Make a Splash

Spraygrounds Get (Even More) Creative

By Dawn Klingensmith

Long gone are the days when municipalities questioned whether spraygrounds were a viable alternative to community pools, let alone a community asset in their own right. The previous mayor of Louisville, Ky., summed up the prevailing sentiment nicely when he was on hand four years ago for a new sprayground's grand opening. "Spraygrounds are a great investment for our city," Jerry Abramson said. "They operate throughout the spring, summer and fall, and are great places for families to play together."

Clearly, spraygrounds are here to stay; however, the maturing of the market these past few years has brought changes and raised new concerns.

Architectural Aesthetic

Manufacturers across the board are offering product lines that are more architectural or sculptural in appearance to blend in with urban surroundings. One Eden Prairie, Minn.-based manufacturer, in its latest catalog, offers an "urban line" of play features with bent tubular construction and "gentle sweeping curves," according to principal Ed Benck.

The elements are stainless steel and generally lit at night "to give a whole different feel in the park or urban setting," Benck said. The resulting spraygrounds look more like public art installations, and nighttime lighting lets the community appreciate them as such when the water isn't even running, he added.

"Theming still has its place," Benck said, "but in some communities, they're looking for something that's more architectural and artistic."

Today, "Everyone has a line like this," said Benck, adding that master planning and the involvement of landscape architects from the get-go have driven demand.

With master planners and landscape architects on board, "People are asking, 'What atmosphere do we want to create with this space?' The sprayground does not look like an afterthought" but rather a cohesive design element essential to that atmosphere, or an extension of the natural or built surroundings, said Lisa Neilson, communications director at an aquatic play feature manufacturer in Kelowna, British Columbia.

Because of the maturing market, "We're also seeing a lot of communities that really want something iconic, something no one else has," Benck said.

Neilson's company outfitted a project in New York city, situated near elevated train tracks. Though small, the project packs a sensory punch because every time a train comes, the clamor activates the water features, triggering a light show and sequencing. "It's a great use of a very small space in a very unique environment," Neilson said.

A San Marcos, Texas, company's project was incorporated into a public space used for multiple purposes. The space is "very architecturally appealing on the whole. It's one of those spaces that I really like seeing our equipment go into because someone really thought it out," said marketing director Chris Thomas, adding that incorporating interactive fountains and aquatic playgrounds into larger, multiuse areas rather than setting them off on their own is a growing trend in planning and design. "One of the key aspects I really liked about that project is in winter they freeze over the fountain with a layer of water and turn it into an ice skating rink."

The multiuse trend has driven demand for transformable spraygrounds with nozzles flush to the ground so the cement pad can be used for concerts, farmers' markets or other events when the water is turned off.

Manufacturers are also offering products capable of sculpting water into shapes and structures that rise to the level of aqua-architecture. Internal manifolds and baffles allow for crisp, precise water formations. Water domes or cages can be created, giving kids a sense of enclosure.

Though popular, these new offerings aren't edging out more "traditional play lines," which are the industry's mainstay, Nielson said. "But not everything is crayon-colored anymore. There are more options now including steel or brushed stainless" for a more toned-down look that blends better in a "foresty green space" as well as an urban space.

Design for the Ages

The need for a safe, separate space for toddlers and even babies has long been recognized, but continued focus on age-appropriateness has given rise to new design trends and product lines. As spraygrounds have grown bigger, the inclusion of multilevel, multiplatform play features is becoming more commonplace, as these elements help kids self-segregate by age. The bigger kids tend to gravitate to these structures, while the younger ones hang back in the peripheral area designed just for them.

"The features kind of sort themselves out by age group. There's definitely a relevance in height — kids gravitate to features" scaled to their size, Thomas said. "Kids 2 and younger really don't like water spraying on them with any force. They tend to like water spraying up."

A toddler area can feature ground sprays and other non-intimidating features that produce soft mists and gentle streams of water. Ground sprays offer high play value and ensure that even crawlers and toddlers can engage with and influence the water events. "They kick the water and try to plug up the nozzles," Thomas said.

Plus, kids of all ages love running through them.

Manufacturers have also added new options to the mix with linear ground areas that imitate natural flowing water with streams. Providing an interactive and educational experience for people of all ages, these features generally feature modules that help kids see—and even manipulate—how water flows through the system and affects people playing all along its linear path.

"We understand there are tremendous obstacles—financial and social—to park programming and how to create new amenities that bring families together for relaxing fun and leisure activities," said Stephen Hamelin, president of a Montreal-based splash play manufacturer in a press release announcing the company's linear ground play area. He described the innovative new approach as "…a game that encourages team play among children," as well as "…a place maker providing a gathering place for every member of the family to enjoy."

