Parks & Playgrounds

Extreme Makeover, Park Edition

By Rebecca Beach

iven the large and growing body of research proving the need for people to spend time outdoors in natural environments, the challenge now is how to create these outdoor spaces.

Most park and recreation directors for the past several decades have focused primarily on sports and fitness because that is what the American public demanded from their local parks. The need and interest in sports has not diminished, but there is a public awareness that nature is one of the best places for restoration of the human spirit. This has created a need for spaces that naturally draw people outside.

America's community parks can be a part of the outdoor environmental solution. But, it may take an extreme makeover.

Once the community, park board and recreation directors become aware of the potential hidden in their park, they may need some direction. Many park and recreation specialists are not specifically trained as designers and can easily feel overwhelmed as to where to start. If the goal is to create inviting spaces to keep families in the park after the ball game is over, then a new design perspective will be needed. A cooperative effort between the park board and a professional designer trained in harmonizing the human element with the natural world, such as a landscape architect, can be a place to start.

A simple beginning point most likely would be a thorough site analysis to determine the existing natural features that can be developed into interesting outdoor experiences.

Natural bodies of water are always an outdoor magnet for people of all ages. Any water from a small creek to a pond or ocean beach will naturally bring life to the park. The bigger it is, the more development will pay off. Of course, if a park is on or near a large body of water, boating and water recreation sports are a given and have probably been part of the park's attraction. But even small creeks and streams should not be overlooked as an attractive natural feature. A small creek can be enhanced with boulders, bridges and recycling pumps. Attracting or adding wildlife such as fish, frogs and amphibians will delight adults and children alike. Allowing users to fish, float, wade, splash and generally have fun in the water is essential. Too often the most interesting spaces are off limits.

Other natural features can include rock outcrops and boulders, which can become natural climbing features if attenuating surfacing is added to prevent fall injuries.

Shade trees planted in picnic areas not only provide necessary sun protection but also attract birds, beneficial insects and butterflies. Additional shade shelters with picnic tables, benches and grills are important parts of a day at the park.

A landscape architect can also provide a planting plan for trees, bushes, flowers and even edible plants that will provide rich sensory experiences. Allowing space for an organic community garden can bring people together in a productive way.

Outdoor places equipped with accessible paths that wind throughout create a network of dynamic interactive communal spaces for walkers, joggers, infants in strollers, bicyclists, children on tricycles and people in wheelchairs. Outdoor places are full of rich sensory experiences. Universally designed trails, bike and walking paths that have a natural feature as a destination make the experience worth the effort.

At this point the landscape architect can begin a master plan to incorporate all the natural features identified in the site survey. As the plan begins to develop, it will become clear what additional site amenities are needed to enhance and build the natural infrastructure. A budget should be developed at this time to determine available resources and identify potential fundraising projects. Volunteer labor should not be overlooked and gives the community the opportunity to be a vital part of the development.

From the beginning it is important to make decisions that will make your park makeover project environmentally responsible. Recycling and even composting should be a part of every new building project. Using recycled materials keeps tons of plastic out of the landfills. Paths, bridges and shelters can all be built from recycled plastic lumber or purchased from sustainable manufacturers. In addition, products such as benches, picnic tables, recycling containers, raised garden beds, playground and fitness equipment are all available from reliable manufacturers who will often help with site plans at no additional expense.

Check out the potential in your area for using solar or wind power to produce some of your own energy. Recycling graywater, use of water-efficient commodes, green roofs on buildings, and eliminating or reducing car traffic in the park in favor of pedestrian and bike paths will significantly reduce carbon emissions.

Authentic outdoor musical instruments can add a magical quality to the park. Instruments made from quality material and designed by musicians are on the market and can be easily installed on stands of recycled plastic. People of all ages and abilities will benefit from the musical experience in a natural setting.

Consider inviting food vendors within the park space, but try to focus on those serving nutritious local foods. Childhood obesity should be a concern for everyone, especially those who are responsible for creating outdoor spaces for children. Food vendors should be encouraged to use recycled serving materials and recycle waste.

Once the budget is determined and additional site amenities and vendors have been established, it is time to present the plan to the community. A well-done artistic presentation by the landscape architect will do a great deal to draw in supporters. Count on changes to the plan if you allow the community at large to have their input.

After all modifications have been made and a final budget settled on, it will be necessary to determine if you need to bid the project out to a general contractor of if you have enough in-house labor and volunteers to build the infrastructure. Most playground companies have their own installation crews who can install not only play equipment but also site amenities, surfacing and possibly more.

People need outdoor environments that provide sheltered spaces for family picnics, sunny benches for resting or observing active children on safe play sets, quiet spaces for those needing some solitude, vegetable gardens to raise nutritious food, flower and herb gardens for attracting birds and butterflies. Places full of rich sensory sights, smells, sounds and most importantly full of life will keep people coming back and spending more of their life outside reconnecting with other people and with nature. By creating a partnership of active citizens, park management and staff, local businesses and city officials, and using the services of landscape architects and playground manufacturers, an extreme park makeover can turn an existing ballpark into an exciting outdoor environment.


Rebecca Beach is the chief financial officer and co-owner of Play Mart Inc., with her husband Dennis Beach, ASLA. Rebecca's passion for child development, nature and health influence not only the vision of Play Mart, but also the lives of Play Mart employees and her family. To learn more, visit

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