Representatives from Copley Wolff Design Group and the Boston Parks Department recently came to the Archdale Community Center for a third meeting to discuss the upcoming renovations to the playground at Healy Field. While the previous meeting was largely focused on possible solutions for expanding the playground’s footprint, the designers opened this meeting with an acknowledgment that those options were prohibitively expensive, and that they had instead turned their focus towards maximizing the play value of the existing site. While it is disappointing that we will be unable to expand the site, it is hardly a surprise. As the latest design proposal shows, there is still a tremendous opportunity to improve the playground.
Overview of the Design
The design provides a wide range of play options by for several ages by thinking of the playground area as eight interconnected “zones”: natural, boulders, climbing, spinning, sliding, sound/seating, balance, and river. Of these zones, the two that are likely to be considered the signature elements of the playground are the climbing area and the river; accordingly, we will give these areas the most careful look.
In this concept, the river is quite long, running alongside nearly all of the primary play areas. It is forked, allowing for two water sources – a hand-powered pump near the Florence Street side of the playground and a tiered water table fed by a hand crank tucked between the young children’s play and the balance play area. The two streams meet near the climbing area and continue along the play structures. Because the stream runs through the middle of the playground, there will be two ADA-compliant bridges to ensure full accessibility. The designers noted that, as rendered, the stream is just one foot wide and quite shallow, and that they are still awaiting a final survey to determine if the stream’s path is feasible.
While the attendees’ response to the river was generally favorable, there were concerns that the two hand-powered water sources would not provide a sufficient flow of water for such a long stream. The design may also be difficult for a small group of children to use, since keeping the stream running will require nearly constant attention at the water sources. Residents suggested that they value functionality over length, and that if the stream needed to be shortened to provide better play value – such as interactive elements and more variation along the stream’s length – the trade-off would be worth it. There was also some preference for providing a feeding system that would allow for “torrents” of water rather than the modest output a hand-powered system would likely provide.
The Climbing Zone
The climbing zone in the current design is a clear reflection of the requests made at earlier meetings for an obstacle course. As rendered, this feature would be provided using a modular system of rope climbers that combine to create a path along most of the length of the playground as it runs from Florence Street to Flaherty Pool. The structures in the design appear to have been chosen from Corocord’s Rope Parkour system, although the designers indicated that they would be open to other structures if there was a possibility for a more robust design. The community’s response to this structure was mixed: some parents thought that the design was too limited in its use and too challenging for younger visitors, while others thought that a more challenging structure would be a welcome change from the timid playground design we have now. The designers may seek to make some changes here, while keeping the general concept of a linear climbing element in the design.
Adjacent to the climbing structure is a space devoted to a spinning structure. The structure shown in the rendering appears to be a Dynamo Quad Pods climber (here’s a video that might make you queasy). There was some uncertainty about whether this structure would be appropriate, as its slightly elevated platform may create an accessibility issue. There was some discussion of using an accessible carousel similar to the one installed at Cambridge Common (click on the Images tab to see the carousel in the gallery), which sits flush to the ground and easily accommodates wheelchairs.
The only slide included in the rendering is embedded on a modest three foot high mound near the current entrance to the playground. This area also provides the only area in the playground that is not completely flat. This structure is clearly not among the most ambitious parts of the design, although that is in part due to the fact that it is aimed more at younger children.
Sound and Seating
A large, central area of the playground design is devoted to more passive play for younger children. In the middle of this area is a play house “of some kind” – the designers had not yet settled on a final structure, and the rendering is not intended to reflect a specific design. Surrounding the play house is equipment that children can use to make music, as well and some shaded benches that encircle and protect trees.
As depicted, the balance area includes a see saw and a couple of spring riders. The designers acknowledged that a traditional see saw is not the most dynamic play element, but were trying to add some movement to the design without having to accommodate the large safety radius that swings incur. There is a lot of potential in having an area devoted to balance, and we would not be surprised to see the design updated with some slightly different play elements. One alternative that the attendees were particularly intrigued by is the Goric Dancer.
Boulders and Natural Play
Running along the back of the playground is a series of boulders, ending near Flaherty Pool in an area with natural plantings. The boulders will provide both an interesting visual and some climbing opportunities, while the plantings will line a new entrance to the playground designed to allow access to the currently unused area behind the pool. The designers intend to use native ornamental plants chosen to have add color in the summer, when the playground is most active.
The playground design adds a new entrance close to Florence Street. One goal of adding this gate is to encourage the neighborhood to think of the playground as a walking destination; the reasoning is that the current entrance associates the playground too closely with the parking lot.
The design also does not include much natural ground cover. The overlapping green circles in the design are a resilient safety surfacing, which is required by Boston Parks and Recreation. However, there is some concern that the asphalt surfacing around the “sound and seating” zone may not provide the most pleasant play environment.
The Bottom Line
Overall, this design seems like a clear step in the right direction. The space limitations are a challenge, but the design includes a wide variety of play experiences and some unique features. The stream concept is popular in general, although our hope is that the final design will make the water play feel more dynamic and, well, wet. Once the remaining design details are finalized (with community feedback incorporated!), we expect that the community will be able to look forward to a greatly improved public space.