Billy Johnson Playground

Billy Johnson Playground is twenty-five years old. Constructed in the mid-1980s on the approximate site of one of the original Moses-era playgrounds, it was the first to be reconstructed by the Conservancy. Designed by M. Paul Friedberg, who created the first adventure-style playground in New York City, it is the result of a design competition to create a “rustic playground” inspired by the landscapes of Central Park. Friedberg responded with an adaptation of his approach of designing playgrounds without perceived equipment, using topography, natural materials, and the rustic vocabulary of the Park to blend the playground into its context and foster an experience of play in the landscape. Water figured prominently in the design, which incorporated the idea of a lake and stream with stepping stones. A stone bridge, reminiscent of Gapstow Bridge at the nearby Pond, was created at the center of the playground. Rustic play structures evoke the summer house sitting above the playground, visible through the trees, and rustic trails through raised plantings were intended to bring the play experience into the landscape. The playground’s most popular feature is the granite slide, which is set in a rocky hill that recalls the nearby rock outcroppings. Since the playground was completed in 1985, bucket swings and a spray feature were added; plantings have been augmented and diversified; and some wood elements have been replaced or removed. Billy Johnson offers a unique play experience in Central Park. Many users cite the quality of environment, or “nature” as their reason for choosing the playground. In addition to neighborhood residents who use the playground, it is popular with visitors to the nearby Zoo. The playground accommodates a range of ages, typically two to nine years old. The slide is often the focus of playground activity, with lines of waiting children, and caregivers and other children watching from below. In addition to creating a sense of the Park inside the playground, extensive planting divides the space and creates a series of outdoor rooms conducive to games such as hide-and-seek and imaginative play. The play features, such as the bridge and rustic structures, invite exploration, allowing children to go inside, underneath, and on top of them.

Design Goals and Opportunities

The reconstruction of Billy Johnson Playground will build on the existing design and Friedberg’s concept to create a playground that blends with the Park. His interpretation for a Central Park playground was prescient in many ways, and the playground is popular, but its original design included elements that were never built or were removed, largely because they could not be adequately maintained at the time. With the Conservancy’s management model now firmly in place and informed by more than two decades of experience designing and maintaining playgrounds, the opportunity exists to reintroduce these ideas in a way that can be sustained. Enhanced plantings will serve to further integrate the playground and the Park and to add visual interest year-round. Friedberg created multiple levels and types of circulation through the playground, including bridges, stepping stones, and rustic trails through raised planting beds. A goal of the reconstruction will be to expand on this concept, enhancing opportunities for exploration and play in the landscape. Water play was originally intended as a central element in the design of the playground, but water features that were constructed never functioned properly and, over time, were simplified. A primary goal will therefore will be to highlight water as a central playground feature.