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Benefits of Outdoor Site Furniture that creates an Oasis

How do you Create an Outdoor Oasis?

Outdoor furniture - red bench outdoor site furniture - blue bench outdoor oasis - red bench outdoor furniture: bench by lake

A pleasant outdoor space is an essential part of a vibrant community, whether that community is an apartment building, an office park, or a neighborhood of single family homes. Inviting outdoor spaces encourage people to get to know their neighbors, get physical activity, and enjoy the psychological benefits that come from spending time among green and growing nature.

But with a society that is increasingly inclined to find its work and entertainments indoors, creating inviting outdoor spaces is both more important than ever and more challenging. It’s not impossible, however, and following a careful plan will help ensure that you create a space that is an asset not only to the site, but also to the community it serves.

Creating an outdoor oasis is a complex process, but if you approach it carefully, it can be done properly. Start by assessing the current site and its usage. Then decide on your goals for the space, whether you are looking to serve current users or attract different ones. Before design, be aware of the regulatory, administrative, and legal obstacles facing your project.

In designing your space, keep your goals in mind and make sure the design conforms to your vision. Purchasing and installing your furnishings often depends on getting a good estimate of costs and getting your budget approved. Phased installation is not only a good way to deal with a limited budget, but can also help you perform dynamic assessments of your design. Finally, remember that even after your site is complete, your project is not finished—you have to monitor, maintain, and refine the site to ensure it continues to be an asset to the property.

Assess the Current Site & Usage

Before you can begin planning your new outdoor oasis, it’s important to assess the condition of the current site and how it is being used (or not used) by the community.

Physical characteristics

Assess the physical characteristics of the site. Note the size and shape of the space, and whether the ground is level, sloped, or uneven. Consider the presence or absence of ground cover, and how well the ground cover is presently maintained. Determine whether the site has both sun and shade—an ideal outdoor location should have both—and the source of the shade. Trees make the most desirable shade because they help make the area cooler than shade cast from a building. Is the area well-drained or does water tend to accumulate here?

Make sure to assess the site at all times of day (though especially at the expected peak usage times), and at all seasons. Sun and shade patterns will change with the seasons, and areas that are inviting at some times of year will be inhospitable at others. You want a site that is welcoming for most of the seasons that people seek to spend time outside, based on your local climate.

If there have been previous attempts to create a gathering place at this site, note the success or failure of those efforts and utilize those insights in designing your space.

Location

Next, it’s time to assess the location of the site you are considering. Is the site near the potential users? An outdoor gathering area in an office or residential complex should be central to the complex, located for the ease of residents but less attractive to nonresidents.

Are there other attractions in the area that might be complementary to your outdoor space (e.g. restaurants without seating or a place where food carts/trucks tend to stop)? Is there regular traffic through the area which might serve to bring people to the site? Are there reasons why people might want to sit or gather here (e.g.—people watching, public art, pleasant scenery)?

Current usage

Determine how the site is currently being used. If the site is being underutilized, ask why. Does the site have unpleasant characteristics you have missed in your assessment thus far? Is it inconveniently located? Has it just not been discovered? Or is it just that the site has not been designed in an inviting way?

On the other hand, you might be concerned that the current space is being overutilized. If people are loitering in the spot for too long, especially people who do not reflect well on the community or the space, you will want to try to discourage them. Try to understand the reasons why these people come to the site and why they remain for long periods of time.

Common consequences of overutilization include damage to the site and its furnishings, excessive litter or rubbish, and even an increased risk of crime in the area.

Remember to assess utilization by nonhuman users of the space, too. Although the presence of wildlife is often attractive, the presence of large numbers of urban pest species or animals that are aggressive or diseased animals can cause people to avoid the area.

Determine the Usage You Want

Now that you have assessed the site’s current condition, envision the space that you desire to create. A clear definition of your goals will be invaluable in designing the space.

What are your goals for this space?

There are many reasons why creating an outdoor gathering location can seem like a good idea. The rationale for creating a new outdoor space is different for private property owners and public property managers. Private property owners may be seeking to:

  • Increase current tenant satisfaction
  • Attract new tenants
  • Improve visual appeal
  • Increase property value

Private property goals are often best served by creating an exclusive space, one that encourages use only by tenants and residents of the property and their guests or customers. Utilization of the space by the public is considered a resource drain, increasing maintenance costs and decreasing the appeal of the space for tenants and residents.

On the other hand, public space managers often seek to create inclusive spaces that invite usage by any member of the public in the area. Even when exclusivity is desired (such as discouraging usage by loitering teens), the overall goal is to make the space more inclusive so that a wider range of people can utilize the space.

Who do you want using the space?

To effectively meet the needs of your intended users, you have to make sure you understand them. Basic demographic data is a good start. Age, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status all influence the types of activities people enjoy and how they enjoy them.

