Room to Live

Outfitting Your Parks to Provide Space for All

By Emily Tipping

hether you operate a large system of varied parks that function as urban oases amid the concrete jungle or your parks offer the rustic appeal of a walk in the wooded wilderness, you know that creating a place that will draw people for recreation and active living means more than putting up a sign and a parking lot and throwing an opening-day celebration. Maintaining a long-term interest in these vital public places means a long-term commitment to ensuring the site continues to function as a draw for desired audiences, and that means master planning, proper maintenance and attention to detail.

According to the Project for Public Spaces (PPS), a nonprofit organization that helps entities create and sustain public spaces that help build community, there are plenty of parks on the map that don't fit the bill, no longer working to "capture the hearts of local residents." Maintenance and funding are just part of the problem. The real issue, according to PPS, is 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."

What makes one park draw people in, while another seems to sit empty day after day?

According to the PPS' research, parks and social places that work well provide several outlets for the community, including varies uses and activities, accessibility, comfort and aesthetics, and a social outlet. Successful parks, PPS says, function as mini-destinations, with a range of things to do and see, including passive recreational activities like enjoying a beautiful landscape and active recreation like ballfields, skateparks, playgrounds and more. For example, Millennium Park in Chicago, a 24.5-acre park in the midst of the downtown lakefront area that features gardens, sculptures, water features and more, draws millions of visitors through its varied attractions, which include free concerts at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion. From Millennium Park, it's a short walk to Chicago's Grant Park and other city park locations that include varied concessions, lakefront activities, ballfields, miniature golf and more.

In addition, access is a key issue—not just in terms of providing accessible options for the disabled community, though that is also critical, but also in terms of making sure the park is connected to its community and that it's simple for people to access the park. Parks that sit seemingly in the middle of nowhere must offer a lot to get people to make the trek, whereas a park that is easily accessible from a neighborhood can quickly become a gathering place for the community by offering places to sit and picnic, and a playground for the kids.

Safety, comfort and a pleasant view are also important. If people perceive that the park is not safe—whether it's due to graffiti left in view too long or because the lighting is poor as evening hours set in—they will find somewhere else to go. In addition, aesthetics—provided through a pleasant vista, colorful gardens, attractive artwork or ear-pleasing fountains—will invite people in and keep them there to enjoy their surroundings. This means keeping the park clean, as well. Nothing will destroy your pleasing aesthetic more quickly than a park full of water bottles, newspapers and blowing plastic bags.

Ultimately, parks should function as a place to be sociable—both with people one is already familiar with as well as with other members of the community. By providing a place to be sociable, parks offer ways for places on the map to become communities.

When planning your space, VP and Director for PPS Phil Myrick suggests asking the following questions: "What are the destinations we have that we can build on? What destinations can we create? And how do recreation, parks, amenities and activities help us build these all-encompassing, cross-cutting community destinations?"

The Trust for Public Land (TPL), another nonprofit organization that works to conserve land for people to enjoy as parks, community gardens, historic sites, rural lands and other natural places, has also done extensive research into the factors that make parks successful. In its publication, "The Excellent City Park System," written by Peter Harnik, the organization cites the following seven factors as being critical to a park's success:

  1. A clear expression of purpose
  2. An ongoing planning and community involvement process
  3. Sufficient assets in land, staffing and equipment to meet the system's goals
  4. Equitable access
  5. User satisfaction
  6. Safety from crime and physical hazards
  7. Benefits for the city beyond the boundaries of the parks

Careful planning can help you ensure that you meet all of the needs of your community, offering an excellent park within your own system. And a major part of that planning is providing the furnishings that turn an empty landscape into a gathering place that will draw people for years to come.

As part of your planning process, you should also develop a site plan—one that covers your entire system, as well as addressing each park's individual issues—to unify your park system's look and to simplify the process of choosing site amenities. Take into account each site's use, and then figure out the best materials and styles for benches, tables, fountains, waste receptacles, bike racks, planters and so on.

Material Matters

Cheapest isn't always best, and that goes for any park plans, including plans for site furnishings. Ask the following questions when planning to outfit your site: 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?

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


Formal parks and gardens and historic districts in urban areas call for much different considerations than a neighborhood park with a simple picnic shelter and ballfields. More formal areas call for more formal designs in classic styles or modern looks.

