Special Accommodations

Meeting Special Needs with Shelters, Shade and Other Park Structures

By Stacy St. Clair

helters have long held a role in the recreation world. They've kept picnickers dry on rainy days. They've spruced up otherwise-boring venues. They even helped Captain Von Trapp and the hapless Maria fall in love.

Park shelters can provide anything from the most formally designed, aesthetically pleasing spaces with breathtaking views that are beautiful enough to host weddings and other special events to informal, simple structures that provide a spot for a picnic. Shelters embrace a huge range of architectural styles that are meant to complement any type of setting. In more rustic, natural parks and picnic areas, a simple park shelter will do nicely, but in urban areas and more formal settings such as botanical gardens and campuses, you want to look for shelters that incorporate beautiful, architectural elements such as cupolas or even clock towers.

Here's a list of typical terminology you'll come across as you search for shelters and other park structures available to beautify your site:

  • Amphitheater: While technically not shelters, amphitheaters are often found in parks and other recreation venues due to their ability to provide so many programming opportunities. Usually a level space surrounded by a curved area that gradually ascends, providing for natural or man-made stadium-style seating, an amphitheater is ideal for hosting concerts, theatrical performances and more. In addition to manmade amphitheaters, there are many so-called natural amphitheaters, which are built around natural elements, such as the Red Rocks Park and Amphitheater in Denver, Colo.
  • Arbor: An arbor is typically a decorative, usually small, structure that provides privacy and sometimes weather protection. Usually found in a garden setting, arbors are often made of wood, though arbors of wrought-iron and more durable materials can be found as well. They often hold vines or other vegetation.
  • Bandstand or Band Shell: A circular or semicircular structure, a bandstand is what its name says it is. A simple structure designed to accommodate musical groups' performances.
  • Belvedere: The term belvedere was adopted from the Italian and literally means "fair view." So it makes sense that a belvedere would be a structure created with a view in mind. The actual form of the structure can take virtually any shape—a turret, a cupola, an open gallery. Basically, if there's a good view, it's a belvedere.
  • Cupola: This is a dome-shaped structure on top of a larger roof. In the world of park shelters, a cupola is the pitched top of a structure, such as a gazebo.
  • Gazebo: A gazebo is a decorative pavilion common in parks and gardens. They are freestanding, roofed structures that are open on all sides. In addition to being beautiful site additions, gazebos provide shade and shelter to park patrons.
  • Pavilion: A pavilion is a free-standing structure that, according to Wikipedia's definition, is somehow connected with relaxation or pleasure.
  • Pergola: The airy, mostly open pergola is generally found in gardens, and creates a shaded walk of pillars supporting a lattice or crossbeams above. The lattice often supports climbing plants to enhance the shady aspect of the structure. They are not generally used for shelter, but more for adding a bit of aesthetic beauty to a site.
  • Yurt: A circular structure dating back to ancient times, a yurt is a wood frame covered by fabric. The walls are supported by a wooden lattice. Some parks have made use of yurts as camping structures.

No matter which type of shelter you go with, they can help you to provide additional programming opportunities at your site. A beautiful gazebo may be a perfect site to rent for outdoor weddings, while your bandstand or amphitheater can host a summertime concert-in-the-parks series.

Many park districts provide special pavilions for rental to patrons for picnics, family reunions and other events. If you're going to go this route, try to be sure your shelter is situated near restroom facilities, and includes lighting, water, electricity and picnic tables or other seating.

Going one step further, shelters and shade structures can be far more than just simple park ornaments and places to picnic. Creative recreation facility directors in some progressive communities are turning to innovative shelters and shade structures to play a critical role in providing recreation opportunities for patrons with special needs.

Discourage Damage

There's nothing really good to say about graffiti. It turns off patrons, drains manpower and creates an awful eyesore. It can be the result of a childish prank or more sinister gang activity. Either way, it's still 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 shelter sullied by vandalism gives the impression of a neglected park. Even worse, it also may suggest that more serious crimes—such as theft and assault—go unchallenged there.

When purchasing and installing shelters, gazebos and other park structures, you're also accepting a civic duty. You assume responsibility for keeping it crime-free, protecting property values and making patrons feel safe.

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 '09" or "Becks + Posh 4Ever." 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 that 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.

Sadly, most recreation facility managers don't start worrying about graffiti until after their parks have been vandalized. The best way to deter property damage, however, is to have a proactive plan in the first place. Check out our 13 steps to help you make a clean start for your facility, on page 28.

Under the Arizona Sun

In Surprise, Ariz., officials used colorful shade structures as part of the innovative design at DreamCatcher Park. The unique sporting venue was specifically designed to attract and encourage athletes with physical disabilities.

