Safety Gear -- Fences & Lights

You may have heard the old adage that strong fences make good neighbors. In the world of parks and recreation, good fencing and adequate lighting are essential to the safety of your public spaces.


Fences come in a variety of types and styles and can serve a multitude of purposes. Fencing can be purely decorative or it can be used to control and direct people, vehicles or secure property, or all of the above. In my opinion, too little thought is given to fencing components and thus you risk losing effective use of this not inexpensive design component.

Some of the basic fencing considerations are simple:

Use the right fence for the job. If the park is a high-visibility, high-profile park consider using a mix of fencing to include decorative wrought iron-looking aluminum fence or wood fencing at the entry points of the project. If you need to install chain link for security, place it to the rear in a buffer zone on these entry and exit points.

Always install the most robust fencing you can afford. Since the most used fencing in parks is chain link, no backyard chain link installations, please. You will regret it. Always spec schedule 40 line, pull, and corner posts. Always use a top rail and tension wire, or better bottom rail at the base of chain link fence. Spec 9 gage fence fabric.

Insist on galvanized steel hog rings to secure the tension wire. If you don't the contractor will use aluminum hog rings and they will not hold up.

Always remember to put the knuckled side of the chain link up and the barbed side down. You don't want your patrons to get cut up leaning or hanging on the top of your fence. While we are talking about this, no razor wire or barbed wire. It sends the very definite message that this is not a good or a safe place. If your site really is that dangerous, you have other work to do.

Some other considerations:

Cars and pedestrians don't mix well. Use fencing to keep them separated.

Use fencing to create recreation pods. Here in our park system we have water playgrounds abutting dry playgrounds and surrounded by various-sized picnic shelters. These are all very popular amenities. We segregate each node by fencing. Thus when we lease out picnic spaces we can include access to the water playground at an additional charge or rent the entire facility for large groups at special times. We can also close off and secure these areas during maintenance periods. Install different sizes of picnic shelters to accommodate differing sized groups.

When you use fencing for crowd control make sure that you have large double wide gates installed at frequent enough and strategic intervals. This allows for the safe and quick emptying of the event area after the event is concluded. It also can give emergency services multiple to respond in the case of emergency

If you are short of staff you can do as we do and install automatic closures on gates and bathrooms to coincide with the hours of operation of the facilities.

If you are using chain link fencing in your parks consider softening the industrial look of the galvanized type of chain link. If you can afford it spec vinyl clad fence fabric in black or forest green. Use the same color posts and rails. If your budget can't stand that or if you have a great deal of galvanized fencing already around existing ball fields, etc., paint them black. Yes, paint them. We did and the new look was terrific. The job was easy and mostly done in-house.

While you have the paint open take one more step. Paint the backs and the sign posts of any galvanized traffic or informational signs in your parks. Again, paint them black or forest green. Trust me on this. It will make a big difference in the overall appearance of the park. We have also built wood frames around metal signs in our rustic parks to make them bend in better. It works.

One more thing on signage. If you don't have one, put together a signage standard for your park or better yet your park system. If you don't, over time your parks will have a hodge-podge of signs. The overall impression for visitors is quite poor.

One last thing on fencing… Consider fenceless fence. In other words use landscaping to direct and control people. We have used sandspurs planted in beach dune areas to keep people on the dune boardwalks. We have planed holly hedges to control foot traffic and in some of our troubled parks we have planted yuccas and cactus under windows of buildings that were repeatedly broken into. We have had no further trouble with these buildings.

Lights Please

Proper lighting in the right places is an extremely important element for the safety and enjoyment of your park patrons. Again, thought should be given to the installation of lighting. It's expensive to install and increasingly expensive to operate. You don't have to light up a place like high noon to get the safety and enjoyment you want for your customers.

The most expensive lighting component of a park will be the lighting of your outdoor sports fields. It's very important to design these facilities with care and include any residential neighbors as soon as possible in the park design. I know from bitter experience that NIMBY (not in my backyard) neighbors can make park planning a nightmare. It is much better to get this out front and to deal with it early.

If the neighbors stop your field lighting project through their political action it will have the effect of cutting the useful playing time on the field roughly in half. While this is disappointing for you and staff, it is in my opinion, not a political hill worth dying for. Therefore deal with it out front and move on.

That said, there are some basics to good field lighting:

Be a good neighbor to any residential communities close by. Place your lights at the proper mounting height for the size of the playing field.

Aim them properly.

If funds are available, and try to stretch your dollars for this, employ spill glare control technology in your field lighting system.

Buffer the field fencing at least 50 feet from the closest residential property line.

Design the lighting with remote ballasts.

Wire each light pole underground.

No exposed wire on light cross arms

In addition to the above some other considerations for park lighting could be:

If you don't have access to a bucket truck to service your field lights consider specifying climbing steps on the light poles.

Check the lighting levels on the playing field after initial installation to ensure that they meet the design standards of the firm doing the engineering. A simple photo light meter can accomplish this.

Be budgeted to re-lamp each field after three years of use. Most specs call for a re-lamp after five years. The light fall-off is such that we find that three years is best for safety of play.

Again, be a good neighbor by ensuring that you turn off the field lights on time, every time. If your park is in a residential area and you don't do this you will hear about it and so will the boss.

You may wish to control your field lights remotely and monitor the areas for rain or other inclement weather. If there is a rain-out, turn off the lights. The neighbors will really get mad if this happens repeatedly. Remember you are paying for the energy cost of these lights. If you are a government agency, those residents know very well that they are paying for those blazing lights with their tax dollars.

If you turn off the field lights remotely, design your light system to provide enough light to safely guide players and spectators out of the park and into the parking lots.

Finally do a light check of your parks that are open after dark. Do it in cooperation with your local law enforcement agency and make the necessary light adjustments or additions that will make you facility safer after dark.

Lighting and fencing can be a huge investment in any comprehensive park design. With thought, planning and the involvement of the community you can ensure the best possible use of these valuable resources.

William Potter is the parks and recreation division manager for Orange County Parks, Florida. He can be reached at