Bling It On!

Accessorizing With Site Furnishings & Amenities

By Kelli Ra Anderson

The secret is out. From the supermodel on the Paris runway to the landscape designer downtown, they know that "bling"—the accessory—has the power to elevate blah to beautiful.

Whether you are outfitting a neighborhood park, campground, city plaza or sports field, when site furnishings and amenities accessorize a recreational space just right, the results can be beautiful as well as eco-friendly, easy to maintain, economical and crowd-pleasing. With more products and creative designs available than ever before, the trick these days is to know how to choose what, and where it should go.

Beauty & the Best

"Your image is everything. A consistent look is important; it sends a message. We've all seen parks that are a hodgepodge and that's old school," said Scott MacLean, CPRP, CPSI, manager of park maintenance in the Waukegan Park District of Waukegan, Ill. "I look at site furnishings as the bling of the park that really projects your image. Site furnishings have changed. It's not just your mother's picnic table back in the day or just trash receptacles and grills, but it's planters, fences, lighting and more."

Regardless of the different site furnishings you select, having a consistent style, color palette and similar materials throughout a community's public gathering and recreation spaces creates an identity and makes a good impression to attract more people to your sites. Consistency also takes a lot of the guesswork out of future purchasing decisions, helps keep equity between neighborhoods, and makes the whole process easier and less time-consuming.

MacLean recommends that park districts create a manual to dictate what kind of site furnishings they're going to purchase and what the look is going to be. He also points to other resources such as one he has used, a site furnishings standards manual put together by the planners office at the University of Michigan. It spells out what type of site furnishings they get and why.

"In Round Rock, Texas, we have park standards so we can be equitable across the board to ensure one park doesn't have better stuff than another," said Aileen Dryden, associate ASLA with the City of Round Rock Parks and Recreation about another compelling reason to keep furnishings consistent. "And on our end, it allows more expedient purchasing when we know what we usually purchase."

Whether creating a park standards manual, using a standard manual from another source or relying on other practices like regularly employing the same designer or company for certain purchases, or keeping to a consistent color scheme, there are several ways to get a cohesive look and project an image while reducing the effort.

All recreational space should not be treated equally, however. While most neighborhood parks or recreation areas should be outfitted with everyday accessories, there are times and places where site furnishings and amenities require something more special. City plazas, for example, or a highly visible park in a community, are perfect to showcase more customized site furnishings.

"Our urban areas are a little more upgraded," Dryden said of the main street and two plazas in Round Rock. "Our trash cans and benches are wrought iron with custom medallions saying 'City of Round Rock.' We also offer more seating choices like moveable tables and chairs that are really nice, and seat walls and water features."

Special LED lighting in the plaza washes surrounding walls with different colors depending on the occasion (e.g., pink and purple for breast cancer awareness month, or red and green for Christmas), and an audio system makes special events that much more special. "We are really happy with what we have. It's a different feel with all the lights and seating areas," Dryden said. "People want to stay there longer."

Creature Comforts

Thankfully, as the economy is finally growing, many companies report that municipalities are investing more of their budgets on the creature comforts that make people stay in recreational spaces longer. In Florida, for example, where there is a large senior population, parks are increasingly equipped with amenities and furnishings to make their particular experience a more comfortable one.

"The older retired population love RV camping, so we have had to increase the amenities we provide in our 2,500 sites in 59 parks like upgrading electrical amp service from 30 to 50 amps," said Donald Forgione, director of the Florida Park Service. "They want to get out in the wild, but they want a degree of comfort." To that end, Forgione said they also provide sewer hookups and have strategically added many more resting areas and seating along trails.

Comfort and convenience are not just for the young at heart, however. In Round Rock, Texas, for example, parents of young children asked for something to help them keep sand out of their cars after a visit to a park sandbox. The solution was a rinsing station feature to spray water on little hands and feet to eliminate the problem. Misters, too, became a big hit at athletic fields to help team players and spectators cool off during the hot Texas summers.

Wi-Fi, too, is a new amenity visitors to Florida's largest state park enjoy. "We're adding more and more Wi-Fi. Of course we understand we can't Wi-Fi the whole 80,000 acres, but we can put it in the gift shops or campground areas," Forgione explained. "So, in the Wi-Fi areas campers can stay in contact with family, friends, check the weather and plan their outing activities appropriately. We are doing that more and more."

Then there are the products that address the convenience needs of the maintenance staff. Some trash receptacle designs, for example, have liners that slide out, designed for easy removal, or systems where the bag is held in place so it doesn't fall and spill out its contents. Some come with locks to prevent lids being left open or vandalism, and can be more reliable than closing mechanisms that can break down over time.

Humans are not the only ones to enjoy a little site furnishing comfort, however. Visitors to campgrounds and parks increasingly travel these days with their dogs. As a result, in welcome areas along interstates, public parks, campgrounds and neighborhoods, it is not uncommon to see doggie waste stations and human/pet drinking fountains.

