Rebuilding Adventure-Style Playgrounds

By the 1990s, Central Park was home to some of the few remaining adventure-style playgrounds in the city. Most had been removed because of the difficulty of maintaining their unique features and concerns about their safety, a decision also influenced by emerging expectations of what a playground should be. The city began to recover from an almost two-decades-long fiscal crisis and to reinvest in public spaces. At that time, the prevalent design approach to playgrounds was to completely rebuild them to meet the public expectations for new play environments and to comply with safety standards and accessibility standards. Although the adventure-style playgrounds have recently become a focus of attention for those interested in playground design, there was limited interest in them during the early 1990s.(20)

Within this context, the Conservancy had the opportunity to update Adventure Playground at West 67th Street. The proposed scope was not comprehensive, but included replacing many of the adventure-style play features and providing new equipment, reflecting the current approach to playgrounds and the interests of many playground visitors. This proposal was opposed by a group of local advocates, who were interested in the existing playground and its architectural character. After discussions with the Park users who wanted a new playground, the advocates who wanted to preserve the existing playground, and Richard Dattner, the original architect, the Conservancy began to explore ways to retain the playground’s design and character-defining features while still responding to contemporary users and current design standards.

The solution involved redesigning and rebuilding many of the playground’s features, including the wood pyramid, climbing structures, and tree houses, while repairing and modifying others. The existing water features and some of the concrete forms were repaired. Safety railings and transfer platforms were added to many of the play elements. The quantity of sand (which had functioned as the main safety surface) was reduced, and a rubber safety surface was installed in place of sand.

This approach has been adopted and refined in four subsequent projects to reconstruct the adventure-style playgrounds at East 72nd Street, Heckscher, West 100th Street, and Ancient Playgrounds. These projects required that unique and character-defining features be removed, redesigned and completely rebuilt, all of which was done within the spatial organization of the original playground design. Although most of the original features in these playgrounds were not physically preserved, what was preserved was the innovative approach to play that these playgrounds offered. Using abstract forms and interconnected features they provide an open-ended play environment intended to encourage a creative, multi-faceted, and physically challenging play experience. The efforts to redesign and rebuild them reflect the understanding that this approach to play remains successful and applicable to contemporary children’s lives. The playgrounds were also reconstructed to comply with safety and accessibility standards, to facilitate the installation of new infrastructure to ensure that these playgrounds endure, and to better integrate the playgrounds with the broader Park.