But it’s more important to understand the exact people you are designing for. What relationship do the people have with the space? Employees in an office park that will use an outdoor space during lunch breaks have very different demands than residents in an apartment complex that will use an outdoor space primarily during the evening and weekends. Tourists and transients who might use a space have still different demands. Private property has the luxury of focusing on a single audience, while public spaces have to consider a primary, secondary, and even tertiary audience.

If current stakeholders are expected to utilize a space in the future, survey them about their desires and goals for the new space.

How do you want the space used?

The site furnishings you select can control the activities that people will enjoy in the space you have designed. You have to consider which activities you want people to enjoy and which you want to avoid. They also have the ability to control how often people use a space, and for how long.

If, for example, you want to encourage sitting but discourage sleeping in a public area, site furnishings should be selected to be comfortable, but not too comfortable. Consider individual chairs rather than benches, and if you do chose benches, they should be proportioned to make sleeping difficult. Concrete furniture is also a good choice because it is not comfortable for sleeping.

The amount of people that use your space will be determined by the number that your furnishings support. However, there is a risk that a shortage of resources could lead to conflict. Make sure you have a plan to reduce and resolve conflict.

Check Legal Hurdles

Before you begin designing your park, consider the legal and administrative obstacles to completion. Often, these obstacles can be avoided with the proper design, so having them in mind from the start will make the process smoother.

Public park processes

If you are working for a parks service, there are usually well-established procedures for proposing new additions to a park’s facilities. This may include clearly delineated principles of design and formulae for estimating usage.

Your process will also likely include minimum standards for the amount of infrastructure required, the durability and design of site furnishings, and more.

If you aren’t clear on this process, talk to your supervisor before beginning the project to determine the proper way to proceed.

Private site procedures

If you are working for a condominium or office park, there may be no clear rules about how to proceed. As a site manager, you may have the authority to execute your plan without oversight. On the other hand, there may be multiple levels of governance to deal with, such as a management company, complex owner, and tenants’ association.

Whether you have on-site management to work with or not, you still have to make sure your project complies with code requirements. Not all improvements require a permit, but anything that includes infrastructure modifications, such as plumbing or wiring, or that interacts with the public right-of-way likely needs a permit.

Design to Match the Usage

Now that you have a good idea about the desired usage of your outdoor oasis, it’s time to put pencil to paper and translate that usage into a plan.

Basic principles to remember

When making your design, there are a few things to keep in mind that can save your design from running out of control. First, whenever possible, use what you have. Don’t purchase new site furnishings when the current furnishings can be made to serve. Don’t plant new trees when you can utilize the current trees. Don’t try to regrade a portion of the site if other parts of the site are already suitably level.

Next, assume that all furnishings and equipment will be used in ways that were not intended. Try to imagine alternate uses, and if the alternate uses are undesirable (such as homeless persons using playground equipment to sleep or as a toilet), design to avoid them.

Finally, less is often more. You want to design to facilitate activity, but too many furnishings can interfere with some uses, make a space seem cluttered, or encourage crowding.

Barriers and openness

Your oasis has to have some borders that define it, and you have to consider the degree to which you want those borders to be barriers. Barriers are used to exclude persons you do not want utilizing a space, and openness is used to invite the ones you do want using a space. It is normal to have a combination of both barriers and openness.

Barriers have to be effective. For example, if you are using a wood slat fence to keep out loitering teens, make sure it is tall enough to discourage climbing, and regularly inspect the fence for broken or missing slats. A hedge barrier can be very attractive, but it may not grow thick enough and quickly enough to prevent traffic, and once traffic begins, this will impair growth and maintain an opening. Backing the hedges with a fence can make them more effective, and help them to grow in to create an attractive barrier.

Don’t forget to assess the site for unintentional barriers that may be considered in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Your outdoor oasis should be enjoyable by everyone.

Supply enough equipment

Although you do not want to clutter a space, you want to make sure that there is enough equipment for your intended users. Estimate the number of people you expect to use the space at any given time and purchase an appropriate amount of site furnishings.

In general, it is best to use a larger number of smaller furnishings in clusters than a smaller number of large furnishings in isolation. Larger groups can use the clusters as a whole, but the cluster can accommodate more individuals or small groups.

Remember to position benches in support of other site features, such as near playgrounds or sandboxes where parents can observe their children at play.

Utilize the principle of triangulation. Triangulation is the way that a common point of interest (such as a vista, a piece of art, or other site amenities) can bring together strangers in conversation. To maximize interaction, benches should be spaced close enough that occupants can speak normally and be heard by people on an adjacent bench. Tilt benches 90 to 120 degrees from one another so that people can interact easily if they choose.