Then, of course, there are the dog parks with even more creature comforts for our four-legged friends. "We have a dog agility course with balance beams and hoops and a pooch post where you can tie up your dog so you can sit on a bench to rest and not have to hold onto them the whole time," said MacLean of one of their newest park additions.

Games and exercise features for dogs are just one of many site furnishings that cater to play in our parks these days. Site furnishings continue to change with the times when it comes to the activity du jour. Bag toss games are replacing many of yesteryear's horseshoe pits, for example, while in some areas of the country bocce ball is making a comeback.

Also, as cities discover the many benefits of intergenerational playgrounds, more parks are including play equipment for adults, as well. "Outdoor exercise equipment has come a long way in quality, durability and lots of selection," said Dan Dalziel, RLA, ASLA and founder of 3D Design Studio in Grayslake, Ill. "And thanks to the interest of the aging 'Boomers'!"

Due to an increased interest in alternative modes of transportation, biking, too, is on the rise, along with the site furnishings particularly helpful to bikers. Bike racks, of course, are nothing new, but some of the newer designs certainly are, as are the addition of such items as bike repair stations for on-the-trail repairs, air pumping stations or bike lockers for greater convenience.

Take Your Places

Of course, site furnishings are only as useful as their location, and one big reason experts suggest items like bike repair stations be placed in highly visible areas where bikes frequently pass is to deter theft, vandalism and to optimize their usefulness.

Similarly, designers like Dalzier emphasize the importance of line of sight and views for seating. Mothers need seating close to children, for example, with options of both sun and shade, and passive seating (most effective with backs), should take advantage of views. Furthermore, for practicality, water fountains are best near active areas, and trash receptacles (with their unwanted bees), should never be positioned too close to seating.

Easy Being Green

From biking for energy conservation to biodegradable doggie waste bags, the push for environmentally-friendly products continues. It comes as no surprise, therefore, that perhaps the hottest site furnishing around the country is the recycling receptacle. "In every municipality, recycling is really big," said Michele Zirtzlaff, associate marketing manager with a Wisconsin-based manufacturer of waste and recycling receptacles. But she added that for this particular site furnishing it is important that a manufacturer be able to customize. "In addition to customizing logos and decals, you need different options to fit different municipal rulings—customers might need a recycle bin for mixed items or sorted by aluminum and glass."

MacLean agreed, noting that customization is something he looks for in a manufacturer, along with a record of good customer service and products made with recycled material (a particularly important selling point).

"The recycling thing is enormous. We are recycling everywhere, indoors, outdoors, so we're purchasing containers solely for recycling. That's gone through the roof," MacLean explained. "We even have a green committee made up of employees to find ways to make things more green." But although MacLean's passion for green stems from a genuine sense of duty as custodians of the land, he also appreciates the monetary savings that often go with it.

Save Smart

Buying local, for example, not only cuts down on needless fuel emissions, it also supports the local economy and saves on transportation costs. It's a win-win. But there are other ways to save money by making smart choices. One of the most notable is buying high-quality, durable products that will last longer, be more cost-effective over time as well as save money in labor costs because they require fewer repairs and replacements.

"With park and recreation clients, cost and durability/maintenance are their highest priority," Dalziel said, giving some examples of durable materials. "As far as the furnishings, powder-coated or plastisol-coated furnishings give nice color and rugged durability."

Citing non-wood items as his typical first choice for durable surfaces, Dalziel added that they also put furnishings on concrete surfaces to make them easier to clean, more likely to remain level and ultimately, easier to remove if they become damaged.

Depending on the region of the country, materials best suited to endure the environment differ, but choosing wisely makes a big difference in long-term cost. In coastal areas, for example, stainless or heavy gauge steel makes good salt-resistant furnishings. In excessively sunny environments, materials must be able to keep their shape (making some plastic and composite materials a poor choice), and they should have UV-protective coatings to prevent fading. Upfront costs may be higher in the short term, but durability and what is saved in labor to replace or repair often makes them the affordable choice in the long run.

Wood does have its place. In many of Florida's parks, for example, Forgione said they use pressure-treated lumber. With a life span of up to 25 years, wood is a great economical choice, especially if left unpainted. "One of my favorite management practices is not a product," Forgione said. "Before we paint something, we consider, do we really need to paint the wood because once you start, you always have to."

Some find that a thick coat of polyurethane on a wooden table top is an affordable, beautiful solution, as well. Graffiti marks come off easily with a mild cleanser (preventing shadowing), and carving can be sanded off and restored with each annual re-coating.

Whether affordability, accessibility or aesthetics are among the highest determining factors in selecting site furnishings and amenities, they are not incidental; they are the finishing touch that make all the difference.

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