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2012-12-01, Department, by Amy Kapp

The Chicago Park District recently completed a five-year capital improvement plan to improve inclusion and reduce barriers to accessibility. Ninety-three playgrounds were renovated.The 2010 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) Standards for Accessible Design require park and recreation agencies to comply with the ASTM (American Society for Testing and Materials) F1951 standard for surface accessibility in all newly constructed or altered public playgrounds. Accessible surfacing is not a new concept for the industry, which has long espoused the benefits of inclusive play; however, the process of choosing appropriate surfacing can be complex, considering the unique geography, budgets, and resources of communities.

The one-year findings of a five-year study by the National Center on Accessibility (NCA), titled “A Longitudinal Study of Playground Surfaces to Evaluate Accessibility,” identified five categories of surfacing put forth as accessible by manufacturers, including engineered wood fiber, shredded rubber, poured-in-place surfaces, rubber mat (tile) surfaces, and hybrid services (under development). These surfaces differ in terms of cost, installation, and care, underscoring the need for public agencies to do their homework.

Before You Buy 

“Agencies never have enough money to do everything. They have to prioritize,” says Tom Kalousek, a certified playground safety inspector for 17 years and director of Safe Play for All. “Sometimes they are less concerned about surfacing…they buy the equipment first. But from the standpoint of safety and accessibility, surfacing is really the highest priority.”

Kalousek asserts planning and layout as the first critical steps in playground development, followed by determining all minimum accessibility requirements, and choosing the specific equipment and appropriate surfacing materials. By understanding that surfacing is relevant for every aspect of a playground’s design, from the width, slope, and elevation of routes to all freestanding equipment, to their subsequent use zones, agencies will be in a better position to determine the surfacing that will meet their needs for safety and accessibility.

Jennifer Skulski, director of marketing and special projects for NCA and author of the longitudinal study, states that regardless of the surfacing agencies choose, site surveys are important.

“We looked at a handful of [playground] sites where, because they looked flat, no site surveys were done,” Skulski says, referring to the NCA longitudinal study’s five-year findings (to be published in 2013). “After the surfaces were installed, equipment was moved, and based on the existing grade of the sites, the access routes became inaccessible.”

Skulski also cautions agencies to be aware of water runoff, which can negatively impact surfacing and accessibility. “You need to have a good drainage system in place,” she says.

Material Matters—Costs, Durability, and Maintenance 

So what type of surfacing is optimal? And, how much will it cost? According to industry experts, these are questions with both short- and long-term relevance.

“If you are the director of a park and recreation agency, you are not just going to look at the cost to buy and install…you must factor in the cost of maintenance,” states John McGovern, president of Recreation Accessibility Consultants, LLC.

McGovern says his firm usually sees three types of accessible surfaces at client sites: unitary surfaces, such as poured-in-place and interlocking rubber tile, and, only when regularly inspected and frequently maintained, engineered wood fiber. He recommends using unitary surfaces as a general practice, and states while they tend to have higher upfront costs in terms of purchasing and installation, the regular refilling, leveling, and compacting needed to ensure loose-fill surfaces remain accessible can result in high maintenance costs in the long term. These maintenance costs, combined with the purchase price, increase the real cost of loose-fill engineered wood fiber.

“Right now, for park and recreation departments…one of the areas of budget cuts is in maintenance staff,” he says. “Having a playground surface that requires regular inspection and frequent maintenance, and then getting maintenance staff cut…that’s a recipe for an ADA disaster.”

Jason Canuel, acting assistant director of Louisville Metro Parks in Kentucky, says he believes poured-in-place surfaces provide the best mobility for individuals with wheelchairs or crutches, a factor in the choice to use unitary surfacing in three of his agency’s accessible playground projects. However, he credits the support of organizations such as the DREAM Foundation and Olmsted Parks Conservancy with making the unitary surfacing possible, and for the more than 100 playgrounds operated by Louisville Metro Parks, the high upfront costs of unitary surfaces necessitate the continued use of engineered wood fiber.

“From a budgetary standpoint, you are pushing the cost on down the road using loose fill, rather than footing the bill initially,” Canuel says. “With poured-in-place, it’s a huge investment, and we simply don’t have those upfront capital dollars for every playground.”

The Chicago Park District engaged in a five-year effort from 2007 to 2011 to remove barriers to accessibility, including renovating 93 parks with poured-in-place and rubber tile surfacing. While the agency continues to use engineered wood fiber at a majority of its 520 parks, Linda Daly, deputy director of capital construction, notes the numerous benefits of unitary surfacing for ongoing maintenance costs. She states, “Chicago Park District receives a long-term warranty from the manufacturer. And once the surface is installed, the typical regular maintenance required is to simply hose the surface to clean spills or dirt.”

Daly says maintenance issues such as tiles curling and poured-in-place surfacing cracking or pulling away from concrete edging have been addressed under warranties. But there’s a caveat. “Damages caused by excessive use or vandalism are not covered…and repairs must be completed by contractors who are trained and certified rubber surface installers.”

McGovern recommends field tests for all surfaces to ensure accessibility. Skulski agrees, emphasizing the difference in conditions of a lab setting to that of a real playground setting, and the complications that can arise with improper installation. For example, agencies must ensure engineered wood fiber is installed strictly according to each manufacturer’s recommendations to comply with accessibility standards, while poured-in-place surfacing is often mixed at the site, placing critical importance on the quality and experience of the professional installer.

“After installation, no matter what surface you have, it needs to be tested first for impact attenuation and then assessed for accessibility to make sure it meets the requirements for slope, changes in level, and firmness,” Skulski says.


Kalousek says that in terms of safety, some agencies may choose to use unitary surfaces to make routes to equipment accessible, while using non-accessible loose-fill surfaces such as sand or pea stone gravel in the use-zone areas not overlapping the routes.

“If money were no object, most [agencies] would rather have one accessible surface in the entire play area, and it would probably be unitary surfacing. But it can begin to degrade and lose its impact attenuation over time,” he says. “Loose fill tends to be more impact attenuating if properly installed and maintained.”

But, again, long-term maintenance is a factor.

“There is no perfect surfacing,” Kalousek says. “Do you have money upfront to do a unitary, more expensive playground? Or are you going to do the loose-fill with higher maintenance obligations? It’s a catch-22.”

Amy Kappis a freelance writer in Northern Virginia ( 



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User Email:


OK, but you neglected to investigate and report on two very important issues dealing with poured-in-place rubber safety surfacing. First, the short warranties and functional lifespan of this type of surfacing and second, the difficulty and higher cost of removal and replacement.


Some of these points were addressed in the "Material Matters—Costs, Durability, and Maintenance" section. It sounds like the Chicago Park District has had success with their manufacturer--you may want to get in touch with Linda Daly there to get more information on her agency's experience.