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At New Somerville Playground, A Quiet Revolution In Play Design

Somerville's new Harris Park represents another step forward in the quiet revolution taking place in playground design. (Greg Cook)


SOMERVILLE, Mass. — SOMERVILLE, Mass. — Hundreds of children swarmed into Chuckie Harris Park for the public party celebrating its opening Monday evening. It’s the newest park in East Somerville — and its yellow and gray minimal, industrial design is another example of the quiet revolution taking place in playground design.

“This design speaks to the creativity and originality that is Somerville and the uniqueness of the neighborhood,” Somerville Mayor Joseph Curtatone said after Monday’s public speeches and ribbon cutting.

The six-year-old Somerville landscape design firm GroundView was brought on board two years ago to transform a paved parking lot on less than half an acre of land on Cross Street East, just north of Broadway, into an urban oasis. They began by holding community meetings at which residents asked for swings, slides, a teeter-totter and water play, GroundView principal Eden Dutcher says. She and her partner in the firm, her husband Wilson Martin, asked themselves: “How can we take that and explode that into something totally unique?”

A signature feature of Harris Park is the water shower, which doubles as a support for a movie screen. (Greg Cook)

A signature feature of Harris Park is the water shower, which doubles as a support for a movie screen. (Greg Cook/WBUR)

A signature feature of the park is a tall, bent rectangle of pipe — resembling a modified football goalpost — that showers water down on children. “The water feature also doubles as a movie screen,” Martin explained. Two slides — one medium-sized, one wide that multiple children can go down at once — are built into switchback hills molded from soil and other materials left over from shaving the old parking lot down to the street level.

“Pretty much all the play equipment is custom,” Martin said, except the teeter-totter. “I think there’s a misconception that it’s much, much more expensive and it doesn’t really have to be.”

The park will cost around $950,000, says Luisa Oliveira, a senior planner for landscape design for the city of Somerville, with funding coming from the city, state and federal government.

Wilson Martin and Eden Dutcher of GroundView designed the new playground. (Greg Cook)

Wilson Martin and Eden Dutcher of GroundView designed the new playground. (Greg Cook/WBUR)

Dutcher says their design is inspired by new European playground design and their own experiences. “We have three children,” she said, “so we spend a lot of time at parks.”

Most playgrounds today are built using interchangeable pre-fab units, the design driven mainly by affordability and safety regulations developed in the 1980s and ’90s. This has reduced injuries, but it has also resulted in a “sameness” in playground design. So over the past couple decades, high-end architects and landscape designers have taken on the challenge of rethinking public play spaces. A premiere example of the new playground design is the Alexander W. Kemp Playground at Cambridge Common, which opened in 2009 with a woodland adventure theme.

A wide slide built into the hills accommodates multiple children at once and is also handicapped accessible. (Greg Cook)

A wide slide built into the hills accommodates multiple children at once and is also handicapped accessible. (Greg Cook/WBUR)

By building the slides into the hills at Harris Park, GroundView makes them handicapped accessible. And climbing back to the top of the slide is made into an adventure by asking children to scale the hill with climbing grips or aided by rope. To welcome a variety of ages, two of the park’s four swings are set about a foot and a half higher than usual, Dutcher says, to better fit teens and adults. (The big slide is similarly accommodating to larger bodies.) A toddler area offers a third slide, springy cars and a shelter.

“It’s stylistically simple, but trying to be rich with the materials and the variety of spaces,” Martin said. “The big idea is mixing the terrain with the planting so that the play features are dispersed throughout the park.”

More than 70 new oak, maple, sweet gum, tupelo, dogwood and serviceberry trees provide shade and visual interest. The hillsides are planted with deschampsia grass. “It will get 2 feet high and get a nice bronze bloom,” Martin said, but parents will still be able to see over it to keep an eye on kids.

After sliding down, children can climb back up using the grips built into the hill at right. (Greg Cook)

After sliding down, children can climb back up using the grips built into the hill at right. (Greg Cook/WBUR)

The toddler area at Harris Park. (Greg Cook)

The toddler area at Harris Park. (Greg Cook/WBUR)

Children scale a rope net. (Greg Cook)

Children scale a rope net. (Greg Cook/WBUR)


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  • Ricardo R. Austrich

    Congratulations to Somerville for supporting the work of young innovative designers!
    Kudos to Eden & Will & the City of Somerville for breaking the mold!

  • Kyle Rose

    It really costs more than twice as much to build a playground park as an entire 2 family house?

    • Keith Tyler

      They have to make playgrounds safe by law. Not so much for houses!

    • Kyle Rose

      Really? Have you ever actually dealt with building inspectors over code violations? Ever had to tear out and replace balusters on a porch railing because they were spaced either not close enough together or not far enough apart? The red tape around home construction is actually quite extensive, and is the reason why lots of homeowners just keep renovation work quiet instead of dealing with permits and inspections.