Supply infrastructure and site amenities as needed

The amount of infrastructure necessary depends on the number of people you expect to be utilizing the space, and for how long. People need to have access to drinking water and toilets. People should also have shelter in the event of inclement weather. Trash cans and ash urns should be present to reduce litter.

Infrastructure requirements are often spelled out in municipal codes, but consider these standards a minimum level. Provide infrastructure as you think will maximize the usage and value of the space.

Don’t neglect ground cover

With all the emphasis on site furnishings, it’s easy to forget that what’s underfoot is an essential part of the outdoor space. Make sure your ground cover is appropriate to the intended uses, e.g. grass for outdoor sports, some type of mulch or padding for playgrounds, etc.

Ground cover should be chosen to counteract negative physical characteristics such as water accumulation. Don’t forget to consider the value of ground cover in all seasons.

Shade and aesthetic plants

Green and growing plants are essential to any oasis. They can help cool the space on hot summer afternoons. They also provide refreshing moisture and oxygen. Every site should have a mixture of sun and shade at all times, and shade trees as well as umbrellas can help achieve the proper balance.

If your site is a concrete oasis, planters will be necessary to supply plants. Planters have both benefits and drawbacks. They require more maintenance and can be mistaken for ash trays or garbage cans. But the planters themselves can be very attractive site amenities and can be designed to serve as additional seating.

Don’t forget maintenance

When designing your outdoor oasis, don’t forget maintenance considerations. For some materials, maintenance is relatively expensive, while others, like concrete furniture, may require little or no maintenance. If you want to create an outdoor oasis with long-term durability that won’t be a drain on resources, favor low-maintenance items that resist wear and damage.

Purchase and Installation

Estimate costs

Once you have a good plan in place, you can come up with an estimate for the cost of the project. Check out several suppliers to determine the best price for each component, add in labor cost for installing furnishings and equipment. Finally, add in an estimate for maintenance costs.

Once you have an estimate, you will know whether your current design is realistic for your budget. If necessary, adjust the design. If you have to get budget approval from a board or supervisor, it’s a good idea to consider alternate plans that can be completed with lower cost, in case your full budget isn’t approved. Do not present the board with these alternate plans first, though, because administrators will pick the lower-cost option by default.

Budget approval

In most situations, you won’t have the authority to simply purchase supplies without oversight. Instead, you will need to have the project and its budget approved. If you work with a park service, you may have to submit your project as part of an omnibus budget proposal, or your project’s cost may be carved out of discretionary funds.

If you work for a private site, make sure you know which governance body or bodies you have to talk to about approval. Be prepared to make multiple pitches.

Your budget proposal may be approved or turned down completely, but often you may be allocated some funds, but not the full amount you were requesting.

Phased installation

Phased installation is one way that you can deal with getting less than your full budget approved. You can begin by installing some of the components you designed and count on installing others later.

But phased installation is also a good approach for installing your outdoor oasis. You can experiment with the impact of some of the smaller, less expensive installations to gauge the overall potential of the project before committing the bulk of your budget.

Compatibility of components

It’s not necessary to work with a single supplier for all your equipment, but if you are purchasing from different suppliers, make sure that the different components are compatible before you purchase them.

Follow installation guidelines

The equipment manufacturers will specify installation guidelines for their equipment, including assembly and placement. Adhere to these guidelines closely. Failure to do so can result in premature damage to the equipment or possible injury to users of the space.

Be flexible

You have a clear plan for how the space should be laid out, but things might look different once you begin the installation process. It’s easier to adapt your plan to the physical space than to try to force the physical space to conform to your plan.

Also, during phased installation, you will likely learn that people are using your space in ways you had not anticipated. If these are positive uses that meet your goals, you can modify your plans to foster them, but you may also have to modify your plans to discourage uses that are contrary to your goals.

Inspections can be helpful

It’s common to look at the approval and regulatory process as simply an obstacle to your project, but it can actually help improve your outdoor oasis. Inspectors are often very experienced when it comes to this type of project and can give you insight into how to accomplish your goals. Establish a good working relationship with inspectors and you will be pleasantly surprised at how helpful they can be, especially if this is your first project of this type.

Monitor, Maintain, and Refine

Your project is never truly finished. When properly designed, an outdoor oasis will gain a kind of life, and it will age and change over time. Monitor your space to make sure that it continues to be used in a productive way.

Maintain the components to combat wear, vandalism, and damage by the elements. A space with worn or damaged furnishings may be abandoned in favor of spaces that seem newer and more vibrant.

As you monitor the usage of the space, be alert to changes in the population using the space. Consider whether these changes might also lead to changes in the desired usage, and consider modifying the space as necessary to continue to match the demands of the population.

Finally, don’t forget to get out and enjoy your creation sometimes. It’s yours and you should be proud of it!

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