Feature Article - November 2009
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Parks Are People & Place

The Intersection of Culture & Ecology in Landscape Design

By Emily Tipping

On a Smaller Scale

Jester Park Natural Playscape
Granger, Iowa

"What about small-town USA that doesn't have that kind of money?" Moore asked during his presentation.

You don't have to spend millions of dollars to bring a natural playground to your own community's children. One of the winners of this year's Innovative Architecture and Design Awards did it for just over $200,000.

At Jester Park Natural Playscape, designed by RDG Planning & Design for Polk County Conservation, an unscripted play environment covering about 40,000 square feet invites kids to play with natural elements.

Just as Teardrop Park is located in proximity to a park with a traditional playground, Jester Park also already featured a traditional playground. But now that kids can crawl through a hollow log, splash in the wetlands and get a cool view in the Stone Henge, Polk County Conservation reports that user surveys show the Natural Playscape is used 58 percent more than the traditional playground.

It was constructed with naturally occurring, salvaged, recycled or donated materials, and utilizes rain gardens, bioswales, pervious paving and indigenous plant materials within its boundaries to filter the stormwater that falls on the site, reducing the impact of the playscape on the park.

The Playscape is divided into smaller areas, and kids can wander from one to the other on accessible paths of decomposed granite and limestone edging, discovering something new around every bend.

Features to explore include a prairie-grass labyrinth, a spot with reclaimed forest materials to climb over, around and through, a wetland with a wading pool, waterfall and bubbling stone, and a grass hill to roll down accompanied by log stairs and boulder scramble for climbing. The Stone Henge is a circular stone monolith with viewfinders to check out the assets of the larger park. It also acts as a council ring for classroom and educational activities.

The limestone edging and decomposed granite of the pathways allows stormwater to infiltrate the ground. At the same time, these paths are accessible for those with mobility issues, and the materials provide adequate contrast for those with visual impairments. Footbridges made from donated recycled composite decking lead visitors across miniature gullies and dry creek beds.

The project is not just a childhood wilderness, though. Art is incorporated throughout, enhancing the aesthetics of the site. The entrance showcases a rustic, multicultural feature adorned with carvings and a giant spider web in one corner. Three light bollards are designed to look like old tree stumps. And for visitors returning time and again, the art incorporated into the site offers a chance to keep on discovering anew, as petroglyph carvings are strategically hidden on rocks throughout the playscape.