For a park in a historic district, you'll need to select your site furnishings carefully. Many suppliers offer classic, historic looks made from modern materials, but you also might consider custom designs. On the other hand, if you're furnishing a site in a modern, downtown area, contemporary styles and clean lines might fit the bill better.

If you have multiple styles of parks to furnish, find a supplier that offers a wide variety of designs. This way, you might be able to unify your park system's look by selecting the same paint color and materials for instance, while choosing styles that suit each individual site.

The PPS suggests clustering amenities within your park to help attract people and activity, as well as to increase people's comfort, which can in turn "facilitate spontaneous social interactions and activities." Provide plenty of places to sit and interact, and consider placing that seating in relation to other park amenities, such as next to a playground, near a concession stand, within shelters, next to water fountains, outside of bathrooms and so on. Whatever you do, make sure that the seating gives people a wide range of choices for places to sit down and rest their feet. Consider offering places to sit:

  • Alone or with others
  • In the sun or in the shade
  • Close to or far from various activities
  • To enjoy a pleasant view
  • To rest along walking paths
  • To wait for others using amenities such as restrooms
  • And so on

When considering furnishings like benches and picnic tables, you want to select durable materials that can withstand the weather conditions—and potential vandalism—unique to your site. An oceanfront park will need to take blowing saltwater into consideration, a park in the Midwest will need to consider strong winds and blowing snow, and a park in sunny Texas will want to look for coatings that are resistant to fading from UV rays.

PPS considers wood to be the most comfortable and durable material out there, and it is still the preferred choice of many parks and recreation professionals. Other options include concrete, iron, steel, fiberglass and plastic. For a rundown of the pros and cons of these materials, see "Material Matters" on page 28.

Another consideration for more formal public spaces is the inclusion of a water feature—from ponds and lakes to beautiful fountains. In "The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces," William H. Whyte writes, "Water is another fine element, and designers are doing creative things with it. New plazas and parks provide water in all sorts of forms: waterfalls, waterwalls, rapids, sluiceways, tranquil pools, water tunnels, meandering brooks and fountains of all kinds."

But he adds that you should remember that people like to touch water. They'll enjoy putting their feet in the fountain to cool off on a hot summer day. They may even want to climb in and splash about.

"It's not right to put water before people and then keep them away from it," Whyte writes. "But this is what has been happening across the country. Pools and fountains are installed, then immediately posted with signs admonishing people not to touch."

At Millennium Park, visitors have multiple opportunities to touch and feel the water. The Crown Fountain, designed by Spanish artist Jaume Plensa, invites people to splash as the two 50-foot glass block towers at each end of a shallow reflecting pool reflect video images of faces representing a broad spectrum of Chicago citizens. And in the parks' Lurie Garden, a boardwalk floats over stepped pools, where visitors can get intimate with the flowing water.

Benefits of Bollards
  • A bollard can provide a boundary between vehicles and pedestrians, improving safety.
  • A bollard can prevent vehicles from going where they're not wanted.
  • A bollard with lights can provide a little extra light to walkways, increasing pedestrians' sense of safety, and helping security personnel see what they need to see.
  • A bollard can also include a planter, improving a site's aesthetics.
  • A bollard can separate different park uses, such as dividing playgrounds from basketball courts.


In less developed areas, selecting amenities requires different considerations. Here you need to take into account not just human comfort and aesthetic appeal, but also durability and life of the non-human kind. For example, you might not be as worried about the way your trash and recycling receptacles blend in to the surrounding environment, but protecting the garbage within from the hungry critters outside will be extremely important. Wood and plastic lumber are popular choices in more natural areas, providing a look that blends in with the surrounding environment.

In rustic areas and parks that people visit to enjoy the woods, mountains or other natural landscapes, it's important to provide site furnishings that do not disrupt the view.

For example, as part of the Master Plan for North Cheyenne Caņon Park, near Colorado Springs, developed in the late '90s as park attendance was building, design guidelines stipulate the structures and elements should blend in with the natural environment. "The built environment should look as though the elements have been in place for a long time," the plan states. To meet the needs of this 1,320-acre regional park, the plan calls for materials with a rustic appearance, including logs, split logs, rough-hewn timbers and rough-cut wood siding.

