In nearly any playground renovation, one of the most complex and overlooked challenges landscape architecture firms and municipal departments face is siting and configuring the project to serve the community’s interests. Often a successful project is one that cleverly toes a line between historical and regulatory constraints and the stakeholders’ strongly held ambitions.
Working within these parameters requires a difficult kind of calculus. Solving for X means acknowledging legacy design choices, meeting safety and accessibility standards, and honoring the community’s core values—and doing all these things, without losing sight of a key goal of virtually any playground project: giving children an exciting and challenging venue for play.
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, is a fine example of how these varied interests can be effectively balanced. In three community meetings held over five months, the Boston-based landscape architecture and planning firm, in partnership with the Boston Parks and Recreation Department, solicited ideas from the community, who revealed a desire to replace the existing single platform play structure with something livelier and more inclusive.
The new playground includes a watercourse, a linear rope climber, a play tower, and interactive play elements, including Goric’s Dancer, Grass, Stone Abacus, Integration Carousel, and Rolling Bells. As a counterbalance to the play structures, a large natural area frames the northern border. Salvaged logs and boulders create informal seating and a functional play space beneath mature trees.
Roslindale Wants to Play, an advocacy group concerned about the lack of play opportunities for neighborhood children, theorizes that keeping this natural area expansive was not strictly an environmentally sensitive choice, but a practical way to sidestep potential compliance issues posed by having utility lines running beneath the playground.
The two central playground zones are elegantly split by a curving concrete border. An active play area is situated above poured-in-place safety surfacing. Winding through a paved hardscape is a watercourse defined by round pebbles set in mortar, concrete bridges, and a series of intermittent dams. At the terminus is Goric’s New Orleans water play system. Using the system, or a farm pump located at the opposite end of the waterway, children can manually pump water into the stream. Hand-operated triangular dams built into the New Orleans system allow children to regulate the water’s direction and flow rate.
There is plenty of sharp design thinking at work in the project. According to a LASN magazine interview with Sean Sanger, principal of Copley Wolff Design Group, the play stream follows the natural grade of a brook that once traversed the site. Flowing down a slight grade for roughly 40 feet at a depth of 12-18 inches, it is not only a tribute to the site’s history, but an area where children can collaborate to solve problems and exercise their imaginations. The waterway meshes well with existing natural areas and new plantings of tall grasses and birch trees, which create a natural barrier between foot traffic from vehicular traffic in the driveway and parking areas and dress up the site as a whole.
Goric’s contributions to the project are abundant and skillfully chosen. In addition to the water units that connect with the play stream, “The Grass,” a swaying stainless steel rib, ranging from 6 to 8 feet tall, which mimics the look and movement of a blade of grass — and in this project alludes to the use of Hakonechloa macra ‘All Gold’ Hakone Grass and Miscanthus sinensis ‘Zebrinus’ Zebra Grass.
Consistent with the goal of making the playground more accessible to limited mobility users, the Integration Carousel sits flush with the resilient surfacing, so children and adults can get on or off the spinning toy and land on the same grade. The carousel can be spun from a wheel at the center or by moving a rail at a perimeter, letting all children share in the play experience.
Site renovations undoubtedly come with legacy constraints: in this case, the location of the parking lot’s entrance road and utility lines. But with ingenuity and carefully considered site arrangement and equipment specification, a project can succeed in faithfully serving the desires of its community. The Healy Playground is a winner on all fronts.