    • SusaninNewton

      LOL. Well, a lot more people have to use it than in a 2 family, right?

    • Kyle Rose

      I’d just be curious to see the cost breakdown for the project. A house feels a lot more complex to me than slides, pavement, fencing, and some landscaping. The number of people using it should matter only insofar as the facilities must be made robust against tragedy of the commons.

    • SusaninNewton

      I take your point. Just wondering, do you live in a two family? The latest ones don’t strike me as so complex.

    • Kyle Rose

      Yes. All houses are complex compared to a playground: a house has plumbing running everywhere, electrical, sheetrock + plaster, wood floors, ceiling fixtures, moulding, doors, windows, roofing, cabinets, kitchen fixtures, bathroom features, tile, etc., in addition to foundation + framing + sheathing. As any general contractor will tell you, all of the finish work is what takes so long and costs so much. To me the playground is equivalent to the foundation + framing + sheathing + a little bit of finish work.

      My guess is government just doesn’t try very hard to keep costs down because they’re spending other peoples’ money and all the contractors who put out bids for this stuff know that.

      I.e., no one would spend $1M building a playground if they had to then turn around and sell it to someone: playgrounds don’t work like that. But houses do, which is why no one spends $1M renovating a 2 family house unless they know in advance that the market can bear the total cost. Or unless they’re rich and the renovations are just a consumption item. Sort of like the $200M high school in Newton North, amirite? :-)

      I am afraid this is a sign of Somerville turning into Newton, and I don’t want to live in Newton. I like Somerville’s diversity: working class, college students, and yuppies all living together and playing hockey together.

    • David Verbeck

      It was likely not the equipment which was as expensive as it was to build a landscaped environment. Municipalities build dull playgrounds because they don’t run into the high cost that will occur if the entire space is utilized.

      The real design revolution that is underway is an emphasis towards natural landscape. The trick is how to integrate it into a public space without exorbitant cost – otherwise the revolution will be quickly silenced. Most cities and towns have a dysfunctional system of awarding contracts which disqualifies a dollar-realistic approach to construction.

    • DM

      Gee, I wonder if that would lead to something like real trees kids can climb?

  • David Verbeck

    It is refreshing to see custom construction of play equipment, but there is not a lot of new design happening here from what I can see from the photos. The Alexander W. Kemp playground that the article refers to is much closer to what parents (not designers) are trying to achieve which has a greater reliance upon loose assembly parts (i.e. sand, water, & blocks) and a better integration of natural landscape. The Kemp playground also has the protection of shade which is almost entirely absent in the Somerville playground, especially around the dominant application of rubber surfacing which tends to retain heat.

    Ask any community what it wants in a playground and they would ask for many of the same features, but it is the designer’s role to go a step further. With a budget of $950, it must be possible to introduce a space that is less industrial and ego driven. The success of a space is not based on appearance as much as on the long-term desire of children and parents to want to be in it. Consider what it takes to recreate the aura of a backyard barbecue and take it to the public sphere.

    • Steve Spodaryk

      You should really visit the playground before you pass judgement. The photos do not do it justice. It does incorporate kids’ and parents’ needs with a unique vision and flair. The dominant feature is not rubber surfacing, but a lush, grassy hill, integrated slides, and movie screen/water feature, that will draw families from across the city.

      Remember, this was a vacant lot that did not contain large, mature trees (like Kemp). The oaks, serviceberry and dogwoods will provide great shade over time and visual interest and texture. As a parent, the muddy blocks at Kemp always made me nervous – seeing them used as sleds down the steep, sandy hill. I believe they were removed after a serious injury. So I would not consider them a great success. As building blocks – yes, as projectiles? No.

    • David Verbeck

      Every space should live and learn and be able to adjust -especially in reaction to an injury, so I wouldn’t discount the whole effort made at Kemp.
      Trees take a time to grow, so meanwhile a temporary source should have been erected. I’ve done it on the playgrounds I have designed and it doesn’t take a fortune to install. Ever notice where kids are playing if the choice is available? – that’s right, in the shade.
      And yes, I will visit the playground. I very much subscribe to the idea of spreading out the play features as noted in the article. So I’m not going there with a total chip on my shoulder. I also hope to see that the natural features such as the grassy hill you mentioned are available to interaction and are not just there to make the space green.

  • Class No More

    Much nicer than the new parks in Cambridgeport. They look like Flinstones rock cartoon and cost twice as much !

  • EricaVee

    “To welcome a variety of ages, two of the park’s four swings are set
    about a foot and a half higher than usual, Dutcher says, to better fit
    teens and adults.”

    Love it! There was a really unique playground near my apt in Allston when I was in college—it was a fun place to go and chill. Glad to know they are directly incorporating older age groups in a community space.