A Greener Place to Play

Crowley Park/Emerson Elementary School in La Crosse, Wis.


hat happens when a high-achieving elementary school collaborates with an environmentally progressive parks and recreation department on a new playground? Well, if you're talking about Emerson Elementary School and the La Crosse Parks and Recreation Department in La Crosse, Wis., great things happen—for kids and the planet.

Emerson Elementary School is situated along the bluffs of the Mississippi River in picturesque La Crosse. The school has 345 students in preschool through fifth grade, an active parent-teacher organization and dedicated teachers who are proud of their students' achievements. But they also had an unsafe playground—a crumbling wooden structure that was showing its age.

In 2007, Principal Regina Siegel took several of her students to a La Crosse park board meeting to unveil their designs for a new playstructure. It's rather unusual for an elementary school to share playground dreams with a park board, but in this case the presentation was a necessity because their playground was actually part of Crowley Park, a three-acre parcel of land owned and managed by the city. Clearly, this was not going to be a standard elementary school project because in addition to the desires of the children, the school administrators, the PE instructor and the PTO, this playground would also have to serve the needs of the city, the parks and recreation department and a very active neighborhood association. In other cities this confluence of viewpoints might have been a prescription for disaster, but La Crosse saw it as an opportunity to achieve something special.

"When I first came seven years ago, I was concerned about the school's playstructure," Siegel said. "This is such a nice school, and I kept seeing children coming in with injuries. I knew we could do better than this."

And so Siegel initiated the process by gathering information from several manufacturers and sharing it with the PTO, the PE instructor and the children. By the time they presented their ideas to the park board, they had a strong concept for their new playground.

"Connie Dahman, our occupational therapist, had looked at every play event and made sure that it would be appealing to specific groups of children," Siegel said. "We also included the views of our physical education teacher, who wanted a playsystem that would challenge kids and could function as an obstacle course of sorts. And one of the neatest parts of our playground was that we had student input. We invited the children to draw pictures of the play events that they most wanted, which gave them a sense of ownership such as 'this is my slide, my climbing pole.'"

It was only a short time after their park board meeting that Steve Carlyon, director of parks and recreation for the city, asked the school if they had considered the environmental aspects of their new playsystem. Siegel admits that this was not something they had even considered.

"We hadn't really thought about sustainability, or how our playsystem was to be manufactured, but when the city indicated that it was one of their primary objectives we understood," Siegel said. "With the name Emerson, we try to follow in the footsteps of Ralph Waldo Emerson in taking care of our environment, and we have an amazing location along the bluffs that reinforces that philosophy. Steve had a very holistic view of the playground, and he helped us to see it in the same way."

For Carlyon, the responsibilities of environmental stewardship extend to every corner of every park. Carlyon believed that installing a new playground in Crowley Park allowed them to rethink everything, including the park's landscape design, lighting, walkways, even its fertilizing and watering practices. At the center of his philosophy is The Natural Step, a Swedish sustainability framework that the parks and recreation department, the city and even the county had adopted the previous year to help guide them toward a more sustainable course. It had become the core element of every design, construction and purchasing decision, and it would play a major role in shaping this shared playground.

"We are an eco municipality," Carlyon said. "We try to follow The Natural Step process in all of our planning, and Emerson Elementary School and the Grandview Emerson Neighborhood Association were perfect partners in this process. Our challenge was to integrate the safety, physical fitness and accessibility goals for the playground and park with sustainability goals of the city. Once we listened to all the stakeholders and understood their needs, the entire process flowed very naturally."

The first step was to revisit the playsystem itself, and to tackle this, Carlyon worked with the school to create bid specifications that had three primary components: sustainability, playground design and price. Carlyon made it clear to all playground suppliers that sustainability was a necessity, and that sustainable practices must extend not only to the materials, but also to how the play structure was manufactured.

"For us, the environmental track record and mindset of manufacturers is critically important," Carlyon said. "We purchase from those companies that do things the right way. When we put this project out to bid we had companies that did not provide any type of documentation on their environmental policies or practices even though it was required in the specifications. For others, there was very little information about how their play equipment is manufactured or what types of environmental impacts are incurred. These companies were quickly eliminated."

When all bids had been reviewed, La Crosse tapped Landscape Structures to design and manufacture the Crowley Park playground. Landscape Structures had a long track record of environmental stewardship, and the company had been certified to ISO 14001 environmental standards since 1998. Moreover, the company was itself a follower of The Natural Step and more than 300 employees were already using this framework to manage their jobs and conduct strategic planning. Landscape Structures' Wisconsin representative, Gerber Leisure Products, would handle final design and installation.