Since its opening in March 2007, the multi-use facility has garnered national attention. Inspired by the Miracle League—a nonprofit organization that aims to give all children a chance to play baseball, regardless of their physical abilities—the artificial playing field was built with special-needs patrons in mind. The playing surface is designed so wheelchairs and walkers can move easily. There are wider gates at the field entrances, as well as wheelchair-accessible stadium seating, dugouts, concession stands and restrooms.

The thoughtful design even considers the fans' needs. The stadium-style seating is covered with a custom-fitted shade structure. While the shading may not be considered an essential park furnishing, the covering actually makes the park even more accessible.

"It's important because a lot of kids with special needs are also heat-sensitive," said Steven Groves, board president of the Miracle League of Arizona. "Shade and what's overhead needs to be just as important as what's underfoot."

The fabric shade structures provide an aesthetic touch while blocking dangerous UV rays to provide a cool and comfortable environment for spectators. Their selection was based on team collaboration on color, fabric and design. Several factors were taken into consideration, including the aesthetics of the facility, the overall facility design, durability, sun protection and how it reflected the sun from the playing field.

DreamCatcher's shade structures also follow a popular trend in recreation design. Sporting venues across the country now include shelters and shade elements as an integral part of their design.

Shade—whether fabric toppers over bleachers and dugouts or centralized and permanent pavilion structures—has become a priority. Sun protection for both staff and citizens has moved to the forefront as risk awareness has reached a fever pitch.

Shade structures have become popular additions at outdoor swimming pools and family aquatic facilities, as well as over playgrounds—especially in parts of the country where the sun can be relentless.

In a sports complex setting, cities often combine fabric and permanent pavilion-type structures where fabric works well at the fields themselves, with pavilions providing central meeting and gathering spots.

"I can't emphasize enough the importance of shade to us," Groves said of DreamCatcher's covered dugouts and bleachers. "We have 320 days a year of sunshine and over 120 days a year with temperatures over 100 degrees. Our great weather creates its own problems."

Indeed, the depletion of the earth's ozone is increasing our exposure to the sun's dangerous ultraviolet rays. With more than 1 million cases diagnosed each year, skin cancer currently ranks among the fastest-growing cancers in the United States. More than 10,000 people die from skin cancer each year, according to the American Cancer Society, and a baby born today is twice as likely to develop skin cancer as a child born 10 years ago. Research also shows that as few as two severe sunburns during childhood can double the chance of developing potentially deadly melanoma later in life.

With those staggering statistics in mind, progressive-minded recreation facility managers have made it a priority to protect the public—particularly children—from sun exposure.

Synthetic materials like polyethylene mesh are used in most fabric shade structures today, making them tear- and fade-resistant. More importantly, they're able to block out up to 96 percent of the sun's harmful UV rays. The latest materials also feature water resistance, while advances in engineering of the structures allow them to bear significant wind or even snow loads. In addition, they do something that many solid-roofed structures cannot: They breathe. Fabric is permeable, so hot air rises through it. It creates a movement of air that can reduce the temperatures beneath the structures by as much as 30 percent. So in addition to blocking UV rays, the structures help reduce the risk of heat stroke and other overheating-related ailments. They also can protect spectators from errant foul balls. In short, they make the games a fun (and healthy) experience for parents and grandparents, too.

"The parents really enjoy the sidelines because they're shaded," Groves said. "Some of these parents are the kids' caretakers 24x7. This is their chance to relax."

Make a Clean Start
13 Tips to Keep Your Park Graffiti-Free

Having a proactive plan in place for dealing with potential vandalism and graffiti is key to ensuring a safe, clean park. Here are 13 lucky tips to help you make a clean start:

1. Organize a local paint-out. Local businesses often are willing to donate paint and brushes for volunteers to use for graffiti cleanup. Home improvement stores also sell "oops!" paint—cans that have been wrongly mixed—at embarrassingly low prices.

2. Keep your park clean. A neglected appearance invites vandalism. Make sure litter is picked up, fences mended and shrubbery trimmed. Your shelters also should be well-maintained, reminding would-be vandals that they're a source of civic pride.

3. Install quality lighting. Poorly lit structures are more vulnerable to nighttime vandals. One option would be to use motion-detector lights. Keeping the lights on all night makes it easier for people to see graffiti vandals, but it also wastes energy, annoys neighbors and lets vandals see what they are doing. Also, if an area is usually dark, people will notice if it is suddenly lit up.

4. Go green. Shrubbery provides natural—as well as psychological—barriers. The University of Rutgers Crime Prevention Service recommends removing large trees or bushes that block people's view of vandals. The best plant life for graffiti-prone areas is short bushes that keep people from getting too close to walls. Make sure you keep the bushes well-trimmed.

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 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.

13. Use the media. Ask reporters not to show images of graffiti in their news reports. Taggers enjoy seeing their work in the spotlight. The publicity could inspire more vandalism.