Any park that features trails needs to take people's need to stop and rest along the way into consideration, and the North Cheyenne Caņon Park Master Plan does just that:

Various locations along trails have particular points of interest. Pedestrians tend to stop in these areas to sight-see and relax before continuing their hike. These areas need to define a gathering space and provide informal seating. These locations are also ideal for informative signage describing the significance, etc., of the particular focal point.

The plan goes on to identify "acceptable informal seating techniques," from simple rounded timber logs with timber supports to post/rail seating and seating that uses the flat surface of a split log.

The plan further identifies picnic areas as the most heavily used spaces in the park. "It is important that they are properly defined within the natural setting. Picnic areas typically have the most site amenities, so it is important that materials, colors, etc., be consistent throughout the canyon."

Picnic areas within the park are delineated to provide each area with a sense of space and privacy, as well as to keep picnic areas from spilling out into parking areas, trails and roadways. The plan defines delineation devices that not only serve these purposes, but also help hide unsightly elements from view, including barbecue grills and picnic table pedestals.

The park's existing single pedestal tables were identified as not fitting in as well with the rustic theme of the park, and measures were suggested to help remediate this problem. These included moving the tables to urban parks "where the contemporary style is more appropriate," as well as ordering tables in stock brown metal color or painting the metal legs brown when maintenance is required.

Trash receptacles are also specified in the plan, and their placement within picnic areas as well as at all parking areas, pull-offs and in other high-traffic areas is recommended. The plan stipulates that the cans be painted with dark brown enamel, and repainted on a regular basis to keep up a clean appearance.

Throughout Colorado Springs, residents can take advantage of trails for walking, biking, horseback riding and other activities, with 105 miles of urban trails and 160 miles of park trails to choose from. For all trails, the city tries to include these amenities: signage with informational, interpretive and regulatory messages; picnic tables, benches and landscaping; trailheads with parking and signage where needed; and compliance with ADA requirements.

Beat the Baddies

If vandalism and graffiti are a problem in your area, you need to develop a proactive prevention plan. Here are some steps to take to keep your park free from trouble:

GET THE COMMUNITY INVOLVED. A community that cares about its park will act as your eyes, preventing a great many problems before they occur, and promptly reporting them when they do happen.

DISCOURAGE GRAFFITI WITH THE RIGHT SURFACES. The Project for Public Spaces (PPS) states that blank, smooth surfaces are more attractive to graffitists. Lighter colors and highly visible surfaces are also at greater risk.

AND THE RIGHT MATERIALS. If you like the look of wood, but are afraid of damage, you can get lumber made from recycled plastic. Or, you can use protective coatings that make it easier to remove graffiti.

MAKE IT HARDER TO GET TO. Placing dense plantings near walls can make it harder to get to the surface.

LIGHT IT UP. Good lighting will discourage vandals, and also makes it easier for security personnel to keep an eye on things.

FAKE THEM OUT. The PPS also suggests placing dummy cameras and motion detectors in highly visible areas as a less expensive means of prevention.

BE THERE. Ask the police to make occasional sweeps, or maintain a presence with a uniformed security guard or park ranger.

BEAT THEM TO IT. In an area where you're pretty sure the graffitists are going to visit time and again, you can beat them to the punch by painting big surface areas with multicolored murals.

When your measures fail, and your site is the victim of graffiti or vandalism, a swift response is the best response. Graffiti that remains for more than 48 hours is a signal that no one cares, and eventually invites even more vandalism. Prompt attention and removal shows you care about the park, and graffitists' work will not be rewarded—or seen.


Specialized uses call for special amenities. Dog parks, skateparks, tennis courts, etc., all require different kinds of attention to detail.

To outfit your dog park, for example, you need to think about including places where the dogs' owners can socialize, and you also need to consider their four-legged friends' needs. That means specialized fencing, as well as special water fountains and maybe even dog waste stations.

In skateparks, you'll want to be sure your furnishings can stand up to abuse, because skaters are highly likely to "ride" your benches. Armrests can be one way to prevent this, but it might be easier to simply purchase site furnishings that are meant to stand up to this kind of heavy use. With the growing popularity of "street-style" skateparks—which imitate the environments skaters love, including downtown plazas with benches, steps and more—manufacturers are building the required durability into their furnishings up front.

