Mix and Match

When Outfitting Your Park, Context Matters

By Emily Tipping

When it comes to furnishing your site—from selecting the types of furnishings you will include to choosing the best designs for your location—there is no right or wrong. As you make those decisions, the most important thing to remember is context—the context of the environment and community in which the park sits.

Obviously there are basics that will be found in nearly every park site: benches to sit on, picnic tables to gather around, trash and recycling receptacles to keep the place clean. But in addition, each unique site carries its own requirements.

Welcome Signs

At the entry to your park, you'll want to include standard amenities like a bench where patrons can rest or wait for a ride, and a garbage/recycling receptacle so they're sure to remember to clean up after themselves on the way out.

In addition, this may be a good spot for bollards, to keep cars from driving where they're not allowed, and to protect pedestrians and cyclists.

A kiosk and message board here can help visitors find out about upcoming events or unique conditions in the park. For example, you can inform patrons about the festivities planned for the Fourth of July, as well as letting them know about any park rules and regulations.

Sometimes, your locality will also dictate the information you want to provide. At a forest preserve in DuPage County, Ill., for example, a kiosk near the entrance educates patrons on preventing tick bites in the summer, while informing them of trail etiquette for hikers and cross-country skiers in the winter.

Lights near the entrance will also be welcome, especially for parks that are open past sundown. Centralized lighting in this area tells people where they need to go to exit, as well as letting those picking up children or friends where they can find the main egress point.

Let's Eat

Picnic areas represent a huge opportunity to make your park shine. First and foremost, you want to ensure you're providing a comfortable environment for patrons to dine in the great outdoors. Picnic tables—including accessible picnic tables, which generally extend beyond the frame to allow patrons in wheelchairs to easily access the table—are an absolute must.

Garbage cans will also be needed here, but be sure not to place them too close to the eating area, or picnickers may be plagued by bees and other pests. Designers suggest 10 to 20 feet as the ideal distance between seating and garbage cans.

If you'd like an opportunity to generate a little extra money with your picnic area, go all out and provide beautiful shelters with electrical hookups. These can be rented out, especially for larger events like family reunions. Lighting will also be helpful for events that take place as the sun is going down.

Grills and fire rings are also appropriate choices for your picnic area.

Be sure to place the picnic area relatively close to the parking area. Visitors will be unhappy if they have to trek across the entire park with their cooler and goodies.

Time to Play

Playgrounds again offer a spot to locate standard amenities. You'll want to include benches so that parents can sit and watch their children at play. Benches without seatbacks can be helpful when placed in between play structures for younger tots and older children. This way, a parent with kids playing on both structures can easily change their gaze from one side to the other. Be sure to place the benches in a spot that provides good sight lines to the playground. Obstacles will decrease the parents' ability to supervise from afar.

Signage at the playground can let children and parents know the rules and appropriate ages for the structures.

Playgrounds provide the perfect spot to make use of bright colors. While many playgrounds are moving toward natural colors as manufacturers focus on the natural play trend, there are still plenty of play spaces with bright, popping primary colors. Benches, picnic tables and garbage cans that match this aesthetic will help draw kids in and will set the space apart.

Themes highlighted on the playground can also be carried out in the site furnishings. Many manufacturers offer the ability to customize furnishings and amenities. For example, a shelter's railings might be cut to reflect a nautical theme represented by the play structure.

On the Trail

Many patrons likely take for granted the care that is given to designing trails for their use. Whether it's the surface beneath their feet or the regular placement of benches where they can rest those feet, park planners have more to consider than just the view when properly planning a trail.

Benches placed at regular intervals along the trail may help encourage use, by allowing walkers who are older or less fit to rest when the going gets tough. When looking for the right spot to place a bench, try to find a beautiful vista or a spot where those who are sitting can continue to watch the action.

At the trailhead, you might want to include a kiosk with a message board to provide information about trail etiquette and seasonal issues. The trailhead is also a good spot for a restroom structure, garbage cans and maybe even a hitching post if your trail allows horseback riders.

If visitors of the canine variety are regulars on your trail system, you may also want to consider installing doggy-bag dispensers. This encourages owners to clean up after their pets, and reduces unsightly dog-leavings alongside the trail.

Stop Vandals in Their Tracks

Vandalism and graffiti can be a major—and costly—problem. What's more, when these problems are not taken care of quickly, they can get worse. Graffiti that remains in place for more than 48 hours tells patrons and vandals that no one cares. This can lead to fewer patrons, and even more vandals.

