedience classes and agility training, if you or someone in your community offers those opportunities.
  • Lighting for nightime use.
  • Benches and picnic tables (though Wakeman said food should be discouraged, since the dogs will certainly go for it).
  • Sheltered seating in case of bad weather, since many dog owners are willing to venture into the rain just to get a little exercise for their pets.

"Probably the biggest challenge for us is that not every owner takes responsibility for their dog, and every owner has their way of disciplining or not disciplining," Wakeman said. "When the two clash is when I get the phone calls."

Sometimes the owners are the problem, and sometimes the dogs are the problem. Part of the expansion of the dog park will allow for a dog adjustment area where dogs can meet and greet before running off-leash, a response to a recent incident when a pit-bull mix puppy fatally mauled another dog.

"We've been open almost two years and probably the biggest challenge has been educating dog owners that it's the same as having a kid at the playground—they're responsible for their dog," Wakeman said. "Some of the challenges have been when you walk in, let the dog start socializing, and you start reading a book and turn away and we have fights. The bottom line is that the dog owner is responsible for their own pet."

Lights in the Spotlight

Lighting is an essential consideration when designing your park. It can increase a sense of safety and security for park patrons, while also helping them find their way in the dark. Lighting specific elements, like a dramatic planting of trees or a beautiful fountain, also adds to the aesthetic appeal of the park.

When deciding how to light up your site, you need to take the park's operations into consideration, said Gregg Calpino of JJR, a landscape design firm. At the very least, he said, you need to make sure people are able to leave.

"I do a lot more municipal urban parks, but we're doing some national parks as well, and they have a night sky program that requires no light pollution," he said. "But even with those facilities you need at least enough light to get out of the park."

One project the firm is working on in Portage, Ind., is located on the waterfront. "We know based on the way it's situated that people are going to come to watch the sunset, so we need to design a minimal level of lighting for safe egress," Calpino said.

The City of Sacramento outlines lighting requirements in its park design guidelines, and suggests that community and regional parks should be designed for night use, with lighting that provides for safety as well as recreational uses, but that minimizes glare on local neighborhoods.

The Project for Public Spaces reports that many cities over-light their parks, and that too much lighting can be just as bad as too little.

"The key to developing a good plan is to relate lighting to the evening functions of a particular space because in the larger view, street lighting is more than just a technical requirement, a security need or a design element," PPS explains on its Web site. "It can be thought of and utilized in terms of how the type, placement and wattage affect how a street is perceived and used."

"Then you get parks where it's a river walk, and people need to determine if they want decorative lighting or not," Calpino added. "Do you want to see the lights or do you want them to vanish? With the decorative lights, you get security and a nice-looking site furnishing—a classical park look."


In the United States, around 20 percent of the population has a documented disability, but more than half of those people do not engage in any physical activity, and even with more emphasis placed on making places accessible through legislation like the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), many disabled Americans do not venture into parks and playgrounds.

To ensure that everyone in your community can take part in the open spaces you provide, you need to start by ensuring your park is accessible. Virtually every kind of site furnishing can be made accessible, and most manufacturers of site furnishings offer accessible varieties of benches, picnic tables, water fountains and even grills.

But you need to remember that where you place these furnishings is also important. Keep your accessible picnic areas close to a parking lot, and provide a pathway that makes it easy for wheelchairs to navigate. Wood chips and paths without curb cuts make it nearly impossible for wheelchair users to get where they want to go.

Part of ensuring your parks will be used by the disabled also requires a communication campaign. This can start with getting the community involved. The Excellent City Park System, a publication based on research by the Trust for Public Land, lauds the city of Virginia Beach, which created a committee for the disabled, made up of a cross-section of agency staff, private nonprofits and members of the community. The committee meets monthly to provide ideas about improving accessibility in the city, and parks are an important part of this process. Once funding is granted, projects move forward, and once the city made its parks' bathrooms accessible, it began working on making trails and playgrounds more accessible.

Use the local media to let the disabled community know that your parks are accessible. You can also provide signage at park entrances to let disabled patrons know which areas in the park are most accessible to them. This should include playgrounds, picnic areas and pathways.

