Small playgrounds and playspaces need not consist of crowded assemblages of equipment. In fact, restraints imposed by site conditions are often where some of the most creative and cohesive designs find their origins. Because there is not always the available space or budget needed for ambitious projects on the scale of MonstroCity in St. Louis or Bellleville Park in Paris, especially in communities with limited resources, it is important to design with economy in mind. In an earlier entry, we examined how vertical orientation, sculptural forms, freestanding pieces, and poured-in-place rubber surfacing can all be used to make play engaging and fun on a small footprint. Here, we look at how those approaches are carried out at some of the best small playgrounds in the United States and around the world.
Teardrop Park, New York City
If you live in New York City, you know the value of space and, especially, greenspace. Located in the middle of Battery Park, Teardrop Park by Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates is a green sanctuary whose lush foliage and reclusive layout shelter it from the rush and hum of the city. Two distinct areas are divided by a rock wall with a long chute slide from a Goric manufacturer and boulders for climbing. A tunnel leads from a sand pit and water playground to a broad lawn providing open play space and a small wetland path. Anchored by a single stone-structured hill that can be climbed, slid down, crawled though, or used as a quiet vantage for observation, Teardrop Park is an object lesson in spatial economy.
Lucy Flower Playlot Park, Chicago
A hidden gem of Chicago’s West Bucktown neighborhood, Lucy Flower Playlot Park is a superb example of the small pocket parks scattered throughout the city. The family friendly park takes it name from the social reformer who spearhead many initiatives to improve children’s lives, including the movement to establish one of the first juvenile courts in the world. The park recently received a facelift as part of the Chicago Plays! playground renovation program. Shaded by a canopy of mature trees, the design by the Chicago Parks District features a flower fountain and climbing structures that integrate well on a small site with benches, lamps, and a lattice pergola.
Southwest Corridor playground, Boston
When a team of landscape architects and children’s advocates from the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation, Boston Children’s Hospital, and Stantec were thinking of how to get a much play value as possible from a small area near the Jackson Square “T” subway station in Boston, they found an elegant solution in the Wallholla. The bright orange, wire-mesh cage is an exploratory world unto itself. Designed by the Dutch firm Carve and manufactured and distributed in the United States and Canada by Goric, the structure has room for 30 children at a time to climb and play among a nest of ribbon-like platforms and bars. Installed with shallow footings directly over a subway tunnel, the slim modular design allowed the project team to redevelop the Southwest Corridor playground with a carousel and zip line, while preserving an existing basketball court and pedestrian and cycling path.
Dickinson Playground, Portland
Against a backdrop of pines, the interstellar look of Dickinson Playground, in southwest Portland, makes it immediately appealing. Imagine a spaceship descending in a lovely clearing in the woods. But the curving support masts that define the play space are more than just a decorative design feature. Their overlapping trajectories, like those of orbiting planets, allow children of different abilities to play at distinct elevations simultaneously, making great use of the available space. Outfitted with webbed rope climber, a spiraling helix spinner, and tubular stainless steel masts with hand holds, the playground is a climber’s delight.
Woods of Net, Hakone Open Air Museum, Japan
Exhibited at the Hakone Open Air Museum, Toshiko Horiuchi MacAdam’s Woods of Net is simply gorgeous. Knit entirely by hand, MacAdam’s crocheted forms possess a soft, organic quality rare in modern playground design. Children can crawl, tumble, or swing through the playspace, enjoying the tactile sensation of the woven fibers. Strung like a Pixar-colored spiderweb to the stacked logs of a light-filled pavilion, it is a small but breathtaking work of art.
Westmoreland Nature Play Area, Portland
Nature playgrounds don’t have to be sprawling playspaces with large wooden structures, ponds, and open grassy areas. While the Westmoreland Nature Play Area is a large scale site its ideas are reproducible on a much smaller scale. The project of the Portland Parks and Recreation Department includes a creek whose waters can be pumped into large sand pit and plenty of open space to move. But what is most compelling about the park is its use of rustic timber on a small scale. Stacked totem-like tree stumps can be climbed with rope. Tree limbs can be crossed as imagined bridges and forts. A large natural boulder can be scaled with the use of ropes. All of these areas, while compact and self-contained, bring children into intimate contact with the natural world and invite them to take risks.
Water Playground, Tychy, Poland
The Water Playground near the Gostynia River in southern Poland rethinks traditional typology to serve multiple functions simultaneously. The resulting design by architects RS+ is a swimming pool that acts like a playground. Or perhaps the other way around. LED-lit fountains, faucets, and small climbable structures heighten children’s sensory experience and keep the pool aglow well into the night. The figure-eight shape was designed to preserve existing trees and echo the design of the existing park.
Frog Park, Oakland
Children like to hide. In closets. Under beds. Behind furniture. But especially in forts. There is a sense of risk and independence that comes from being behind walls, outside the view of adults. Frog Park in Rockridge, designed by Robert Leathers & Associates of Ithaca, New York, with the support of local coalitions and community groups, is one of Oakland’s most popular parks and a whimsical wooden fort is a big part of this. The maze-like structure opens onto slides, climbing nets, and monkey bars, but the real adventure is inside. Built alongside an elevated freeway and elevated BART track with volunteer support, the playground uses existing trees and a set-back design to limit noise, while making the most of the tightly bordered three-block long Greenbelt.
The Green Heart, Hull, England
A small outdoor gym in Hull, England developed by the UK-based Great Outdoor Gym Company uses human power to generate the energy that keeps it lit at night. Equipped with stationery bikes, step boxes, and cross trainers, the adult playground known as TGO Green Heart is a model of sustainability. Exercise produces power, helps shed calories, and creates a green-glowing signal flare to advertise the playground. It’s a reminder, too, that good ideas can be pulled off on lots smaller than the size of a tennis court.