Into the Trees

Shelters and other park structures also can be used to create unique programming opportunities. The Cincinnati park system took its venues to new heights—literally—when officials decided to build a treehouse in one of its most cherished parks.

A knock on Parks Superintendent Gerald Checco's door last fall put to rest any doubts he had about whether the idea was a good one. A TV crew from South Korea stood outside on his doorstep on a cold November day, hoping to do a story on the new treehouse in Mt. Airy Forest. The reporter wanted to feature the whimsical structure on a Korean television documentary on "what's good about America."

"I knew at that moment that the treehouse was a success," Checco said. "It's so successful, people on other continents know about it."

Long before the TV crew arrived, however, Checco had a feeling his parks department could do something great with the structure. At the urging of the mayor and a local journalist, he had investigated the treehouse trend, a nationwide movement that puts a twist on the typical park structure.

The initiative is currently being led by Forever Young Treehouses, a nonprofit organization based in Burlington, Vt. The movement started when financial adviser Bill Allen talked Dr. Phil Trabulsy into building a treehouse at his home in Colchester, Vt. During the process, the two of them began thinking about a treehouse camp for kids. As members of the board of the Vermont Make-A-Wish Foundation, Allen and Trabulsy were particularly sensitive to the needs and limitations of sick kids. It occurred to them that treehouse play was probably an activity that most kids with disabilities never experience.

The pair quickly began work on their first universally accessible treehouse. The end result drew raves from engineers, architects and people with disabilities. The reviews were so positive, they pitched their idea to Camp Ta-Kum-Ta, a camp for children with cancer in Colchester.

That treehouse, built in 2001, overlooks the water and covers 600 square feet with a 191-foot wheelchair ramp. The children had such a powerful reaction to the structure, their enthusiasm led to the founding of Forever Young Treehouses, which creates, develops and constructs universally accessible treehouses for people of all ages and abilities. Allen and his colleagues aim to have an accessible treehouse in every state by 2008.

"Our goal," he said, "is to help everyone, regardless of ability, see the world differently, and enjoy the freedom and peace that treehouses can provide."

The movement began in campgrounds and private parks, but it has quickly spread to public recreation areas. Treehouse prices range from $75,000 for smaller structures up to as much as $500,000. Many parks have recouped the costs by offering programs at the treehouse, or by renting it out for wedding ceremonies and birthday parties.

The project certainly appealed to Scranton, Pa., Mayor Chris Doherty when he heard about the structures nearly four years ago. After learning about the treehouse movement while attending a conference, he traveled to Burlington, Vt., to get a firsthand look at Allen's work. Upon returning to Electric City, he informed his staff that the town would build a treehouse. He decided it would be placed in Nay Aug Park, a 140-acre site in the center of town with both formal and wild sections.

Built in the Victorian era, Nay Aug had been the focal point of the city's park system and was the principal recreation destination for the burgeoning industrial center that was Scranton in the 1880s. The park was carefully laid out and the installations were substantial. Through the rear of the grounds was a deep gorge that cut through 150-foot stone walls. At the bottom of the ravine was a stream and waterfall. The beautiful piece of land was spared development because, ironically, it had no value to the steel and coal industries that rule the area.

The gorgeous park, however, fell into disrepair in the last half of the century. Its fall mirrored the descent of many Rust Belt cities in the late 20th century. Scranton saw its mills and coal mines close, leaving its residents without work and its downtown businesses struggling to survive.

Under Doherty's leadership, Scrantonians have taken a renewed interest in their city. The mayor has launched an impressive revitalization campaign that has included numerous renovations to Nay Aug Park. So, when Doherty decided Scranton would be among the first in the country to have a treehouse, there was no doubt about where it would go. It would be built in Nay Aug, the crown jewel of the city's restoration efforts.

"Mayor Doherty focused on the renewal of the park, seeing its renewal as a metaphor for the city," said City Solicitor Robert Farrell. "Nay Aug was the perfect place to locate something as spectacular as an accessible treehouse."

The decision to build a community treehouse initially surprised Farrell, who was helping to oversee renovation projects all over the city. At first, he questioned how it would get done. Then he realized how impressive the project really could be. He volunteered to help build the structure and acted as the project manager.

When the city launched the project, officials knew no single source would be able to foot the entire bill, so they turned to a variety of public, federal and private funds. Many community organizations also stepped up with contributions.

A local university housed the construction crew for two months. Large equipment was donated, saving thousands of dollars. And material and labor for the entire roof—split-face cedar shakes with copper flashing—were also donated.

"Given an opportunity to channel investment directly into the park, people have been generous and enthusiastic," Farrell said.

