Supplement Feature - April 2008
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Play Date

Planning Pleasing Playgrounds

By Richard Zowie


Even with financing secured, in this imperfect world, complications are far from uncommon when trying to build or refurbish a playground.

French-Lee said it's important to remember that things have to be designed for various ages. "One structure that's appropriate for a 4-year-old may not be for a 1-year-old," she said. "You think of how to make climbing structures (for the older children) not accessible to younger children."

Feeney noted that site supervision is imperative to ensure that subcontractors stay on task and that they're held to deadlines they propose. Otherwise, delays are possible and can result in problems down the road.

Sometimes, nature itself can propose the biggest complications. For example, a major problem can arise if water tables are misjudged. McConkey said that failing to get an environmental inspection and thoroughly analyzing the site can have bad repercussions, such as project delays or ill-afforded increases in cost. "It's better to do all the homework up front than to be caught by surprise," he said.

McConkey described a playground where "…the site was thought to be ideal, and no engineering inspection was done. They drilled holes and found the water table was too high, and there was sub-ground-level water. They had to figure out a whole different type of installation plan."

Maynard faced a similar problem when Guilford built their playground. Instead of building from the ground up, they built into the ground and soon encountered muck. They ended up having to pump out a lot of water as well as cleaning out the dredge. "Part of the planning process is knowing what's below the ground as well as above," he said.

McConkey also remembers one New York playground in Brooklyn that posed a unique problem. The playground overlooked the Brooklyn Promenade, and the landscape architect selected the trees they wanted. As it turned out, that particular species of tree has two versions: a male and female. One version produced a fruit with a strong, pungent odor that attracted bees.

In the springtime a big, potentially dangerous problem arose.

"There were bees all around," McConkey recalled. "You have to determine how you can engage the neighbors and the community in a constructive way to help them feel involved and help them recognize there are certain things that should be left up to professionals to decide. Some community groups selected equipment that wasn't age-appropriate for kids, and the parks department had to reconcile this. There are also liability issues. Dealing with the communities can be delicate and takes experience."

Some parks and other facilities looking to build playgrounds might find themselves in trouble and facing long-term delays if they work with people who aren't licensed professionals. Hausler noted that it's crucial to have a licensed landscape architect to evaluate the site. By doing this, you can determine whether your plan will actually work, as well as how it will work in the future if you want to make changes or additions.

"Make sure what you do doesn't impact future growth in the park or playground itself," Hausler added. "This can stall the process and stall the issues."