East 96th Street Playground

The East 96th Street Playground is located near the northeastern corner of the Reservoir, in a landscape bounded by the East Drive, Fifth Avenue, and the 96th Street Transverse Road. The entrance is off a secondary path between the playground and the Park’s perimeter wall, making it difficult to find from inside the Park. However, the elevation of the site and its separation from Fifth Avenue, together with the large canopy trees that surround the playground, reinforce its Park setting and contribute to a sense of seclusion.

The playground was originally built between 1935 and 1936 as part of the perimeter playground system. It was reconstructed by the Department of Parks in 1980. That project involved the installation of TimberForm play equipment including tree houses and climbers, slides, and tire swings, as well as the construction of a sandbox and installation of a standard water-spray feature. In 1994, the Conservancy renovated the playground, with the goal to diversify its offerings. The playground was repaved and new safety surfacing installed. Deteriorating equipment was removed and replaced with new post-and-platform structures; new swings and site furnishings were also added. The present combination of play equipment and features from different periods provide a variety of activities for the wide-ranging age group that uses the playground. The climbers and different types of swings are particularly popular. However, the overall layout is not cohesive.

The ample open space within the playground is well-used for unstructured group play, such as tag, ball games, and running around, contributing to the social aspect of the playground cited by visitors—many of whom live in the neighborhood. The playground is also popular with school groups, and tends to become very crowded in the afternoon. Another popular feature is the tree house at the playground’s south end, which offers an elevated perspective of the playground and surrounding landscape.

Design Goals and Opportunities

Its location, size, and variety of equipment makes the East 96th Playground one of the most popular in Central Park. The 1994 renovation was limited in scope, consisting primarily of the replacement of some of the existing equipment and an infrastructural upgrade. The resulting design is neither cohesive nor distinctive. An opportunity remains to rebuild this playground to take better advantage of its size while expanding its play value for children of all ages. The current open areas, while well-used for running and other unstructured play, are undefined spaces left over after individual pieces of equipment were installed. A reconstructed 96th Street Playground will integrate the open space into the overall design so to better serve the many children and large groups that frequent the playground. The playground’s large size could allow for a more distinctive and engaging water feature in place of the standard water-spray bollard. Finally, careful consideration of landscape and circulation improvements are also needed to improve access to the playground and better integrate the playground with the Park.