Design Approach

Within the context of a renewed Park and the expanded recreation opportunities it provides for children and adults alike, the focus of this initiative is on the playgrounds as a system and their relationship to the larger experience of play in the Park. The goal is to raise each of the playgrounds to the same standard of excellence at the same time. The plan for achieving it is grounded in the experience and success of the most recently reconstructed playgrounds. It encompasses the following design objectives:

• Improve the relationship between the playgrounds and the Park
• Enhance the quality and variety of play experience
• Maximize user accessibility
• Ensure compliance with current safety standards
• Preserve unique and successful aspects of existing designs
• Practice sustainable design and construction
• Design innovative solutions

Improve the Relationship Between Playgrounds and the Park (images 6–7)

Given that the most significant and unique aspect of Central Park’s playgrounds is that they are in the Park, they should look and feel like part of the Park, not disconnected facilities that could exist anywhere. This means improving the visual, physical, and psychological connection between the playgrounds and surrounding landscape, so that children in the playgrounds feel that they are playing in the Park and, further, that their play experience does not begin and end at the playground gate. Along with how the Park is perceived from within the playgrounds, the objective of improving the relationship between them considers how the playgrounds are perceived and approached from the surrounding landscape and may also contemplate how the recreation opportunities outside a playground complement those within it.

The most fundamental physical characteristic that contributes to how a playground relates to the Park is its footprint: the size, shape, and location of the space it occupies. Modifying the footprint—changing how and where it sits in the landscape, for example, or undulating the edge—is one of the primary ways to better integrate a playground with its surroundings. In many cases, the pedestrian path system outside a playground can be redesigned to improve the way in which it is approached and to establish more generous landscape margins between the paths and the playground. Plantings, both within and around the playgrounds, lend both shade and a connection to the larger landscape, contributing to children’s sense that they are playing in the Park. Other strategies for creating a more seamless transition include lowering fence heights and using materials, colors, and textures in the playgrounds that blend with their surroundings, blurring the boundaries and lessening the visual contrast between the playgrounds and the Park. Finally, restoring adjacent landscapes and improving the visual and physical connection to them helps to integrate the use of the playgrounds with that of the larger Park.

Enhance the Quality and Variety of Play Experiences (images 8–10)

Considered as a system, the Park’s playgrounds are unmatched in their collective potential to provide an extensive and diverse range of play experiences and activities for all age groups and abilities. The opportunity to maximize the quality and variety of experiences begins with an evaluation of each playground, taking into account knowledge of the users each playground serves, the character and condition of the play environment, and the immediate park context. By increasing the diversity of play experiences within each playground, and considering them as a whole and in the context of the broader Park, the aim is to provide the widest possible range of opportunities for physical, social, manipulative, and imaginative play.

Within each playground, this may include the following:
• Replacing aging equipment with new equipment that provides a greater range of activities
• Incorporating site-specific design and unique play features
• Identifying age ranges and ability levels served by existing play features, and expanding play opportunities for children of all ages and abilities
• Improving opportunities for manipulative and sensory play through innovative uses of sand, water, and other materials
• Maintaining open spaces for unstructured play

Maximize User Accessibility (images 11–12)

The Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA; 1990), requires that physical barriers preventing people with disabilities from accessing public places be removed whenever doing so is “readily achievable,” and that all public facilities be made physically accessible as they are built or renovated. The minimum requirements for compliance with ADA when renovating or reconstructing a playground are clearly defined. However, the objective is not simply to comply with the minimum requirements; rather, it is to increase and integrate universally accessible play opportunities for children and their caregivers within each playground and to provide a range of accessible play experiences throughout the system of playgrounds.

Measures to maximize accessibility in the Park’s playgrounds include the following:
• Evaluating and improving access to the playgrounds via existing paths
• Re-grading and repaving to provide accessible routes to play elements
• Replacing inaccessible safety surfaces with wheelchair accessible resilient surfacing
• Removing barriers, such as steps and curbs wherever possible, and modifying or rebuilding structures to maximize accessibility
• Adding equipment and features that provide a variety of ground-accessible play opportunities
• Providing accessible site amenities and furnishings, including drinking fountains, seating, and entrance gates

Ensure Compliance with Current Safety Standards (images 13–14)

Safety standards have been revised in response to new patterns of use, types of equipment, and information about playground injuries, a process that demonstrates a constant evolution of understanding and refinement of the approach to safety in playgrounds. At a national level, safety considerations are guided by recommendations outlined in the Public Playground Safety Handbook (April 2008), issued by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC). The American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) publishes the industry’s most recent technical specifications for playground equipment designed to conform to the CPSC guidelines.

