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We bid farewell to the past year with feelings of hope and accomplishment. As we set our sights on 2019, we take heart not only in the varied ways the tools and instruments of play, as defining elements of the public realm, are taking root beyond the playground, but also in the continued advance of equity and inclusion into the language and practices of designers, educators, and park professionals.

Here we unveil our five best projects of 2018. We celebrate these anticipated or recently completed projects, each of them making it easier for children and adults of all backgrounds, abilities, ethnicities, and zip codes find fun, welcoming places to play.

Esquina de Musica, BakerRipley Leonel Castillo Community Center, Houston Texas, Falon Land Studio | photo via Percussion Play

Esquina de Musica, Houston, Falon Land Studio
One of the most exciting playground trends we witnessed in 2018 was the rise of the music playground. An exceptional example is the “Esquina de Musica” or “Corner of Music” project, created by Falon Land Studio landscape architects in partnership with the Open Architecture Institute at the BakerRipley Leonel Castillo Community Center in Houston, Texas. Funded through a Play Everywhere Grant from the KaBOOM! Foundation and Target and conceived to transform an underutilized neighborhood street corner, the project succeeds on multiple fronts. It Integrates beautifully toned glockenspiels and deep-timbered congas by the Hampshire, England-based Percussion Play into a vibrant, polyphonic community space and dance floor. Sited outside a community centers serving children, older age ESL learners, and seniors, the project is a powerful showcase of how communities are re-imagining play and where it can happen.

Also notable on the music front, in 2018, is that the Babel Drum, manufactured by Percussion Play, was installed at a hospital sensory garden, the Iowa Correctional Institution for Women in Mitchellville, and City Hall in LaPorte, Indiana. We’re delighted to see our UK partner spreading its wings to help the joy of music reach people across ages, abilities, and circumstances.

The Healy Playground, Boston, Copley Wolff Design Group | photo via Copley Wolff Design Group

The Healy Playground, Boston, Copley Wolff Design Group
Community-minded park and playground renovation—both for projects recently completed and under development—has drawn our keen interest this year. After being stress tested by legions of children and caregivers over the past year, Copley Wolff Design Group’s 2017 redesign and upgrade of The Healy Playground, a 13,000-square foot playground situated under mature trees in Boston’s Roslindale neighborhood, continues to show itself off well. Anchored by a paved watercourse defined by round pebbles set in mortar, the design reimagines a brook that historically traversed the park, while skillfully negotiating safety and regulatory issues and honoring the community’s core values. An elegant hardscape preserves room for more focused sensory play options, including Goric’s New Orleans water play system, Dancer, Grass, Stone Abacus, Integration Carousel, Farm Pump, and Rolling Bells.

Sgt. Macaulay Park design concept, San Francisco | photo via Miller Company

Hilltop Park, Sgt. Macaulay Park, San Francisco, Miller Company
When Prop B passed in San Francisco in June 2016, it showed voters’ support for funding the San Francisco Recreation and Park Department. At the same time, the legislation laid bare the ongoing challenges the tech-gentrified city faces ensuring the broad accessibility of its parks and playgrounds. With the bill’s passage, metrics assessing park use, safety, access, maintenance, and investment are being been measured against equity zones—areas the city has designated as disadvantaged communities based on age, income, employment, and health factors.

Miller Company’s 2017 top-to-bottom revitalization of the three-acre Hilltop Park, adjacent to Hunters Point Shipyard, is an encouraging sign landscape architects are taking the city’s equity concerns seriously. Supported by a California state grant and the Trust for Public Land, the restored park has transformed the neglected park with a skate ramp, bi-level playground, modern light arrays, accessible paths, and a restored 70-foot-tall sundial and amphitheater. Our eyes are now focused on Sgt. Macaulay Park, another equity park in the heart of the Tenderloin. Miller Company has prepared construction documents and cost estimates for a shoreline concept, which is envisioned to include a Vietnamese-style boat custom built by Goric.

Winter Hill Community Innovation School Schoolyard Renovation, Somerville, Massachusetts, Warner Larson
In recent years, embankment slides have been cropping up at locations far and wide – from the Rush Creek Lodge playground at Yosemite Park to Google’s ultra-mod Chelsea office in New York. One that’s captured our attention this year is a stainless-steel model carved into the rubber-surfaced grade of a multi-level playground opened this year at Winter Hill Community Innovation School in Somerville Massachusetts. At the August 29 opening of Warner Larson’s multi-level playground, as seen here on YouTube, the embankment slide was drawing a crowd. Accessible by a short climb up a rubber surfaced hill or a web-like rope climber, the slide does double duty, not only offering a fun ride for children, but serving as a natural transition between the playgrounds two levels.

Supported by the Community Preservation Act and federal Community Development Block Grants, the fluid, self-contained design, which also includes Goric’s Viking Swing and Half Balls, is a far cry from the utilitarian playlots found at many schools. It’s a hopeful reminder of what can happen when smart federal incentives and a designer’s vivid imagination unite in the direction of children’s best interests.

Discovery Museum, Acton, Massachusetts | photo via Lemon Brooke

Discovery Museum, Acton, Massachusetts, Lemon Brooke
Rounding out our list this year is Lemon Brooke’s landscape master plan for Discovery Museum, which opened in 2016 but has proved itself a modern classic, with its nostalgic reimagining of the childhood treehouse hidden in the woods. As part of the museum’s mission to extend its environmentally focused science program outdoors, the nature-based playscape looks raw and unrefined in all the right ways. Timber is left raw and unpainted. Catwalks meander though the woods without impinging on the natural hardwood forest. Both the STEM exhibits and play elements, including the Robinia Basket Swing, have a light-handed, modernist touch. And working closely with Autism Speaks, the Perkins School for the Blind, and the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Program at Boston’s Children’s Hospital, Lemon Brooke has succeeded in making the museum accessible and inclusive for all children, including those on the autism spectrum and with sensory processing disorders.