Guide to Designing a Park
Parks are critical to a community’s spirit. Without public parks, there’d be little social interaction, with no play space for kids and no enjoyable outdoor resting space for adults. From splash parks to dog parks to playgrounds, these public green spaces are recreational areas that serve the needs of community members.
If you’ve been tasked with the job of building park space in your community, or want to persuade your neighborhood to turn an empty public space into a new park, follow this guide to park planning and design. While designing a public park has no set process and may vary based on your community’s zoning and ordinances, there are some universal steps you can consider to help make your vision come alive.
1. Understand How to Choose a Park Location
Park planning and design always start with identifying the location. If you’ve got a park location in mind, or are looking at several potential locations, consider these fundamental factors:
- Accessibility: Is the location wheelchair accessible, and can it be easily reached by public transport, car or bike? The easier it is to get to the park, the more use it will get.
- Character: Is there a historic location or special area that could attract park-goers for more than just nature? Use your community’s unique characteristics and history to drive park traffic and strengthen community ties.
- Safety: Is the area you’re considering located somewhere that’s considered safe, with a low crime rate?
Many of today’s new parks are developed on lands designated by planning committees. The space could either be unused, and open for development, or it could be an area that is already associated with public property such as school grounds. Likewise, it could even be private property turned public by estate grants or service organization purchases.
Regardless, all parks must have public access if they’re going to serve the community’s highest and best needs. Where do you begin to discover that information?
The next best public park design tip is to know your market and community.
2. Know the Market and Community
If you want people to visit your park regularly, it needs to fit with what the community needs — for example, is your town full of couples and young children, and do you have a large school district? Or, do you have a more senior community with older couples? Perhaps a nice mix of both demographics?
You want to make sure your park is engaging for children if the spot you’re considering is central to several of the local schools. At the same time, the park should engage local seniors if the property is within walking distance of senior communities or homes. A recent study showed that while seniors represented 20 percent of the population, they were only 4 percent of park users. As a park designer, you want to consider how to build participation and encourage community members across diverse groups to take advantage of their local green spaces.
Look at your community and assess what park needs are under-serviced. What activities and social opportunities seem the most important to your community members? This question lets you prioritize what design features your park must include. Additionally, see what park spaces are over-serviced and underutilized. You’re sure to end up with a well-rounded list of items you need to consider.
The best starting point in developing your public park design is identifying who the park will service. Then, the park’s location and size will dictate what space you have to work with and who you’ll want to collaborate with. The end users are going to have a lot of influence over what park activities you’ll cater to.
3. Engage the Community During the Planning Process
Park design isn’t a solitary process — nor should it be. No one knows more about the community needs than its citizens. Bringing the community into the park design phase is critical. Collective community minds will identify strengths and weaknesses in proposed and developing plans. Concerned citizens are also sure to voice likes and dislikes.
If you roll out park plans without community inclusion, you’re sure to get opposition. You might encounter the NIMBY (Not In My Backyard) argument rather than strong support. To help prevent this, get community members on board as soon as you start planning. Most will be happy to help and can offer great input on your design.
- Every community has its movers and shakers. Identify them. That goes for local community associations, parent-teacher organizations and service clubs. All groups have natural or appointed leaders who are influencers. Usually, they’re respected citizens who rose to prominence from their reputation. They’re get-it-done types who work in cooperative spirit, not adversarial approaches. If you have their support of your project, it’s likely other community members will be in favor of it as well.
- Public officials are also important for park success. They can be elected officials at the local or state level. Public service involves administrators and bureaucrats who are highly influential decisionmakers. These powerful planners can make all the difference in getting a park project approved or rejected.
- See if your community has a citizen advisory groups or boards. They’re an important force in shaping public policy and protecting properties. You might also begin with a local survey. It can be door-to-door, mail-out or via online feedback. Surveys often give an indicator of wants and needs. They also identify dislikes and what the community won’t support.
- Get a budget approved. Understanding market needs is crucial, and the reality is that to meet those market needs there are going to be budgetary considerations. Designing a park and outfitting it can be an expensive venture, and the funds to accomplish the park’s development have to come from somewhere. To obtain funding, you’re going to need community support. Having a good understanding of what your community needs most in a park will ultimately sell the vision and solidify the funding for it.
Consider these stakeholders, as these are some of the most common community organizations that can assist you in your planning — especially if you want to build a park with playground components and optional activities:
- Civic Parks and Recreation Departments: Town and city parks and recreation departments are prime influencers in park design. Often, parkland and park lots become public property, and it’s crucial for these public spaces to support community needs. These spaces might include sports fields, picnic areas and children’s playgrounds. Chances are if you want to plan a park, you work in this department already and are working with fellow public community leaders. But if not, this team is the team you want to connect with first.