Just as many groups contributed to the goals and design, so, too, were many involved in its funding. Over several years the Emerson Elementary PTO had worked diligently to raise more than $22,000 for the playground, and the student council and individual contributions raised the school's share to more than $25,000. In addition the school district contributed $18,000, and the Rotary Club also made a generous donation. The largest contribution came from the city, which earmarked over $100,000 for the park renovation.

With the money and designs in hand, Garland Amunson, superintendent of parks, began the design process for the park itself. When school adjourned for the summer, his department razed the existing playground and everything in the park. He now had a blank slate.

"Crowley Park is about 3.2 acres in size, and it was flat as a tabletop," said Amunson, who is also the department's landscape architect. "Steve Carlyon and I began by designing a natural stone walking path that would wind through the park. We wanted the neighbors to feel that this was their park, so although we kept the existing fence, which the school desired for safety reasons, we also planted wisteria vines along the fencing and created two entrance gates to welcome visitors into the park. We also added a crown to the landscape that ran in two directions, and designed a large rain garden on one side of the park. These elevation changes would help direct rainwater into the gardens, which would also serve as study sites for the children. We then worked with the Department of Natural Resources to select native flowers, plants and shrubs that attracted different birds and butterflies throughout the season, so the garden is both beautiful and purposeful. Similarly, where we needed visual barriers Steve worked with Pat Bonadurer, the city forester to plant native trees and shrubs instead of building fences."

The neighborhood association had also voiced a concern about the safety of the park at night, and requested that the city incorporate lighting into environment. As Amunson looked at this issue through the lens of sustainability, he knew that traditional streetlights were not the answer. Amunson chose energy-efficient bollard lighting for the walking path. This solution provided enough light to give neighbors a nighttime view, but it would not cause unnecessary light pollution.

Adjacent to the rain garden, but away from the play area, Amunson positioned a gazebo that would serve several purposes. "The open gazebo we created is approximately 20 feet in diameter, with interior benches around the perimeter," Amunson said. "We wanted to supply a quiet place where the school could hold outdoor classrooms during the day, and the neighborhood could host get-togethers in the evenings and on weekends."

As Amunson worked on the landscape, Carlyon, Siegel and Gerber Leisure Products produced the final playground design. They selected a tan and green color palette, which enabled the play area to blend in with the environment. Shade systems were incorporated to protect children from the sun, and recycled rubber surfacing was selected for its superior fall protection and environmental profile. The students selected a towering climber, the top of which gives them a beautiful view of the entire park. Two of Siegel's favorite independent play events were the rugged amd natural-looking climbing rocks, constructed of glass fiber reinforced concrete.

"It was important for us to reinforce the natural setting of our playground, and these two climbers do a great job of that," Siegel said. "They mimic the look and feel of the nearby bluffs and provided really fun climbing experiences for the children."

Moreover, the entire playsystem is laid out in a linear fashion that allows children to treat play events like parts of an obstacle course. This design gets the kids moving and using their upper-body strength and agility to move throughout the structure.

As a final touch, the playground designers put in place a sign that brings home the message of environmental stewardship that governed the entire design of the park. This sign commemorates the fact that Landscape Structures offsets its production of CO2 by planting trees through the American Forests' Global ReLeaf program. Teachers use this sign to educate students about greenhouse gas production and the role that trees play in removing CO2 from our atmosphere.

The reaction to the new Crowley Park has been universally positive. After many years of dealing with splinters and bruises, students now have a playground that helps keep them fit and safe. In addition, the school staff now has an entirely new outdoor resource that they can use as an extension of the classroom. And perhaps most importantly, the city and the neighborhood now have a park that meets the needs of all citizens. According to Carlyon, the entire neighborhood now feels different.

"The biggest impact of this park can be seen in the evening when the park is still crowded with families and kids," Carlyon said. "This park is probably one of the most highly utilized parks in the community, and there is a great sense of neighborhood pride. There used to be eight or nine homes for sale around this park, but I don't think there are any for sale now. New families, younger families are coming in, and the older population now has a place to congregate and walk. It has brought everyone together. And now we see that other neighborhoods want the same thing. We did a recent survey about a project we have in the Black River Beach area in an older part of town and over 75 percent of the people we surveyed said that they wanted their project built green, too. There's no turning back now; I think this will be the way it is in La Crosse, Wisconsin, for a long time to come."


City of La Crosse Parks & Recreation:

Landscape Structures Inc.: www.playlsi.com

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