Setting Safety Standards

Despite the maturing of the sprayground market, "There's not a universal code governing safety," Benck said. "It's not addressed by an agency like ASTM. It would be great if the market could address this better."

A quick industry analysis led to Benck's estimate that as many as half of all U.S. jurisdictions don't have codes specific to spraygrounds. New York, California and Florida lead the way with standardization in the United States. In Canada, British Columbia is the furthest advanced.

"At first, I thought New York was really strict; now, I wish everyone would get there" in terms of codified safety requirements, Neilson said.

She recommends that clients design to the strictest codes (New York's, for example) because "standardization is happening," albeit gradually. For added safety and protection from waterborne pathogens, New York and California require that water sanitation systems be equipped with UV disinfection. "A lot of jurisdictions don't require it yet, so I tell clients, if you don't do it now, put in a system so you can add it later because the requirement is coming," Neilson said.

Although reputable sprayground manufacturers offer site supervision and site review at critical points during installation, and most offer "after sale customer service" to address any problems, Benck would like to see manufacturers band together to standardize best practices. He would like to see a certification program for installers, as there are for regular playground installers, to ensure they slope the concrete properly, safely coat it, and meet other safety and quality standards.

Curbing Water Use

As park size and demand have increased, "the water runs all day for the entire summer," Neilson said, and water conservation has become an even greater concern.

"There's kind of a struggle between water consumption and play value," said Steve Brinkel, vice president and general manager of a Richmond, British Columbia-based waterpark design and manufacturing firm. "A lot of folks are looking to use less water, but the amount of water is directly proportional to how much fun the kids have."

Most manufacturers offer low-flow water-play features with smaller nozzles, but that's not a big thrust in the market right now.

"We don't believe the answer is providing equipment with even lower flow. It compromises play value," Benck said. Instead, "We always try to promote recirculation systems and larger reclamation systems."

Four years ago, when Louisville's then-mayor Abramson was lauding the city's new sprayground as a "great investment," he told the gathering that spraygrounds were relatively low-cost. But today, "because the market is maturing, people have really started to see the importance of water quality" as well as conservation and "spend a lot of money on what's buried underground that people don't even see," Benck said.

The reservoir for a recirculating water system is basically an underground swimming pool, with the same costly maintenance requirements. Where water isn't recirculated but retained for reuse, dechlorination systems are increasingly common.

Single-pass, drain-to-waste systems are becoming rarer, and looking forward, "I don't think we'll see many more of these flow-through type systems," Neilson said.

For now, "in a pocket park, a potable flow-through system is still a good option," she added.

Even where single-pass systems are specified, "Communities want to conserve every drop of water they can," Benck said. "We're doing one project where the water drains into a large underground tank, and the capacity of the tank determines splash pad usage—once it's full, the splash pad shuts off until the water is used for irrigation. Usually, these tanks have an overflow system" that expels excess water as wastewater.

Although this means the sprayground can shut down in the midst of a watery rollick, "The community is really excited and they've talked about educational signage" to explain the reason, Benck said.

To maximize water conservation, spraygrounds can be equipped with activation (on-off) switches and automatic shutoff with motion sensors or a timer. You can have one actuator that activates all the elements at once, or switches that turn on each of the specific elements. However, when it's up to kids to turn things on, they tend to overlook the switches on individual elements and miss out on all the fun, Thomas warned.

In hot, dry Southern California, water conservation is a critical concern for park planners. So when the City of Hanford, Calif., was looking to increase attendance at its Coe Park by adding a splashpad, water management was a key concern. Guidelines from the Department of Water Resources for California released in 2010 state that effluent water from splashpads cannot drain off the site.

Park Superintendent J. Dean Johns knew that recirculation was the typical solution—treating and re-using the effluent water—but having grown up in agriculture, he knew that returning water to the water table is also important. Ultimately, Hanford chose to go with a capture-and-repurpose percolation system.

"Environmentally sustainable design was important to us," Johns said. "A Capture & Repurpose Water Management Solution that returns water to the water table was a cost-effective solution."

In addition to the environmental benefits, this type of system is simple and cost-effective. Johns calculated the number of gallons that would be used per day that would otherwise be sent to drain, and then attributed a cost-per-gallon for the wastewater. As it turned out, the savings in wastewater costs would equal the cost of the recirculation system in just a few years. Over the lifecycle of the splashpad, this would result in lower costs than recirculating.

Nature Themes

One way to appeal to a broader demographic without diminishing a child's sense of awe and adventure is to opt for an interactive fountain that people of all ages can play in.

