G Cody QJ Goldberg has had an interesting career, to say the least. The child of bonafide San Francisco hippies, he earned a BFA in film and television studies at New York University, spent a year playing drums with a band of gypsies in Mexico, and worked on branding campaigns for Adidas and Red Bull energy drink.
But in 2009 his life took a sharp turn. He was with his five-year-old daughter, Harper, who, at birth, had been diagnosed with Emanuel syndrome, a rare genetic disorder that affects physical and cognitive development. As they approached a play structure at a park near the family’s north Portland home, her wheeled walker got stuck in a mound of woodchips.
“There was this moment in the playground where I had an overwhelming sense that, ‘This is it.’ Goldberg says. “This is a playground where kids are supposed to learn life skills, and if even that’s not welcoming to kids like Harper, of course, the rest of the world will not be.”
In that moment, he resolved to dedicate his energy to creating playgrounds, where everyone, including kids and families with special needs, could play together. A year later, Harper’s Playground was born. The Portland-based non-profit, which Goldberg co-founded with his wife, aims to build better, “radically inclusive” playgrounds around the world. These are play spaces, Goldberg says, that are universally accessible, rooted in nature, and socially and emotionally inviting.
Since designing and building the original Harper’s Playground at Arbor Lodge Park in north Portland, the organization has consulted or partnered on the planning, design, and funding of five proposed or newly designed sites in greater Portland. Beyond planning and building playgrounds, they are sharing their knowledge through a how-to playground design book, forging local and national partnerships, and leading training workshops to others wishing to learn from their model. Here Goldberg talks with us about the steps the organization has taken to make play more inclusive for all.
Tell us about, Harper’s Playground. How did it start?
At the onset, we didn’t have a very clear vision. We knew we wanted something really special. We got lucky. People heard Harper’s story and wanted to help, and soon we found ourselves flooded with Portland media: TV and news stories. Catalogs from equipment companies came pouring in. We bought a $200,000 accessible play structure. But none of it really spoke to my ear. Eventually, we were granted a pro bono charrette with renowned landscape architect Susan Goltsman, the founding principal of the design firm Moore, Iacofano, Goltsman (MIG). That was a really big turning point for me, as well as for the organization. Todd Girvin, a childhood friend and landscape architect who works for his father’s firm Girvin Associates, offered to donate his services for the project. That was another watershed.
Our budget went from $200,000 to $1.2 million, a big step for a mom-and-pop shop hosting bake sales. After a lot of work and fundraising, the playground opened in November 2012 to an incredible amount of fanfare, with 1,000 people at the grand opening ceremony. It was so well supported by the community, I think it guaranteed people would be interested in seeing it, and, immediately, it was overwhelmingly popular to people, whether they had helped build it or not. To this day, the design embodies our standards for inclusive design.
What are the key elements of the playground?
The key feature is a basic hill form covered in synthetic turf, which is considered natural design. There are various degrees of slope, designed for those just learning to walk to teenagers. The big lesson is the hill invites children to play together. The typical gripe about contemporary playgrounds is that they neither encourage social play nor imaginative play. The magic of Harper’s Playground is what’s not there. Less is more. There are natural materials: boulders, sand, plants, not a lot. The biggest asset is always the people who are there. That’s the goal. The reason I want to change the world for Harper is not so she’ll have more access to a play feature, but more people who care about her and love here.
What makes it so inclusive?
It’s radically inclusive through three levels of design. First, it’s physically inviting, meaning everyone can get everywhere on the playground and it is usable to as many people as possible, including users with mobility needs. For example, the swings have harnesses, there is a transfer deck onto the slide, and a ramp to get to the top of the slide. It’s socially inviting. That means there are circular seating areas where people can talk facing one another and flexible use spaces that invite more people to connect. Finally, it uses natural materials that put people in a better frame of mind for socializing. It’s known that nature is calming and soothing and brings extra goodness. And there’s a fourth thing: it’s emotionally inviting through art and music.
How have you incorporated Goric’s equipment into the design?
There’s an elevated sand table, which, together with Goric’s Farm Pump, brings important tactile and social elements to the playspace. By digging tunnels and building dams, letting the water flow down through the troughs, the kids really create their own universe. We didn’t use it at Harper’s Playground, but another Goric product I’m considering for a future park is the Integration Carousel. For kids like Harper, it’s really important to provide opportunities for motion, and the carousel’s transfer deck is great for wheelchair users. I also have to plug the xylophone. It’s funny to me, at a $1.2 million playground, a $4,500 xylophone is the thing I often get emails about, people who tell me it’s the most enjoyable thing. Of course, it’s all the details together that matters. With nothing else there, the xylophone wouldn’t have the same impact.
What inspires you in other playgrounds you see and read about?
I’ve been fascinated by an article Bill Shore, Darrell Hammond & Amy Celep wrote for the Stanford Social Innovation Review, “When Good is Not Good Enough.” It looks at how Kaboom is shifting its focus from building typical play structures to promoting play across the land. Through Playful City USA, they are taking city streets and making them more playful and universally accessible. They’re doing a very good job selecting projects, and it’s a mission I firmly agree with. Another great article by Karen Malone and Paul Tranter, “Children’s Environmental Learning and the Use, Design, and Management of Schoolyards,” examines how different play environments in schoolyards structure strata of social hierarchy. In more traditional athletic settings and playground designs, physically gifted children become leaders. In more natural environments with less structure, the leaders in times of conflict are children with the most social skills who emerge to solve problems.
How have you spread you message?
The City of Portland is embracing our design model and incorporating it in new parks. One of the things I did immediately, after we finished the first park, was to go to the Portland Parks Commissioner, who immediately embraced the idea to launch two new parks. We plan to have four new parks by 2020, representing all four quadrants of the city, our “One For Every Quadrant” idea. In the northeast, we pledged to raise funds to help open Gateway Discovery Park, which is bringing inclusive play to one of the city’s most deprived areas. The play area at Couch Park in the northwest came about through the initiative of a community group, Friends of Couch Playground.
What’s your next step?
Our vision is focused on how we can help more and more communities. We’re committed to keeping Harper’s Playground as small, while having the greatest impact. The way we want to do that is by becoming an open source, intellectual property sharing hub. We’ve written a how-to book we share freely. You can sign up with a link on or website. We also consult on a variety of projects. To achieve our ultimate goal of changing the world, we have to give away what we know the best, and, in supporting that cause, we hope to put ourselves out of business. The thing that will put us out of business is replacing the ADA requirements with radically inclusive requirements.
What keeps you motivated?
I grew up with the story of a father in 1969 demanding to be the first father allowed in a delivery room in a San Francisco hospital. Not allowing fathers in the delivery room is fundamentally wrong, and all we have to say, “Hey that’s wrong, let’s change it,’ to do something different. That background really primed me to question authority and figure things out for myself. I never really wanted to be a marketing guy. I thought I could make the world a better place through art; it didn’t fully happen. I was lucky to find companies with certain facets that spoke to my heart, and that marketing experience has been extremely valuable in fundraising and understanding how to build a nonprofit. But the gift of having a daughter in my life really showed me the work I was supposed to do.