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
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.
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
“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
“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 (firstname.lastname@example.org).
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.