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Outdoor leisure spaces – why the experience goes way beyond the equipment

Now, more than ever, the UK needs to have welcoming, safe and engaging outdoor leisure spaces to help people cope with, and overcome, COVID-19.

Throughout this challenging time, most will all have witnessed just how much the public has embraced the opportunity to get outside and exercise, both to manage mental health and improve physical health.  Regardless of whether it is walking, cycling or running, a large percentage of the population has started to enjoy their local outdoor environment in a manner, and frequency, that has never before been evident.

There now exists a real opportunity that these lifestyle changes can become a positive legacy of this terrible time, resulting in a more active nation that enjoys far better long term physical and mental health.  However, to deliver this legacy, our outdoor environments require investment to turn them from spaces the public have utilised out of necessity, to spaces they  use through free choice.

This is especially true for children’s play areas.  The range and quality of play equipment now available is superb.  It provides bright, engaging, safe, durable and high quality themes that spark imagination and offer great play value.

However, on occasion, too much emphasis is placed on the choice of equipment to the detriment of the overall scheme.   Let’s face it, what parent/carer wants to take their children to a play area where the surfacing is muddy, the equipment dirty and/or in poor condition, or where the is limited space for to sit down etc ?

Instead, effective play space design must be about the overall experience, which can include parking, access (pathways), seating and socialising spaces, lighting and overall safety.

One of the key considerations in the development of safe, engaging areas is the surfacing.  The correct choice can deliver a surface that includes design elements (graphics, logos, space demarcation) that complement the overall theme, whilst offering outstanding durability.

The Rolls Royce of play and leisure area surfacing has always been wet pour rubber.  This highly durable solution offers unrivalled performance and long term value, albeit at the high end of initial cost.  However, other solutions, such as rubber mulch etc, have been developed to provide lower upfront costs.

Regardless of the surfacing chosen, it is essential that the supplier can demonstrate full compliance, by supplying independent test results, with all relevant safety and performance standards, especially EN1177:2018.

The choice of surfacing for a play/leisure area is just part of the story though.  Careful consideration should be given to access and adjacent areas.  All too often, a fantastic play space is developed where access is via a grassed area.  This is fine during dry weather, but when wet and muddy can be the cause of play equipment becoming dirty and unattractive.  The same is true for outdoor gym areas.  All too often, these areas incorporate minimal surfacing which allows the area to become muddy and for this to be left as residues on the equipment and/or carried into adjacent play areas resulting in the same issue.

A final consideration, that is often overlooked, is lighting.  This can extend the operating hours of outdoor spaces, but most importantly is a deterrent to vandalism and misuse which can quickly render an outdoor space unusable.

Whilst the overall scheme design is essential in providing an experience the public will want to repeat, it is often compromised by ineffective cleaning and maintenance.  This is key to ensuring outdoor spaces remain welcoming, safe and engaging.  Sadly, it is the initial failure to effectively plan essential maintenance that causes use to spiral and neglect and misuse to set in.

The good news is that there are lots of companies offering inspections, repair, maintenance and cleaning services that can address many of the challenges and return outdoor spaces to their former glory.

By working together, the designer, supplier, installer and client can deliver fabulous spaces.  However, care should be taken to never lose site of the fact that, whilst the equipment is the centre piece of the design, the overall experience is what defines whether users come back again and again, and this ultimately means that designing with a focus on lifetime value, rather than initial scheme cost, is the key to success.


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