Winner of the 2011 ASLA Honor Award in Communication
A new playground opened this month in San Francisco’s Dolores Park. The park sits at the intersection of 3 of the cities best neighborhoods. I say this without reservation because I happen live in one of them. To the east is the Mission famous as the heart of the Spanish speaking community to south Noe Valley once known for being the home the cities cops and firefighters and now know for double-wide stroolers. To the west is the Castro famous for being …well the Castro.
This is one of the most densely packed urban spaces in the country -second only to Manhattan and the two block long terraced slope that forms Dolores Park functions as a Commons- it is living room, backyard and beach all rolled into one for the resident of the three very different neighborhoods who all share this space.
I have lived in the city long enough now that I catch myself saying things like ‘I remember when …’ and am at an age where I’m deeply suspicious of ‘improvements’ especially when it comes to things that seemed too work pretty well before. I’m still pissed-off about the California Academy of Science. What was once a charming and interested space was replaced by a building with the charm and interest of a half empty Costco warehouse. So when I heard several years ago that funds had been earmarked for renovating what I thought was a perfectly serviceable kids park in my neighborhood I expected the worst - bland ‘play structures’ out of a catalogue and few sad plating areas that would be a home in a parking lot. No fun, no interest, no excitement. All feeling of risk, danger, potential stitches and concussion – the stuff that always made playgrounds really fun – engineered out.
In short I was all geared up to add this to my list of ‘I remember whens ‘ and expected it to be my latest recipient of my personal ‘What Were They Thinking’ design award.
As it turned out I could not have been more wrong.
If nothing else judging by the way that seemingly half the kids in the city of varying ages were exuberantly taking over the in the playground and on a recent morning- the playground is a huge success. It is aesthetically beautiful, skillfully integrated into the terraced hillside, the materials are first rate and used with care and taste. Most importantly – as testified by the heartfelt laughing/screaming/shouting of its young occupants– it is truly fun and exciting. There are a myriad of ways to do things – and more that a few of them in the scary /fun/ thrilling way that kids gravitate towards. Evidently no ‘Risk Mitigation Committee’ was employed during the creation of this park.
Some of the slides are long and fast – a few require climbing a cargo net to get up. There are real rocks – some of them immense blocks of granite– that you can climb up over an and fall off of everywhere. Some are truly tall and falling would hurt (though not too badly) This is not to say the playground is ‘Danger -land’. Quite the opposite is true, a lot of thought went into keeping everyone safe and much of that is attributable to its layout.
The park in arranged in a radial pattern that allows for segmentation based on age and activity around this axis. At this center a tall mound is reached by a cantilever bridge an the way down (choices) to the main play area steps, a wide sliding board or a cargo net – your choice. And that may be one of the small miracles of this beautifully designed and executed plan by Koch Landscape Architecture that small children, older kids and adults are able to use the space in ways that are ‘age appropriate without impinging to the others turf or safety of the others. Small-scale play structures in the toddler’s areas are subtly segregated on a different axis from the big kid swings and the bigger kids rock climbing. Parents seating is integrated into the space in the form of angled wooded bench carefully designed with small-integrated tables for keeping lattee and /or laptop within easy reach (it is the world we live in.)
Circulation into and through the space is also well integrated and executed. The site is accessed via a curved inclined ramp leading from Dolores Street bordered by a low rough hewn rock wall on one side and a concrete wall on the other. Plating is both excellent and understated. Given the fact that any sunny weekend (and every 4/20) Dolores park turns into the biggest garden party in the Pacific Time zone anything growing there is going to have to be resilient. The designers accommodated this without resorting to a plant pallet that looked like ‘Parking Lot 101’. Existing Canary Island palms were supplemented by new mature specimens in carefully place groves. Wide planting ‘buffers’ around the playground are both an aesthetic and strategic design feature. Instead of the usual low fencing around playgrounds to keep small children from wandering out and large dogs from wandering in the designers and community decided on installing broad planting areas to achieve the same effect.
One odd feature is the walkway leading out of the playground leading to nowhere. When renovations commence on the upgraded to the rest of the park this summer this curious stub of sidewalk now ending in grass will be connected to a new walkway system. This next phase will see sidewalks widened, a viewing area at the SW ‘summit of the park befitting the view as well as the removal of the old unused community building and other decrepit structures. New maintenance and supervision buildings will be constructed on-site but below grade along 18thstreet.
If this new work is done with the same good design and careful integration as the Helen Diller playground I’m – cautiously – optimistic. Progress – at least in the case of Dolores Park – might equal improvement after all.