City of Detroit Sets Strict Specs to Ensure New Playground Surfaces are Safe and Accessible

by Jennifer K. Skulski, CPSI

Throughout the development of accessibility guidelines for playgrounds, there has been a discussion of dichotomy suggesting that a playground surface can not be both accessible to children with disabilities and resilient enough to reduce the likelihood of injury in the event of a fall. There are an estimated 205,850 playground equipment related injuries each year (NPPS, NPSI, CPSC, 2005). Falls from equipment account for 79% of those injuries. However the science of playground surfacing has evolved to prove that it is possible to install and maintain playground surfaces that are both accessible and impact attenuating, and playground owners are putting the various surfacing systems to the test before, during and after the initial purchase and installation.

With a limited budget and 360 parks located on more than 6,000 acres, City of Detroit park planners have taken an innovative approach to ensure the biggest bang for their buck when purchasing new playground surfacing. Through the bid process, the city has instituted quality assurance specifications for impact attenuation and accessibility of newly purchased playground surfacing. Awards are only made to vendors who can meet the pre-installation requirement with certifications from an independent laboratory and who will supply a list of 20 references of similar projects installed within the last eight years. This is typical of most bid packages. But the most notable requirement in the bid specification calls for the surfaces to be tested to verify compliance immediately following installation and at the end of the second, fourth, and fifth year of use.

“We have been working with rubber surfacing for a little over 10 years. About 3-4 years ago we started installing some new playgrounds and needed to develop a more up to date specification,” says Dick Hautau, Chief of Landscape Architects for the City of Detroit Recreation Department.

Up to a point the city had used engineered wood fiber but had determined it to require more labor to maintain the accessibility of the surface than the city resources could support. “We had a budget for capital improvements, but not one for maintenance, thus we swayed toward rubber since it doesn’t require the same amount of maintenance (and because it was accessible).”

Some of the city’s first installations with poured in place rubber products were aging more rapidly than the city had anticipated and showing signs of becoming brittle. Thus, between the years 2002 and 2003 the city developed quality assurance specifications and detailed product warranty expectations for all eligible bidders. Like most public playground owners, the City of Detroit references two standard-setting entities for accessibility and safety surfacing criteria:


American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) standards: ASTM F1292 Standard Specification for Impact Attenuation of Surface Systems Under and Around Playground Equipment; and ASTM F1951 Standard Specification for Determination of Accessibility of Surface Systems Under and Around Playground Equipment.


U.S. Access Board’s ADA Accessibility Guidelines for Play Areas Final Rule (October 2000) and re-released as Chapter 10 Recreation Facilities in the new ADA/ABA Accessibility Guidelines (July 2004).

Within 10-35 days following installation of the finished playground surface, the contractor is required to provide the city with field test results demonstrating that the surface is in compliance with ASTM F1292 for impact attenuation and ASTM F1951 for wheelchair accessibility. The city allows for field testing of ASTM 1292 to be conducted with the TRIAX 2000, a tripod device equipped with an 8 lb. aluminum sphere and accelerometer measuring the G-max and Head Injury Criteria (HIC) of the surface when dropped from an elevated point. The voluntary standard for protective surfacing set by ASTM requires that surfaces perform at less than 200 G’s and 1,000 HIC for impact attenuation, values at which life-threatening injury or permanent disability are less likely to occur. Based on the city planners’ experiences with aging surfaces, the city updated their own requirement for the playground surfaces to perform at a Gmax value less than 150 and HIC less than 850 upon initial installation. The city also updated the quality assurance criteria to require the “drop test height” from points at the tops of horizontal railings, guardrails, barriers, climbers, support beams, and stationary equipment placing the drop height at a minimum of 5 ft. Traditionally the “drop height” is equal to the height of elevated platforms. The city’s elevated height requires the installed surface to perform at a greater height where children are more likely to fall from.

The city also allows for the use a Rotational Penetrometer to field test the surface for firmness and stability in regards to wheelchair accessibility. At the time of this article, the ASTM F08.63 subcommittee on playground surfaces has been working on a revision to ASTM F1951 that would specify a field test method utilizing the Rotational Penetrometer.

So how effective has the City of Detroit’s bid quality assurance specification been so far? In 2004, the city had 11 playgrounds installed with poured in place rubber surfacing, and 20 more in 2005. Hautau reports the quality assurance requirement has been of great benefit to the city just within the last year. “We found a couple installations this summer that did not meet the specifications and required the manufacturer and installer to go back and correct them.” Hautau mentions that the problems were only at two playgrounds and actually small sections within the entire surface. For example, out of a 6,000 sq ft playground, there was one section 7 x 12 ft that had to be repaired and another 10 x 10 ft that had to be replaced.

Without the field testing at each playground installation, the playground owner would have written a check for a playground surface believed to be installed properly while being safe and accessible to children for the next 5-10 years. Moreover, the playground owner would not have known the playground surface to be in non-compliance for either impact attenuation or wheelchair accessibility, putting children and the owner at risk. The city’s quality assurance process shifts the manufacturer’s claims of safety and accessibility verified in a controlled laboratory testing environment to the outdoor playground environment where it matters most. Advocates for field testing will agree, it doesn’t matter that the manufacturer has certifications showing a surface passes for impact attenuation and wheelchair accessibility in a laboratory setting if the surface is not properly installed and maintained in the playground environment where it could either prohibit use by children with disabilities or result in life-threatening injury when a child falls from equipment. Field testing stands as a proof point that the playground owner actually received what was bought and paid for.

Some critics have complained that this type of quality assurance requirement for field testing will drive up the cost of playground surfacing. Hautau disagrees, “We have seen that the price of the installations has remained static even with the new specifications.”

As for playground owners about to purchase playground surfacing, Hautau has some advice. “Don’t be scared to take a higher road to make sure that the children using the playground will be protected. As long as there are at least 1-2 companies out there, the rest will step up to meet your criteria.”

Special Thanks

Special thanks to Richard Hautau, the City of Detroit, and Rolf Huber for information contributed to this article.

About the Author

Jennifer Skulski is a Certified Playground Safety Inspector and Director of Marketing and Special Projects for the National Center on Accessibility at Indiana University. She has been an advocate for the inclusion of children with disabilities on the playground for more than 10 years and currently sits on the ASTM F08.63 Subcommittee on Playground Surfacing.


For more information specific to the City of Detroit’s bid specifications, contact:

Dick Hautau, F- ASLA
Chief of Landscape Architecture
Detroit Recreation Department
Planning, Design & Construction Management
(313) 224-1108


The citation for this article is:

Skulski, J. (December 2005). City of Detroit Sets Strict Specs to Ensure New Playground Surfaces are Safe and Accessible. Bloomington, IN: National Center on Accessibility, Indiana University. Retrieved from