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In a recent interview with the Chicago Tribune’s Blair Kamin, landscape architect Michael Van Valkenburgh was asked about the 40-foot-tall climbing walls at Maggie Daley Park, a sprawling, 20-acre mega-park towering over Chicago’s lakefront.

His response: “They were designed by Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates architects and landscape architects (and me!) and fabricated by Entre-Prises in Bend, Ore. Climbing culture is huge in the U.S. right now, and it’s very out there artistically. Think of the fabulous spirit of those colorful Nike shoes men and women are seen running around in, in downtown Chicago.”

If climbing culture is emerging as a national phenomenon, it is also trending in playground design. From the colossal suspension bridge and tunnel slides at MVVA’s Maggie Daley Park to the arcing amoeba-like climbing structures at the children’s playground of the newly designed $49.4 million dollar Waterfront Park in San Diego, constructed hills and the tubular climbing systems used to navigate them are becoming increasingly popular.

One the main reasons landscape architects are turning to topographical designs, explains Glen Schmidt, principal of Schmidt Design Group, is that they encourage children to explore physically challenging terrain. That, in turn, can mean seeing the world from a new vantage. “Think about when you’re a kid. One of the most fun things is being king of the hill,” Schmidt says.

Schmidt Design Group is the landscape architect of record for Waterfront Park, a 12-acre bayfront park of Mediterranean gardens, two 400-foot-long fountains with arcing jets, a green civic space, and three playground pods. The $2 million playground, opened in May 2014, includes blue foam mounds, up to nine feet tall, built from Pour-In-Place structural surfacing (of rubber and granulated resin glue) — all of it laid on just two inches of soil.

While offering great distant views, Schmidt says, the playground’s mounds also make the play area a dynamic space. Children can move laterally across arcing stainless steel structures, climb natural boulder pods, hang from a Cosmo Space Net Climber, zip down humpbacked slides, and test their balance on a Goric Skateboard or Rodeo seesaw.

That kind of variety is key to making the park appealing to repeat visitors, says Jeff Justus, a principal at Schmidt Design Group. “If you’re a kid out in neighborhood searching for these things, we didn’t want to make the playground so structured, you’d only go to the park once. We want children to come back over time.”

Also running through the design are large polyurethane-resin coated steel balls, known as Pearls, custom designed by the Amsterdam based Carve. Fastened to curving stainless steel tubes, they function like vertically oriented stepping stones, challenging children to reach new heights, while giving the playground the orbital look of an imagined solar system.

Perhaps most impressive, the playground’s hills and winding structures are built above a 250 space parking garage, a feat Schmidt says could not have been possible before the emergence of lightweight foam subsurface technology.

Waterfront Park, San Diego, photo courtesy of Glen Schmidt Design

Waterfront Park, San Diego, photo courtesy of Glen Schmidt Design

But Waterfront Park is not the only playground to lay claim to such clever engineering tricks. According to The Chicago Architecture Foundation’s website, Maggie Daley Park was built by removing 290,000 cubic yards of dirt from the top of a 4,000 space parking garage, and replacing it with low mounds created by Foam-Contol EPS Geofoam, a product 100 times lighter than soil.

Kyle Fiddleke, principal at the Office of James Burnett (OJB), says the evolution of synthetic surfacing is another factor spurring the growth of topographical designs. “The advance of poured play surfacing, better than 10-15 years ago, allowed more variety in land forms and greater flexibility, so designers could create the organic shapes found in dirt. In some playgrounds, you also see artificial turf; it’s forgiving and soft, often softer than poured surfacing,” Fiddleke says.

Installed on 7,500 square feet of shotcrete (a spongy rubberized safety surfacing), the undulating children’s playground at Playa Vista Central Park in Los Angele echoes the broader topography of the park’s botanical gardens, whose constructed berms add visual interest to the formerly flat site of Howard Hughes’ aircraft facility.

The design operates on a simple premise, says Fiddleke: “gravity can help enhance children’s exercise on a climbing surface.” Because Goric’s Waterfall slides are easily adapted to different elevations, structures, and forms, they were a logical choice.

Goric Waterfall & Rainbow at Playa Vista Central Park, Los Angeles

At Maggie Daley, height – and the views it affords of Chicago’s skyscrapers and Lake Michigan – is the thing. The park’s “active axis” includes two climbing walls, a skating ribbon, 50–foot-high lighting tripods, and a nautical-themed play area with a climbing ship, a lighthouse with a tall slide, and a whimsical fort with a suspension bridge linking its two towers.

In addition to providing children (and adults) gorgeous distant views, the park’s elevations, as noted by Van Valkenburgh, are a conspicuous draw to travelers along busy Lake Shore Drive. “There is a delightful feeling that comes from watching children play anywhere. It adds happiness and joy and intrigue to the cityscape,” Van Valkenburgh says.


Tower Bridge at Maggie Daley Park, Chicago