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The Remaking of Pioneer Park in Mesa, Ariz.
Landscape Design by Dig Studio

Chad Atterbury, PLA, ASLA

The Remaking of Pioneer Park in Mesa, Ariz.

The custom play elements were designed to resemble the park's historic pistache, palm, and pine trees. The top lookout area provides a tree canopy-type of experience.


The Remaking of Pioneer Park in Mesa, Ariz.

Elevated walkways provide a multi-dimensional experience with access to play features along the way. They also produce shade for park users and protect the root system of the historic trees by lifting the play elements up from the ground level with carefully planned supports.


Pioneer Park, the city of Mesa's oldest public park, originally opened in 1956, and during its heyday was known as 'the coolest park around.' Located at the east end of Mesa's downtown, and just east of the Mesa Drive Light Rail stop, the park is a critical open space for the community and is a key element of Mesa's downtown designated Innovation District.

In recent years, the park was under-utilized by the community and some of its historic monuments and attractions were showing wear. The iconic train engine that so many residents remembered from their childhood was fenced off and decaying. The original 'standard-issue' playground was not engaging neighborhood children. To address these issues, Mesa voters approved a Parks Bond package in 2012 and Pioneer Park was among the funding recipients for renovations.

The leaders of this growing community had a vision: they wanted to retain the park's valuable assets while re-envisioning every aspect for future generations. The city began a master-planning process that engaged the community and stakeholders on how to reposition the park while revitalizing cherished assets, such as a tournament level horseshoe court facility, the 'Daughters of the Utah Pioneers' monument, a community rose garden, and the historic train engine #2355. The community leaders realized that in order to meet the many goals for the park, while simultaneously adding innovative new amenities, they would need to increase the originally planned fund amount. So, the project was infused with a much-needed $7.9 million-dollar budget to ensure the ambitious design was fulfilled to its fullest.

With the city's investment and vision as the foundation, the team at Dig Studio created a design concept that captured the spirit of the park, while also taking a bold approach to new play features and public spaces. The team started with the most iconic feature that that the park was known for: the trees. Remarkable for their size and maturity, the legacy trees are a rarity in Arizona's desert environment.

Driven by the idea to protect and celebrate the historic trees, Dig Studio created an iconic play experience, with an immersive tree canopy, accessible along a 500-foot-long elevated 'play connector' walkway. The 'play connector' is multifaceted, providing a lofty arboretum walk through the leafy canopies and a unique bird's eye view of the park, all while shading people and play elements below.

All of the play elements and walkway supports had to be strategically sited to protect and preserve the root zones of these legacy trees and to allow for the continued use of flood irrigation. Grading had to preserve this effective historic system so that the trees would not be shocked by a drastic watering change. Additionally, over one hundred new trees now populate the park and will ultimately grow up to continue the park's forest legacy.



The Remaking of Pioneer Park in Mesa, Ariz.

A splash pad is situated along the renovated central spine, giving interactive light displays on the water wall, which is visible from Main Street.


The Remaking of Pioneer Park in Mesa, Ariz.

The historic steam locomotive #2355 was built in 1912. It is estimated to have operated for several million miles before being decommissioned in 1957. Originally it was slated to be scrapped, but was instead donated to the city of Mesa in 1958.


The elevated walkway provides unparalleled accessibility, inviting exploration for all ages and abilities. It twists around play structures and bridges at different levels with pathways creating multiple loops and routes to foster an active imagination. The experience becomes a three-dimensional figure-eight that links play with the park's central spine, group ramadas, water plaza, and iconic shade canopy.

Reinforcing the amazing medley of old and new, revitalization and preservation, the park includes updates to two historic features. A monument to early settlers by the Daughters of the Utah Pioneers was made more engaging. And, thanks to the 'Save Our Train' committee who raised private funds, a major renovation to the historic Southern Pacific Engine #2355 was completed.

The park's original design recalled the City Beautiful movement with a central axial spine connecting two great lawns punctuated with a variety of shade trees. The historic layout was preserved and repurposed, with a new central water plaza and interactive light display that serves as a focal point from nearby Main Street. Reinvigorating the central walkway esplanade organized the park more powerfully, drawing people from one end to the other and providing a generous space for programmed activities at the core of the park.

Pioneer Park has served as a link between generations, engaging entire families while also encouraging movement and activity. Parents now proudly bring their kids back to the park they played in as a child. The layout encourages social interaction in a collective pursuit of fun, relaxation and camaraderie. Events are planned throughout the year, including the weekly food trucks on Saturday nights, the holiday Merry Main Street celebration, 'Celebrate Mesa' Earth Day, car shows, and movies in the park.

The renovated park was officially unveiled during a grand opening in December 2017. Today Pioneer Park is an iconic destination, restoring a sense of pride. The impacts of the park's renewed vitality anchor the eastern end of a redeveloping downtown.



As seen in LASN magazine, September 2018.



Filed Under: PLAYGROUND, LASN
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November 14, 2018, 10:53 pm PST

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