- Schools and Education Facilities: Public schools and private education facilities alike view parks and playgrounds as a necessary part of learning. Educators know that kids need breaks from academic lessons. They need to get outside and exercise. Today’s park and playground designers have the exciting challenge of making outdoor recreation both thrilling and interesting. Park planners know kids must get outside and balance their technology screen time. That’s a tough job in today’s digital world, which is why it’s even more important to include multiple activities into park and playground design by enlisting the support of these local public schools and education facilities.
- Daycare and Preschool Centers: Like elementary school children, toddlers require physical activity, too. They also need sensory stimulation, imaginative play and reflective time to absorb their new world. Multiple activities aren’t optional for this age group. They’re mandatory. Furthermore, park and playground designs intended for ages one to five have a particularly special requirement: safety. These little guys and gals don’t have the strength or coordination to safely handle playground equipment designed for active pre-teens.
- Community Service Organizations: You might be involved in a faith-based or community service group planning on building a new park or improving an existing property. Think about the multiple activities your park lot requires. Often, large groups need accommodation for meetings, get-togethers and retreats. You’ll likely cater to every age and require multiple activity features that include all. Playgrounds and play areas for kids are mandatory. So are picnic and entertainment areas. You also might need special features to accommodate reflection, and you’ll require some sort of shelter from the rain, wind and sun. Addressing these concerns ensures you’re building multiple activity services.
- Landscape Architects: No other profession gets more involved in public park design than landscape architects. They’re often called on to take park projects from concept to completion, and it’s almost always to do so within budget restrictions. Smart and experienced landscape architects know how important options for multiple activities are to public park design as well. If you’re planning a public park design, landscape architecture and consulting professionals trained in this field can help you find the most efficient and best use of the proposed park space.
One word of caution about community involvement — don’t let community members get too involved in the detailed design work. Design by committee rarely works. Seek more about desired features and general ideas, and work to develop plans with a select group of representatives. If you’ve conducted a comprehensive community survey, you’ll likely have more suggestions that you can accommodate in your park design. That’s to be expected. Your job will be sorting through options for multiple, feasible activities.
4. Factor in Landscaping and Architecture
You can certainly let your creativity run the show when planning the amenities and general layout of your space, but some of your park design will depend on the exact area it’s in.
Consider is the natural terrain. In many cases, it’s best to work with the ground, not against it. Existing slopes, banks and flat spaces enhance the native feel of your park. There are far too many “parking-lot” parks, and this should be the polar opposite of your design.
Vistas or view corridors need protecting, as visual intrigue is a critical element that allows park users to enjoy their surroundings. That might mean placing your playground equipment in an area that doesn’t block desirable viewpoints. It could also mean changing or designing park components to screen utility provisions or neighboring buildings.
Sun pattern is another consideration. You can’t change the sun, but you can accommodate for time of day and seasonal changes. Shade provision can be natural through best tree use. Or, you can provide shade by artificial screening. This is especially concerning in playground areas where youngsters can be sunburned or scalded by scorching playground components.
5. Provide Options for Multiple Park Activities
Choosing how to develop your park space for various activities or play is often a primary component in virtually all park designs. Will you have open fields for different sports, a pavilion with grills for party rentals and cookouts? Or restrooms on-site? Are you putting in a pond with fountains? Or will this be a smaller space, with just enough room for a few well-selected playground components?
Most parks in residential areas do plan for playground equipment as a must-have feature. There’s a massive amount of ingenuity and creativity that goes into designing today’s modern playground equipment. Consider these potential features for your park area and park playground:
- Playground structures
- Playground components
- Inclusive products
- Freestanding play
- Outdoor fitness equipment
- Site amenities, such as benches and picnic tables
- Shade structures
6. Choosing Appropriate Playground Equipment for a Park
Playground structures often include several components and designs specialized for specific age groups, while individual components give you the opportunity to customize.
Age group ranges for play equipment are often broken into the following categories: two to five years for preschoolers, two to 12 years for inclusive play and five to 12 years for active or older kids. Some public playground components often include:
- Activity and play panels: From lean-out enclosures to the Tic-Tac-Toe panel you remember from your playground experiences, these panels promote interactive social skills and learning throughout the playground.
- Bridges: A suspension or arch bridge is an opportunity to travel between playground components and decks.
- Climbers: Enjoy a Circle or Belt Skyway, or even a log climber. Having a variety of climbing components in the playground means kids of all ages can play.
- Crawl tubes: Different angles, lengths and turns — straight, inclined and left or right — lets kids explore where tunnels lead.
