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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)

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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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