Places where people will be very active, including tennis courts, basketball courts, playgrounds and so forth—think, anywhere people will break a sweat—also require special forethought. You'll certainly want to include water fountains. For playgrounds, you may want to consider dual-height water fountains so the kiddies can reach more easily. A place to sit and rest between games is also important in these locations, as is a way to get out of the hot, skin-damaging rays of the sun.

Here are some of the important things to take into account for these special areas:

  • Specialized waste receptacles, whether that means a dog-waste receptacle that includes baggies for those who forget to bring their own, or extra-tough receptacles for your skatepark that can withstand the onslaught of hard knocks from flying boards.
  • Water fountains designed so active users—grownups, kids, the disabled and possibly pets, too—can get a drink.
  • Fencing, whether to allow for an off-leash play area for pups or to protect non-skaters and spectators at tennis courts from flying boards and balls.
  • Accessibility for the disabled, including special playground designs, paths that are accessible to wheelchairs, picnic tables and so forth.
  • Signage announcing the rules and etiquette, as well as schedules. You might also want to include a bulletin board so people can post things like dog obedience school schedules, tennis lessons or tournament information.
  • Lighting for nighttime use and safety.
  • Benches and tables.
  • Shelters and shade.

Parks can provide the perfect outlet for people who want to get some exercise, but don't want to join the gym. This can mean walking along paved park trails, hiking on more challenging trails, playing a game of basketball or, ever more common these days, taking part in more strenuous workouts using fitness equipment placed along trails.

For example, in Collier Park in Atlanta, there are eight exercise stations placed along a trail. The stations are designed to accommodate seniors and others with disabilities.

In East Los Angeles, Fitness Zones have been launched, thanks to a partnership between The Trust for Public Land (TPL), Los Angeles County Supervisor Gloria Molina and Kaiser Permanente. The first Fitness Zone was opened in November at Belvedere Park. More will be added, thanks to Kaiser Permanente's $750,000, three-year grant to support TPL's Parks for People mission.

"Increasing recreational spaces for healthy living in highly dense communities like East Los Angeles, the country's fifth most densely populated region…, is one of my highest priorities," said Molina in a press release announcing the initiative. "Parks in my district are our backyards—where we congregate, play and exercise. This new Fitness Zone is an important addition to the East Los Angeles community…"

Molina has also championed walking paths in her district's local parks, and she has been a leader in making open space and bike paths available along the Rio Hondo, San Gabriel and Los Angeles river corridors.

Resembling equipment typically found in health clubs, the Fitness Zone equipment is free and can be used for strength training, flexibility and cardio workouts for various ages and fitness levels.

"An estimated two of every three American adults, and more than one in six children and adolescents, are considered overweight or obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention," said Frank Meza, M.D., physician in charge of Kaiser Permanente's East Los Angeles Medical Center. "Children and families are more likely to consistently exercise when in groups or social environments. Providing easy-to-use equipment dramatically increases physical activity and improves the well-being of most park users."

Current Fitness Zone locations include Belvedere Community Regional Park and Franklin D. Roosevelt Park in Los Angeles, Dalton Park in Azusa, Calif., and San Angelo Park and Sunshine County Park in La Puente, Calif.

Trash Talk

If you want to avoid a stinky situation, don't forget the most important amenity of all: garbage cans and recycling bins.

You want to be sure you have enough cans to handle the load, without overloading your maintenance crews.

Ask the following questions to be sure you get it right:

  • How many people use the park?
  • How much garbage gets thrown away?
  • How often can we empty the receptacles?
  • Is vandalism a problem?
  • Is wildlife an issue?

Place trash and recycling receptacles close to picnic and seating areas, but not too close. No one wants to be disturbed by a smelly odor while reading a book, or be harassed by aggressive bees during a picnic. Designers suggest 10 to 20 feet as a good distance between seating and garbage cans.


Above all, remember that parks are gathering places, where people come to enjoy the company of others, or to sit alone and contemplate the scenery or read a good book. You need to provide picnic areas, shelters and shade, groupings of benches, fire pits and barbecues, game tables and more for those who want to socialize. You also should provide benches in quiet corners for people who want to enjoy the park on their own.

Think carefully about all the ways your park will be used, and you'll be sure to come up with the smartest configuration to please all your visitors.

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