- Decks: Climbing to new heights often results in a new view, and open decks or towers with multiple decks give kids a chance to see the playground from a new angle.
- Ramps: Kids can learn about levels, degrees and changes in slope with a few well-placed entrance ramps or deck ramps within the play structure.
- Roofs: Enhancing the aesthetic appeal of the playground while providing plenty of function, roof-covered areas give playground structures shady spots and spaces to socialize.
- Slides: A playground wouldn’t be complete without at least one tube or slide.
- Transfer points and steps: Moving through tubes, across bridges and up or down ramps is all the more interesting when there are steps and risers to climb along the way.
- Accessories: Adding accessories to your playground, like Fun Fones, binoculars and tables to name just a few customization options, adds to the fun.
When designing your park and park playground, remember that today’s park patrons and kids are looking for components that they’ll enjoy. Visiting your playground has to be a fun event that keeps visitors returning.
You’ll also want to invest in quality and durable materials that promote sustainability and enjoyable aesthetics for years to come.
There are so many benefits to building a playground that incorporates engaging components. For one thing, kids need physical stimulation and exertion. Active children learn their limits and master their fears. Thrill and fun allow young people to interact and experiment with their surroundings. It’s the core of a healthy community, and your park design can build that.
Another benefit of a properly designed playground is encouraging teamwork — and not just between children at play. Especially in the planning phase, adults can work together in contributing ideas, suggesting uses and identifying optional activities that are most important. That teamwork can carry on into the building stage as well.
7. Incorporate the Right Site Furnishings Into the Layout
No park design is complete without specifying site furnishings. These are features that enhance the visitor experience and make visitors more comfortable and likely to enjoy their time at the park. This is where your imagination might clash with your budget, but there’s no dispute that the right amenities worked into your park plan will pay back. When choosing site furnishings for a park, here are some components to consider:
- Bike Racks: More and more, bicycles are returning to popularity. It’s part of a community fitness and pollution reductions movement. Secure bike racks should be included in your design.
- Benches and Tables: Every park needs adequate seating components. That can be standard park benches or combined with picnic tables. The best seating components are durable and made of lasting materials.
- Litter Receptacles: You can’t go overboard on this. No one likes a trash-strewn park, and the best prevention for litter is having plenty of receptacles.
- Grills and Fire Rings: Many folks enjoy picnicking outdoors — and also love a place to grill. Provide them with some spots. Give grills and fire rings their proper place in your park so visitors can bring charcoal or gas to grill with and enjoy a meal.
8. Add Lighting to Your Park Design
Another important component in park design is your lighting. You want your park to be used as much as possible and not unnecessarily restricted to daylight hours. Natural lighting might not seem crucial during summer months when days are long, and nights are short. However, that quickly changes in the fall and as it stays light-restricted until spring.
Like playground equipment, there are a lot of lighting options available for park design. The best advice any park planner can get is to work with a theme. That doesn’t only apply to the park’s overall theme — whether that’s recreating a historical look, capitalizing on natural features or introducing artificial, imaginary worlds. It includes designing your light plan to complement the entire park theme and remain relatively unnoticed. But bright!
There’s a lighting design principle called the hierarchical approach. That means your lighting plan should have a top, middle and lower level of how you use light. At the top level, you should have brightly lit high-activity areas like playgrounds and pedestrian walkways. In the middle, focus on accent lighting to highlight certain features like water or artworks. At the bottom are lowly-lit places that would be unsafe or inappropriate in places at night. You’ll want to focus on bright levels of light and accent lighting in your park.
Energy efficiency can be an issue when designing your park’s lighting plan, too. Conventional incandescent and metal halide lights are falling from favor in park illumination. Replacing them are high-tech Light Emitting Diode (LED) lights. Not only do LEDs save money by using less electricity, but they also give off more attractive wavelengths. You can also tap into technology by using photo sensors and motion detectors as lighting controls.
Set Your Park Design up for Success With Miracle Recreation
To ensure people can enjoy your park for a long time to come, you need quality equipment that can withstand the elements and heavy use. This doesn’t have to be just a vision. It can be a reality when you invest with a playground equipment manufacturer who has the experience and reputation to provide long lasting products that kids will actually want to play on!
Miracle Recreation is that playground equipment provider. Since 1927, we’ve supplied the nation’s parks and playgrounds with thrilling pre-designed and custom components that build exciting experiences. Our equipment gets kids moving, lets their imaginations soar and gets them outside, while providing an ideal community gathering space.
Find out why civic parks, schools, daycares, church groups and landscape architects invest in Miracle Recreation equipment. Contact us today to request more information on playground equipment for your next park.