Updating the playgrounds that have not been recently reconstructed to comply with the current standards involves the following:
• Establishing adequate clear zones around play equipment to limit the potential for conflicts of use
• Replacing or modifying equipment that is inconsistent with the current standards
• Creating a clear and consistent program of safety signage and labeling of equipment to indicate intended age groups
• Adding or replacing safety surfacing

Compliance with safety standards ensures that playgrounds meet current expectations about safety in public spaces and that families who use the Park benefit from current research about playground injuries. Critics of the standards suggest that they have resulted in dull play environments. However, the example of the Park’s most recently reconstructed playgrounds clearly demonstrates that adherence to safety standards does not preclude innovative playground design that creates unlimited opportunities for fun, imaginative, and physically challenging play.

Preserve Unique and Successful Aspects of Existing Designs (images 15–17)

Central Park’s playgrounds were added more than seventy years ago and have been adapted and rebuilt to varying extents ever since. As a result, they are diverse in form and character. Many comprise design qualities and unique features that are a product of the philanthropic interest, connections with cultural institutions, and attention of the design professions that have long been a part of the Park’s history. The design approach refined by the Conservancy for more than a decade is grounded in recognizing and retaining those qualities and features that have enduring value and incorporating them into designs that serve a new generation of playground users. It is an approach that involves working with character-defining aspects of existing playgrounds while recognizing that the playgrounds cannot remain static: like homes, schools, and other places with a purpose, their design has always responded to changing expectations and standards; and like these places, they must continue to adapt and evolve to serve the communities that use them. But by identifying aspects of previous design work that have value and can be incorporated into the broader objectives of the playground, it is possible to retain the diversity and distinctiveness of Central Park’s playgrounds and to respect the rich history of their evolution while updating them for a new generation of New Yorkers.

Use Sustainable Practices in Design and Construction (images 18–19)

As paved spaces supported by significant infrastructure, playgrounds are more urban in character than most of the Park, and are therefore a primary focus of opportunities to use sustainable materials, technologies, and practices that improve stormwater management, reduce surface temperatures, replace inefficient infrastructure, conserve water, and minimize waste.

Strategies for improving the environmental sustainability of playgrounds include the following:
• Reducing pavement and associated drainage infrastructure
• Using permeable surfaces that permit storm water to drain into the soil, including free-draining safety surfacing
• Installing interactive (user-operated) water features
• Designing plantings and structures to provide shade
• Ensuring that materials used in playground construction are durable, and when possible, recycled

Design Innovative Solutions (images 20–22)

Innovative design has defined Central Park since its inception. The Park’s construction was a marvel of nineteenth-century engineering: swamps were drained, rocks blasted, and tons of earth moved to create meadows, lakes, woodlands, and the multiple circulation systems that move people through the landscape. The Park’s designers also ingeniously manipulated the most fundamental elements of landscape design—topography and vegetation—to screen out the surrounding city and create the illusion of infinitely unfolding vistas. They established “grade-separated” crossings that prevented visitors on foot, in carriages, and on horseback from intersecting with one another and concealed the cross-town transverse roads from view from within the Park. Whether it was through pioneering the technology of the day or using more basic design devices to their most strategic effect, the innovative design of the Park brilliantly served the vision of its creators in replicating the experience of an extensive, uninterrupted rural experience.

This same innovative spirit is essential to the challenge of making each of Central Park’s playgrounds more fun, accessible, safe, and sustainable while retaining unique, character-defining qualities of the individual sites and enhancing their connection to the Park. In addition to incorporating new play equipment, materials, and advances in technology, innovative playground design means using more familiar, time-tested products and practices in new and creative ways. The premise of innovative design is never to be limited by what has been done before in the effort to solve design problems and achieve project goals.