Feature Article - May 2015
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Picture Perfect Parks & Sites

Working With Landscape Architects on Park Design

By Joe Bush

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By all accounts, the vision the community had for Mayor Thomas M. Menino Park in Boston has been fully realized, and it provides more than fun and exercise. When the late mayor visited Spaulding Hospital's new rehabilitation facility in the Charlestown Navy Yard in 2013, he wondered about an adjacent, unused plot of land. That sparked the Boston Redevelopment Authority to hire Spurr, the design studio of landscape architect firm Weston & Sampson, to plan and oversee the conversion of the triangular area to a fully accessible playground and park.

While all such areas have to meet minimum accessibility standards, the minimum was never a consideration. Spaulding Hospital was a partner from the start, and the design began in the shadow of the Boston Marathon bombings, survivors of which used Spaulding's services to recover.

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"There was a very high public focus and high level of attention put on Spaulding, and those folks that were surviving and learning to live a completely different life really brought a lot of that to the forefront and made it a very real conversation," said Cheri Ruane, vice president of landscape architecture for Weston & Sampson/Spurr. "Meeting with parents and patients and physical therapists and understanding what the requirements would be to have a very high-quality experience was very enlightening and eye-opening, and I think it has certainly for our team changed our perspective on how we approached design moving forward."

The idea was to have playspaces and equipment that able-bodied friends and family of physically challenged people could enjoy side-by-side with their loved ones; for patients of physical therapists to enhance their rehabilitation; and for the traditional look and feel of accessibility to be re-imagined.

playgrounds, when people think accessibility they think ramps everywhere," Ruane said. "Ramps, especially for play equipment, take up a lot of space, they take up a lot of money and they don't have a very high play value. What we did was considered the entire landscape. Earthworks. You'll see we created these mounds that connect equipment to a high level elevation-wise so kids can experience getting really high up in play equipment and even leaving their wheelchair or walker and even sliding down a slide, a high-level slide that they couldn't do in another park because they'd have to leave their care behind in order to get that high up.

"It doesn't always mean ramps and handrails. It's how integrating accessibility could happen, and I think the takeaway is that it can be integrated into every part of the park and it doesn't have to be a ramp. There are many ways to get people from Point A to Point B. Be creative about it."

The technical demands of landscape architecture were put to the test, Ruane said. The combination and overlap of water management, grading, elevation and navigation to satisfy accessibility regulations was the main challenge, she explained. Then it all looped back to consideration of the humanity of the original vision.

"How do you do this so it feels integrated into the landscape and you're not consciously as a park user experiencing these subtle different changes in grades," she said. "That definitely put our team to the test, just trying to make meaningful design moves but also grade the elevation changes so that they were fully accessible."

Special equipment was necessary, but did not add much to the expense, Ruane said. Wheelchair and molded swings, as well as a carousel that was flush to the ground are the most customized of the equipment.

Lauren Bryant, project manager for Boston Parks and Recreation, said because Boston's density mandates more renovation of parks and playgrounds than new construction, her department will consider lessons learned from Mayor Frank M. Menino Park for future retrofits. She said the $4 million park has spurred a lot of interest locally, regionally and nationally.

"People in the city want to replicate it and people outside the city want to know about it," she said.

Ruane said the park's health over time given its high volume of use and its seaside location will be a measure of success. The other metric has already been achieved.

"Because it is in such a high-profile location and we maintain contact with the folks at Spaulding, we continue to hear success stories," she said. "Parents and kids and people who are finding their way through recovery processes and had breakthrough moments for whatever reasons in this park, varying from a kid finally able to get on a swing because he's developed enough trunk strength to be able to hold himself up, or a parent who could get out of their wheelchair and just sit on a park bench with their kid. A lot of great things happen there."