Beating the Heat

Marjorie Stoneman Douglas Park in Miami Beach, Fla.

By Emily Tipping

ou can't see them. You can't hear them. You can't smell them or taste them, but if you stay out in the sun too long, you'll eventually feel their effects. The sun's ultraviolet rays have been called the most important environmental factor involved with developing skin cancer, the most common form of cancer in the United States. Among their recommendations for ameliorating the effects of UV rays, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend seeking shade, particularly during the midday hours when UV rays are stronger and more damaging.

In addition to its potential to cause life-threatening diseases, too much sun also makes for too much heat, which was the case at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas Park, located in the heart of trendy South Beach just steps away from the Atlantic Ocean in Miami Beach, Fla. The park includes a playground with structures designed for 2- to 5-year-olds and 5- to 12-year-olds, but with virtually no shade covering the equipment, the park was simply too hot for kids to play in for much of the year.

"From about April-May to November-December, it was pretty much unusable because the blacktop would become too hot, and the slides would bake in the sun," said Catherine Prescott, a local parent who helped spearhead community action to bring shade to the blisteringly hot park. "We always knew we needed shade.

We talked about it, and for the past four or five years the discussion had been in the air."

Community activism on the part of local residents eventually brought a solution to the park. Local citizens banded together to bring their desire for shade to the attention of city representatives.

"It was a long process—I'm not going to kid anyone," Prescott said. "I drafted a letter to the commissioners and the mayor, asking for help. We asked them for a shade structure to protect kids and make the playground more usable."

Local government leaders had a very positive response and took up the issue as an agenda item, inviting the community leaders to attend a meeting and state their case. Once the commission approved the project, the budget money was put in place and the Miami Beach Parks and Recreation Department was given a directive to make it happen.

Alan Bayman, president and CEO of Shade Systems Inc., said that the city of Miami Beach has an ongoing commitment to providing shade in public places to protect its residents and visitors from the harmful effects of the sun's UV rays. Other Miami Beach sites, including Muss Park, Palm Island Park and Normandy Isles Pool, also have been updated recently with shade products. But while the city already had been installing shade coverings at a number of facilities, the residents near Marjorie Stoneman Douglas Park had higher expectations, given their park's location at the center of an international tourist destination.

"Once Parks and Rec had the directive, we got in touch with the neighborhood," Prescott said. "Many of the long-term residents had different opinions about whether we should use natural or manmade shade."

She added that they considered their options, and determined that natural shade was not viable due to the many years it would take for the trees to grow and actually provide shade, as well as the difficulty of growing trees in the ocean-side environment, with its sandy soil, salty winds and threat of hurricanes.

"We decided a manmade structure would be necessary," Prescott said. "We came together as a community and designed what our ideal version would be, which is a bit different from the standard sunshades."

Bayman explained that because the neighborhood surrounding the park is such a high-profile area, there was a need for a more aesthetically pleasing solution. Residents and the park district researched a number of options and ultimately selected a custom "sail" system with a nautical theme that blends in well with the surrounding area.

"Because of the proximity to the beach, we wanted something more in keeping with the natural environment," Prescott explained. "Plus, it's in the historic district, which is visited by residents and tourists. It's a very public park, juxtaposed between a mid-rise residential building and a Marriott Hotel, so it called for a special solution."

Kevin Smith, director of Parks and Recreation for the city, credits the community group for working within the system and gaining widespread community consensus, which helped pave the way for a more elaborate shade product than they likely would have received otherwise.

The artfully designed sails cover more than 1,500 square feet in a whimsical pinwheel design that shields children on the playground from up to 99 percent of the sun's UV rays, and keeps the playground much cooler.

"It's fantastic," Prescott said. "We're using the playground a lot more than we normally would this time of year. We never would be there midday in the summer. Now it's still hot, but there's a reprieve from the sun, and the ground doesn't burn the soles of our kids' feet."


City of Miami Beach Parks & Recreation:

Shade Systems Inc.:

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