In Practice / PLAYGROUNDS: Transforming Play

Central Park in New York City


In 1980, the nonprofit Central Park Conservancy was formed by a group of concerned citizens determined to improve New York City's Central Park. With a mission to restore, manage and enhance the park in partnership with the public, today the Conservancy raises the parks nearly $80 million annual budget. They're also responsible for all aspects of park maintenance, as well as capital improvements and restorations, under a contract with the City of New York.

In 1858, Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux won a competition to design Central Park, which today sits on 843 acres and is the most visited urban park in the United States. In 1926, Heckscher Playground was built—the first permanent playground in Central Park. The four-acre playground featured swings, climbers, slides, a wading pool, a recreation building and open areas for active games. In 1935 and 1936, 18 additional playgrounds were built. Over the next 50 years, a few more were added and others removed, resulting in the 21 playgrounds that exist there today, which have undergone numerous transformations over time.

In 2013, the Central Park Conservancy launched the Plan for Play initiative, with a mission of addressing all 21 playgrounds and better integrating them into the park. "One of our biggest goals as the stewards and restorers of the park is to make the playgrounds not just isolated playgrounds that could be anywhere, but really connect them to the park. That's a big part of our focus," said Lane Addonizio, vice president for planning at the Central Park Conservancy. She explained that since the 1980s, the Conservancy has worked on all 21 playgrounds to some extent. "The level of intervention varied, depending on the resources at the time." A lot of that work, particularly before the 2000s, involved the replacing of equipment or adding safety surfacing.


When the Plan for Play initiative started, the Conservancy had recently finished work on five playgrounds, so the plan was to address the remaining 16. Of those, some had been addressed in the previous 10 years, so it was about doing upgrades to things they hadn't gotten to, or in some cases bringing them up to safety and accessibility standards, according to Addonizio. "In other cases it was entire demolition and reconstruction to completely rebuild the infrastructure and, most importantly, better incorporate them into the landscape." This has involved changing the footprint of some of the playgrounds. "Oftentimes we'll have a footprint that undulates, so that the landscape envelopes the play experience more."

In the 1930s, the playgrounds were mostly built in perimeter park landscapes, making them accessible to surrounding neighborhoods and lowering the amount of disruption of larger landscapes deeper within the park. Only low fences or benches separated them from the park. But safety concerns led to installing higher fences, and by 1940, seven-foot-tall steel picket fences surrounded most of the playgrounds, further disconnecting them from the park.

"For a lot of the recent projects we've been pulling the fence that contains the playground so the children can get out of the playground," said Addonizio. "We've been pulling it off the edge of the paved playground and into the landscape and planting around it, working our way through all the playgrounds to some extent or another."

Addonizio said they're not dealing entirely with a blank slate, as some of the playgrounds have unique, established and popular design themes that they try to work with, particularly some designs from the 1960s and 1970s, which featured less traditional play environments. "We just update and improve and make them work with contemporary standards and expectations."


The Conservancy has their own in-house design team, and they approach each playground individually. "It's about making sure we're in touch with who's using the playground now," said Addonizio, adding that they have a good sense of what the age group is and they fit the design accordingly. "Observing and seeing what works and what do both the kids and caregivers like and not like."

One project nearing completion is called the Safari Playground, with hippo sculptures and a river. "So we stuck with that theme but updated it and added more play value," said Addonizio. Another one nearly finished is the Billy Johnson Playground. "It was the first playground the Conservancy rebuilt in the '80s, and we specifically worked with landscape architect Paul Friedberg, who's very well known, and we asked him to design a playground that was an essential park playground. So we just completely rebuilt it and augmented it in that same theme of being a miniature Central Park, where the kids can close the gate behind them and have more freedom to run around. There's a bridge that's scaled for them and a granite slide—they feel like they're sliding down a rock outcrop; it very much blends with the landscape." Addonizio said that the five remaining playgrounds will be completed over the next two to three years. RM



Central Park Conservancy: