What to consider when designing recreational facilities

Parks provide important recreation and leisure opportunities for people of all ages. Communities increasingly are developing parks to keep up with demand and the latest design trends. Their goal is to create facilities that are both functional and aesthetically pleasing. To achieve this, the park's owner and the design consultant must find a way to communicate their ideas.

People can design parks to incorporate several needs. Some are intimate and provide a more passive recreational focus, whereas others--such as those on which we will focus--concentrate on active recreational opportunities, such as softball, football and soccer.

In most areas, people use parks year-round. This nearly constant use requires construction materials to be efficient and durable. Your facilities must be able to withstand constant use while still maintaining a high-quality appearance. Therefore, in the early planning phases of your project, you must consider maintenance costs--both materials and labor--as well.

Laying the foundation The key to successful park design is thorough planning. Although it may be impossible to identify all future uses, detailed programming and planning can help you anticipate future needs. Doing so will add flexibility to the complex. Before you begin the planning process, first consider a variety of issues: field requirements, maintenance, user schedules and frequency, event mix, parking, spectator seating and restroom and concession needs. Each of these issues affects your overall design. A detailed review of all areas in the complex--both individually and as a whole--determines the best program for users and staff.

After you select the site, you can start planning. Again, you will face several considerations when designing your park: field layout, parking, pedestrian access, landscaping, site lines, graphics, and access for emergency and maintenance vehicles. Some of the most-important of these aspects to keep in mind are:

Access. It is important that you provide barrier-free access for users with disabilities within each complex. All new construction must follow the guidelines established by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Your design consultant will help ensure that your park design is open to the disabled.

Parking. Parking must be centrally located so that all facilities have ample parking within a reasonable distance from the fields or other facilities.

Signage. A well-thought-out site plan combined with good signage enables park users to find their way easily throughout the complex.

Field design and construction The demand for softball and baseball facilities remains high. While you may need more facilities, you must frequently work within conservative budget constraints. One way to maximize your investment is to construct a facility that will serve combined user groups. For example, the Hidden Valley Park Recreation Complex (Blue Springs, Mo.) is a multi-use complex with seven soccer fields, three football fields, six softball fields and three baseball diamonds. This stretches construction dollars and helps avoid duplicating services within an area, all while making the park a more user-friendly environment. For example: * Each league has its own concession/restroom building. * Parking is located to take advantage of alternating-use patterns. * The leagues play at different times of the year, so the football fields share a large parking lot with the baseball complex. * Site lines with wide walkways provide visual and physical access to all parts of the site, enabling users to see each complex within the park. * Site graphics provide identification of all complex facilities.

Park users increasingly expect more that just ball fields and parking lots. Patrons want interior spaces of a sports complex to be functional and attractive. Well-designed concession buildings can anchor the field portion of your complex. An area adjacent to the concession building with tables, chairs and shade allows spectators and players to relax before and after games. Including such improvements within the concession area can increase sales, thus adding to the project's viability.

Also consider the children who play at the park. When locating and designing playgrounds within a complex, consider the surrounding activities. Parents who play on a baseball league may appreciate having a playground closeby to occupy their children. The playground areas must be as close as possible to the ball fields and should be visible from all fields to allow adult supervision of the area. However, be certain that you locate play areas well out of the range of pop flys or overthrows. Also, choose construction materials carefully. Use materials such as sand, mulch or other specialty surfaces to help protect children from injury. Enclose the play area with fencing to provide added security.

As mentioned earlier, you should consider several facets when designing a multi-use sports complex. Field requirements, type of play, anticipated use and climate can impact not only the design of your facilities but also construction-material selection. Select construction materials not only for their initial cost, but also for overall life expectancy. Concrete paving will outlast asphalt paving in high-use areas. However, initial installation costs for concrete are much higher.

Select building materials that withstand vandalism and weather elements to help minimize future maintenance requirements. Use heavy-gauge fencing on backstops and other high-use areas that can withstand years of use without becoming damaged or unsightly.

Proper landscape-material selection will help reduce future maintenance and replacement costs. Use materials that are well adapted for your climate. You also can reduce costs by selecting plant materials that require less irrigation.

Drainage, soils and irrigation Grading can be one of the largest financial investments associated with a large park complex. As much as possible, you should allow sports fields to drain naturally, minimizing the need for extensive drainage systems. A design using a 2-percent slope will most often allow the field to drain naturally. In addition, a 2-percent slope will allow the field to become playable more quickly after stormy weather.

Natural swales--when combined with adequate slope--can replace underground drainage. Runoff is then channeled through the swales to existing drainage patterns within the site.

Consider a mix of soils in the infield. You can change infield soils during construction to provide a mix that enhances playability in wet conditions. A clay/sand mix or a soil stabilizer are options to consider for the infield. Your design consultant can determine the best mix of materials for the drainage and playability characteristics your site needs.

As water resources become more limited, planning for irrigation is critical. Moisture sensors and wind detectors can pay for themselves in water savings when incorporated into an irrigation system. Design water lines for future irrigation needs, even though you may not install all irrigation during initial construction. This provision will help you save on costly water-mainline additions or upgrades.

If your fields are not fully irrigated with pop-ups, install quick couplers throughout the site to aid in manual irrigation. At Hidden Valley Park, quick couplers installed behind each backstop allow the maintenance staff to water down the infields during dusty conditions, providing better playing conditions.

Lighting and maintenance Lighting is important to provide a safe environment for complex users. Choose fixtures that not only provide the required foot-candles of illumination but also withstand abuse.

The level of competition determines your field-lighting needs. Field use and player skills determine the need for foot-candles on each field. You also can use shared poles that have lighting-cross arms on both sides to light two fields, reducing the number of poles required in the complex. In addition, place key switches that control field lighting at the backstop or other convenient locations for use by the leagues.

You also can incorporate lighting and maintenance equipment into your concession facilities. Combining functions will reduce the number of buildings required for a site, as well as reducing construction costs.

Carefully plan for the requirements of each function of your park. Then add other considerations--such as turf and irrigation--to make your park a highly functional multi-use facility.

Paul Novick, ALSA, is a landscape architect and principal with Theis Doolittle Associates (Kansas City, Mo.).

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