There are steps you can take to prevent problems:

  • Community Involvement: If you encourage an active community of park users, they will be your eyes, preventing many problems before they occur and reporting them in a timely manner when they do happen.
  • Surface Selection: According to the Project for Public Spaces (PPS), blank, smooth surfaces are attractive to graffitists. Lighter colors and highly visible surfaces also present a problem.
  • The Right Materials: Protective coatings—especially on wood surfaces—can make it easier to remove graffiti. Wood can easily be damaged, so you might want to consider recycled plastic lumber, which is more resilient.
  • Create an Obstacle: Walls are a tempting canvas. Make them harder to get to by placing dense plantings nearby.
  • Light the Night: Particularly in problem areas, lights can deter vandals. On top of this, good lighting will ensure that professionals in charge of security have a good view of the space.
  • Fake-Out: Try placing dummy cameras and motion detectors in highly visible areas. Only you will know that they're not real.
  • Have a Presence: If you don't have the staff to ensure a regular security sweep of the park, ask the local police to make occasional visits. Varying the times at which your staff shows up will keep vandals guessing whether they'll get caught in the act or not.
  • Get There First: Some areas are too tempting for graffitists to resist. In this case, you can get there first by painting a multicolored mural on a large surface such as a restroom wall.

Dog-Gone It

Speaking of canines, dog parks are booming across the nation. While many include the most basic of amenities—a garbage can to throw dog waste away, a bench and a fence—there are many additions that can be made to make your dog park the leader of the pack.

Here again, a kiosk where rules can be posted will ensure visitors—and their pals—behave properly. And, while most patrons will bring their own, just in case, it can be helpful to provide a doggy-bag dispenser here as well.

Going beyond these basics, you can also find manufacturers who are creating unique agility training amenities and other site furnishings specifically designed for man's best friend. When you make such amenities part of your dog park, you encourage greater use and might even be able to expand into programming such as basic training for pooches.

Play Ball

Many parks include sports fields, whether formally laid out and planned or simple fields with goals installed at either end to allow for informal play.

These areas require special considerations of their own. If local Little Leagues and other organized teams are playing on the field, consider placing a concession stand and restroom building nearby. You also might want to consider installing lights for nighttime play, especially if field time is hard to find in your community.

Sports fields also require special considerations for seating. Baseball fields might be gussied up with a dugout or, at the very least, benches where the teams can wait for their turn at bat. Bleachers may also be a welcome addition, especially if the games draw a large number of spectators.

Skate On

Like sports fields, skateparks are an ideal location to provide a concession and restroom, as well as spectator seating and lighting for nighttime use.

It's important to remember, when furnishing your skatepark, that any seating, trash receptacles or other amenities placed there will need to withstand the abuse typical of these spots. Skateboarders enjoy the new plaza-style skateparks, which are almost like streetscapes. In these types of parks, benches that can stand up to skateboards are a necessity.

Many skateparks also include fencing. This is not meant to make skateboarders feel imprisoned, but rather, to protect spectators and passersby from the occasional flying object.

Green Up

By their very nature as open green spaces, often placed in the midst of urban concrete jungles, parks help the environment, but you can make it your mission to make your park as green as possible.

One essential piece of that mission is installing receptacles for recyclables alongside your trash receptacles. Encourage patrons to recycle, and be sure to include signage to let them know what goes where.

In addition, park furnishings themselves are getting greener. You can find dog waste dispensers that provide eco-friendly, biodegradable bags; planks for benches and picnic tables made from recycled plastic and more.

Talk to your site furnishing manufacturers about various ways they can help ensure your green space is just a little greener.

Maintenance Matters

One critical thing to keep in mind is that you can't just install your park furnishings and then forget about them. Regular maintenance is crucial to keep your park up to snuff. Lax approaches to maintenance result in litter-laden, graffiti-ridden parks.

Establish a regular maintenance schedule, and be sure your staff keeps regular records, especially noting any problems, such as broken toilets, vandalized playgrounds or overflowing garbage cans.

Then use those reports to keep things running smoothly. If, for example, you note that the garbage cans regularly spill over on weekend days, schedule an extra garbage pickup. And if graffiti is a regular problem at your picnic shelter, there are measures you can take to forestall it. (See Sidebar on page 31.)


Garbage cans and recycling bins are a necessity in any location where people gather. So how do you know how many you need? And what factors should you consider when choosing a design?

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

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