Because spray parks are often installed in public parks within natural or landscaped settings, park planners and landscape architects seek out elements that visually harmonize. Nature-themed product lines aren't new. Elements resembling tropical flora and garden-variety flowers are widely available, some with fancy features such as translucent, colored petals that create colored shadows.

Neilson's company just released a nature-themed product line to capitalize on the trend toward enabling more active play and getting kids out in nature. The idea is to create opportunities, even in urban environments, for kids to round the corner and find themselves "in a meadow of tall grass," according to the company's website.

Other companies will likely follow suit, adding to their array of nature-themed products with an eye toward emphasizing nature appreciation and education. Of course, you cannot plop this equipment down in the thick of nature because "as soon as you start introducing sand and grass it becomes a filtration issue," Neilson said, so the intent is to provide a "back-to-nature feel" in a more controlled environment.

Her company's new product line is based on plants and critters encountered in nature, and brings children up close and personal with oversized elements in a "Honey, I Shrunk the Kids" fashion, as Neilson described it. Elements include blades of grass, butterflies, ants, wildflowers and dewdrops. Everything seems magnified from the child's standpoint, "so it's almost like they're in this little wonderland" where nature is larger than life.

Interactive Fountains as an Alternative

One way to appeal to a broader demographic without diminishing a child's sense of awe and adventure is to opt for an interactive fountain that people of all ages can play in. Typically chosen for urban settings, interactive fountains can be sequenced and timed to music to create water choreography if desired. Most have LED lighting for added beauty and nighttime appeal.

"Interactive fountains are great for areas with a fair amount of traffic, for cooling down," Thomas said. "Placement is important. People get wet, so would you want it near a shopping area where they would then go into stores?"

A Utah amusement park named Lagoon is an ideal spot, because parents and kids are outdoors and get hot. Lagoon's interactive fountain allows them to cool down, thereby increasing stay times. The fountain serves as both an aquatic play space and a sophisticated spectacle. More than a hundred water nozzles, all flush to the ground, create a dynamic sequence of spray effects. Every so often, the area is cordoned, and the fountain puts on a water-and-light show.

Interactive fountains of this type are advantageous because there's no above-ground equipment, which tends to break or deteriorate over time. "What I like about them is there's really nothing to stub a toe on," Thomas said. "They're completely ADA-compliant. You can wheel wheelchairs across them. You can even drive vehicles across them if necessary."

In addition, interactive fountains require less maintenance because they typically run on the city's water system in a single pass, so there are no filtration requirements, Thomas said. They provide for multigenerational engagement, with adults more likely to join in with kids than they would at a sprayground, Thomas has observed.

One downside is they typically use potable water in a single pass, "so there may be issues with people saying the city is wasting water," Thomas said.

You'd also want to "steer away from" using terminology other than interactive fountain, or intending it mainly for children's play because spraygrounds are held to a different standard when it comes to inspections, Thomas said.

Part of Something Bigger

The first spraygrounds generally replaced dilapidated wading pools as standalone community parks. We have already seen how they are being included as a cohesive design element in mixed-use urban spaces. Nowadays, especially overseas, they are being incorporated into theme parks, hotels and other tourist spots and area attractions. Even destination waterparks are creating space for spraygrounds, either in the design phase or as a retrofit. "They're starting to realize that a large water playground is an integral part of a waterpark," said Wyeth Tracy, president of a waterpark and sprayground company with manufacturing facilities in Toronto. "We're seeing it a lot in China, and some older parks in the U.S. are in discussions to add them. In the past, they only concentrated on big waterslides, wave pools, lazy rivers" and the like.

Why the shift? "You need to offer something for the little ones," Thomas said.

It's the younger kids who propel entire families to the waterpark, he explained: "Teens can be dropped off at the movies or someplace with $20, and they're happy. The little ones pester the parents until the whole family goes."

Tracy also sees a market for spraygrounds developing globally with zoos and other outdoor venues because "they increase length of stay by offering a way to cool off in the summer." Hotels and cruise ships are two other growing markets.

An altogether different market that's emerging is the dog park niche. Some communities have spraygrounds designed just for dogs. "It's kind of like with kids, how they separate by age group — they have areas for big dogs and little dogs" with smaller, gentler sprayers "where dogs might be intimidated by big splashes," Thomas said.

The filtration system needs to be able to handle the dog hair, Thomas said, and this market may be too young at this point to see how hairy of a situation that might be.

Although we're closing with canines, it's clear that spraygrounds have come into their own and haven't gone to the dogs. The future looks promising, with standardization and codification on the horizon.

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