Signs, Signs, Everywhere a Sign

Signs can serve multiple purposes at your site, and if you overlook their essential functions, people may not feel welcome, Even worse, if your site is particularly large, people might get lost.

Signs are often made of wood, and are usually customized for each park. Recycled plastic is another attractive option that suits outdoor settings and is quite durable.

At the very least, you should include a sign at the entrance to your site, letting people know the park's name and the hours it is open for their use.

Also at the entrance, you might consider providing a kiosk with a bulletin board where different types of information can be posted depending on the season.

At playgrounds and skateparks, signs should be posted to announce the rules and let patrons know what types of behavior will not be tolerated. But don't make these signs overly negative. A welcoming statement along the lines of "Enjoy Yourself" or "Have Fun!" with a list of "Do's" to guide behavior is better than a strict list of "Don'ts."

The Project for Public Spaces suggests placing signage along with other site furnishings, like benches, concessions, restrooms or even simply the crossroads of two paths, to create mini-destinations.

When planning your signage, you should talk to patrons and park employees about what they need to know. Are there any parts of the park that people have difficulty finding? Are there recurring questions people commonly ask park employees? What about unique historical and cultural elements you might want to educate the public about?

Take all of this into consideration, and then be sure to include the following types of signs to help your patrons find their way, follow the rules and learn about your site:

  • Welcome signs
  • Maps of the site
  • Informational signs and bulletin boards including upcoming events and other site information
  • Educational signs to inform patrons about cultural, historical and natural site elements
  • Directional signs, such as color-coded posts along different trails, particularly at the intersection of two trails


They may not be the most beautiful site components, but if you fail to plan carefully, your park's beauty will be severely compromised if you ignore garbage cans and recycling bins.

These receptacles come with considerations of their own. Ask these questions to be sure you get it right, and avoid litter problems in the park: How many people use the park, and how much garbage do they throw away? How often can we empty the receptacles? Is vandalism a problem? What about wildlife?

Answering the first two questions will help you determine how many receptacles you'll need. Make sure you get enough receptacles—or big enough receptacles—so you can empty the cans on your own schedule. Too small or too few, and your maintenance staff may get overloaded.

Buying garbage cans and recycling containers in bulk can help you save some money on the purchase, but specific site considerations need to be taken into account, just as when you're purchasing benches and picnic tables. For a more groomed urban park, for example, you might want to invest in a classic-looking can. For rustic areas, appearance may be less of a concern, while protecting the garbage within from the critters without will be vital.

Trash receptacles should be placed close to seating and picnic areas, but don't put them so close that people will be disturbed by odors and insects.

In Midwestern autumns, bees commonly hover around trash cans, creating a nuisance for picnickers. Designers suggest 10 to 20 feet as a good distance between seating and garbage cans.

Receptacles should be easy to use—both for park maintenance staff, as well as for park patrons.

According to the Project for Public Spaces, the best waste receptacles do not require patrons to touch them in order to use them, and openings should be large enough to accommodate the litter. In parks, for example, people may be throwing bigger things away, so the hole needs to be larger. Also, to accommodate the handicapped, the opening shouldn't be more than 3 feet high.

For park maintenance staff's ease of use, PPS suggests that the easiest receptacles to service can be emptied from the top. Moving parts are to be avoided, since they can easily be broken or vandalized.

When you put care and consideration into your park planning process, you'll be sure to get it right, creating a park that provides a place where all can gather to celebrate the spirit of your community.

A Place for Plants

You can make your site pop with good landscaping. In more urban parks and at entrances, planters can do a nice job of making a more aesthetically pleasing space.

In addition, you can use plantings to separate different site elements.

Jim Figurski, a landscape architect with GreenWorks PC, suggests considering native plant materials, which will be easier to maintain.

"One of the easiest things to look at in terms of sustainability is native plant materials," he said. "And I always say that with a caveat, because they're not always the best plants for a particular design."

The elements of the site may make native plants less native, he said.

"Parking lots, for example, are not a natively occurring function," Figurski explained. "They tend to be more desert-like, and if you don't live in a desert area, your native plant species might not be best suited for that type of use."

Just be sure that wherever you plant, there is a water source nearby.

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