“Who needs to escape the city when you can walk down the street or take the F train to Jay Street or the No. 22 to Clark Street or the B63 bus that goes right to Pier 6 at Atlantic Avenue — and see nature in the city.” That’s Anne Raver, art and design columnist for the New York Times, summing up the achievement of Michael Van Valkenburgh’s (MVVA’s) Brooklyn Bridge Park.
The gorgeous 85-acre reclaimed promontory that connects six piers along the East River has transformed a disused cargo shipping complex into a bucolic urban escape of shaded trails, sports fields, children’s play areas, a sandy beach, even a tidal marsh and kayak cove.
The design, which earned the 2014 Municipal Art Society of New York Masterwork Prize for the Best Urban Landscape, reflects MVVA’s veneration of nature not only in the park as a whole — with its constructed New England meadow, black locust plank-and-cable bridge, salvaged stone terraces, and bird sanctuary — but also at a smaller scale in the play areas, such as the children’s Water Lab and Sandbox Village at Pier 6.
Indeed, many of the MVVA’s urban renewal projects, such as Pier C Park along the Hudson River Waterfront Walkway in Hoboken, New Jersey, and Teardrop Park in lower Manhattan, echo raw nature in their use of wooden structures, gently graded landforms, preserved trees, and water features that unfold seamlessly within children’s discovery areas.
H Nyunny Kim is a senior associate at the firm and mother of a ten-month-old girl. She plays a leading role in the execution of many of the firm’s playgrounds, not only by assisting with the design process from schematic design development to construction documentation, but also by conducting observational research at existing playgrounds in the US and abroad to gain inspiration for future designs. Speaking by phone, she shared her thoughts about MVVA’s esteem for nature, as well as emerging design trends and an exciting large-scale project underway in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Q: Tell me about two recent children’s playgrounds that emphasize MVVA’s focus on nature.
A: Brooklyn Bridge Park, which opened in 2010, contained the first big playground in the parkscape along the New York City waterfront. We tried to open the playground to the neighborhood. We worked hard to use natural materials, like wooden structures from the play equipment manufacturer Richtor Spielgerate as opposed to plastic ones, and to build the play area and marsh garden in a way that would allow children to experience the sense and touch of nature, to smell the woods within the city.
At Maggie Daley Park, designed by principal Matthew Urbanski along with Michael, we moved away from the traditional, flat play surface. Variation in topography was a key design element that came out of a previous study of Brooklyn Bridge Park. Allowing children to run up and down. We used existing trees. We identified the big, high canopy trees to be saved and installed other high limbs upside down as sensory features in the Enchanted Garden.
Q: How do you make playgrounds fun for adults, so they stay longer and come back?
A: Kids can find a way to play almost anywhere, on a sidewalk or at the edge of a curb. But living in the city, there is little opportunity for play in the woods. In many of our New York projects, we try to introduce play as a main program, bringing kids into woodland areas where you can almost ensure the family or caregiver will forget they are in a major urban center, like New York City or Chicago. For the last eight years, we’ve been doing research on ways to make adults more comfortable, not only mommy and daddy, but all caregivers and nannies. One of the side projects I assign our summer interns is to visit different playgrounds and watch kids and parents, see how they behave, and take photos; that accumulated data and knowledge is melded into our designs.
Q: When you talk about the success of designs, you stress the importance of “kidscale” designs – arbors, tunnels, mirror mazes, and plants at children’s height; nature friendly, often custom-built, products by Goric, Kompan, Richter Spielgerate, and Monstrum that truly challenge kids. What other lessons have you learned from your independent research, particularly your trips to playgrounds in Europe?
A: I’m envious of the more open, loose settings for playgrounds in northern Europe. They have very well designed parks in which the landscape features are used as part of the play, there aren’t just jungle gyms, but also mounds that go up and down; more fun. When I visited, everywhere was green, and I thought, ‘Why can’t we do that?’ By comparison, playgrounds here look boring and sad: you see everything all at once. Part of this blandness has to do with regulations set in place by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and ASTM International. We work with a consultant Teri Hendy (of Site Masters Inc.), our Bible, who helps us with this. We’re always challenging ourselves to meet guidelines while pushing boundaries. We don’t want to make things super boring or so safe that they aren’t challenging and fun. Balance is important.”
Q: You’re very excited about a Tulsa, Oklahoma project in the works. Can you give us a sneak preview?
A: The George Kaiser Family Foundation is the client. It’s an 65-acre park, with 7.7 acres of playground, not just one area, but in multiple areas interwoven throughout the park. There is an adventure play garden, consisting of swings, ziplines, picnic groves, water play, etc., which was designed for various age groups and different abilities. A central feature is the collection of six towers ranging in height from 0 to 45 feet, which provides a viewing platform, routed through the existing tree canopy. There’s a fairy land, and a swing hill at the highest point of the site where you can sit on a swing and see downtown. There are also areas that feel as if they’ve been carved right into the earth, revealing layers of stone and hidden slides. Not to mention a programmed skate and bike park, a pond fishing area, and the Skywalk Forest—a futuristic climbing area with tunnels, a tree canopy zone, and a cabin you can walk or crawl into. It’s going to be amazing when it’s done in the early summer of 2018.