Their efforts resulted in Pennsylvania's first public treehouse. The gorgeous structure sits on the edge of the ravine and overlooks the gorge 150 feet below. City law prohibits visitors from entering the woods, so most people are seeing the gorge for the first time in their lives—or at least for the first time since they were kids who swam in the stream below.

The dramatic view is so spectacular, it has inspired images from both professional and amateur photographers. A quick Internet search turns up hundreds of pictures taken from the structure. The treehouse also has become a favorite site for wedding photos and ceremonies.

"It has been difficult to program much on the treehouse because it has just been too busy," Farrell said.

As with any major project, there have been some naysayers, though they represent a minority. Critics question the city's decision to dedicate time and money to the treehouse. Farrell, however, wonders how many of those detractors actually have visited the structure and soaked in its breathtaking views.

During his frequent visits to the park with his own children, Farrell has noticed families with members who used walkers or wheelchairs eyeing the entrance suspiciously. It's hard for them to believe that a treehouse can be accessible to everybody—and, to their sheer delight, they quickly find out it is.

"Scranton has embraced this asset within its Nay Aug Park," Farrell said. "(But) maybe some not until they see it."

Farrell understands that the idea of building a public treehouse may put some recreation managers and elected officials outside their comfort zone. He also realizes that the price tag associated with the project could scare off some people. But he still encourages communities to go for it.

If the funding is not in place when the project starts, Farrell said officials must urge the community to be patient. He also recommended that project managers work in concert with as many funding sources as will appreciate this type of endeavor.

Once it's built, Farrell encourages facility managers to stand back and watch the recreation. The treehouse, he said, has become a true catalyst for Nay Aug Park's renovation.

"We thought we were doing a pretty good job at park revitalization," Farrell said. "The treehouse, however, was beyond our expectations. The amount of people who want to see it, the buzz surrounding how well it's built and the dramatic view have, in the words of the mayor, taken the park to a new level."

In anticipation of the treehouse's opening in May 2007, the city ordered directional signage to the structure. The signs had not arrived by early August, and the biggest complaint from patrons was that they couldn't find the famous treehouse.

"I think that's great," Farrell said. "I'm not happy they're lost. I'm just glad that they want to find something in Nay Aug that bad."

In Cincinnati, the city also found success with a treehouse. Officials began working on the project a few years ago at the urging of a local TV reporter. The initiative was overseen by the parks department, but it required the entire community's help. The local Rotary Club, for example, led the ambitious fundraising campaign. The city also secured in-kind donations from The Home Depot, the Cincinnati Bengals and Cort Furniture. A local builder offered carpenters to work on the project at no charge.

The result is a 1,500-square-foot treehouse that has captured the city's imagination. The project cost $500,000, required more than 4,000 volunteer hours and was worth all the blood, sweat and tears, officials say.

"We were thrilled," Checco said. "We knew it was a great project. It was wonderful to see the dream realized."

The structure, which is connected to 12 trees in the lush Mt. Airy forest, is made of black locust, sugar maple, black maple, ipe and cedar shakes. As the only public treehouse in the tri-state area, its fantastical design encourages imaginative play and invites visitors of all ages.

Its series of ramps provide access to all, including children with special needs who are routinely confronted with barriers to fun and play in their daily lives. Because of its accessibility, the shelter has become a popular spot for programming aimed at disabled or chronically ill children.

"In Cincinnati, we like our parks to serve as everyone's back yard," Checco said. "But quite often we're missing the people who really can't enjoy their own back yards as much as they would like."

And that group includes more than just disabled park patrons. The treehouse and its ADA-approved ramps are very popular with senior citizens as well, who once thought their tree-climbing days over. Parents also prefer the treehouse over the playground because the structure gives them a greater opportunity to interact with their children and engage in their imaginative play.

The structure also has become a popular programming spot since its November 2006 opening. School groups and day camps often rent the facility for classes. Other parks have used the treehouses for yoga classes, poetry workshops and music lessons.

While the Mt. Airy treehouse has captured the entire community's fancy, Checco truly understood its power after a group of terminally ill children spent an afternoon inside writing in their journals. A young girl who suffered from spina bifida and had spent her entire life in a wheelchair wrote an incredible story about the treehouse. She saw it as more than just a wooden structure. The 7-year-old believed it to be a dragon, which could soar her high over the 1,470-acre forest and bring her to heights she'd never known.

"We were completely moved by it," Checco said. "The experience meant so much to her. The treehouse provides a very interesting sense of freedom."

It's moments like those that Checco recalls when asked if the project was worth the expense and effort. He knows other park districts might reject such an endeavor because of the expense and effort involved, but he encourages other recreation managers to shoot for the stars—or at least the treetops.

"It's expensive, but it's also a good community-building experience," he said. "I'm not saying it was easy. I'm saying it's worth it. If we stop ourselves from doing things because they're hard, we'll never do anything exceptional."

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