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California Dreamin'

By Robert Mowat Associates, San Francisco
Editor, Stephen Kelly

The center of the play area replicates the Golden Gate Bridge, two large towers connected with clatter bridges and an arched center bridge. Two slides at the center of the bridge sends children shooting out into the main play area. Subtle details were also added to the bridge towers: faux steel cables, rivets and light fixtures placed on top.

Editor’s note: This feature showcases two themed playgrounds in Union City, Calif., the result of engaging and creative design—the Seven Hills racecar-themed playground and the California-themed Kennedy Park—both designed by the landscape architects of Robert Mowat Associates. Robert Mowat Associates has been creating memorable and environmentally responsible park and recreational designs for over 25 years. The firm, with offices in San Francisco and the Napa Valley, serves a diverse clientele of public and private sector clients, offering a full range of land planning and landscape architectural services.

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Next to the mine town are a herd of wild mustang spring toys and a row of custom designed mining cart spring toys. A large swing set and log roll elements complete the mining town playground theme.

Kennedy Park Playground, Union City, Calif.

Union City is on the lower east side of San Francisco Bay between Hayward and Fremont. The city, celebrating 50 years of incorporation, has a vibrant program of leisure and recreation services for its 74,000 residents. There are numerous public spaces, parks and playgrounds with a readily identifiable character. Aaron Green, a former colleague of Frank Lloyd Wright, designed the city’s main civic center.

The concept chosen by Union City was “California Dreamin,” an inspired playground of custom play, educational elements and topical themes associated with the Golden State. The master plan of Robert Mowat Associates eliminated the dividing asphalt path that separated two circular spaces and created a single play space.

Near the civic center is Kennedy Park, the recreational heart of the city. The park has a community center building, spacious landscape areas and a large playground. The center houses three daycamp groups during the summer. A neighboring high school, nearby soccer fields and an intermodal transportation center lies adjacent to the park.

Along the edge of the playground, RMA designed 12 California story ‘boards,’ precast concrete surfboards with fun facts about California agriculture, aviation, earthquakes, flora and fauna, geography, Hollywood, missions, oceans and marine life, surfing, technology, the Gold Rush and Union City history.

The four-acre park comprises a 19,000 sq. ft. playground, designed as two separate circular areas in 1961. Although the play structures have been updated approximately every 10 years, the city decided the play area needed major renovation to better serve the communities increased recreational needs for children’s play areas.

Design Concepts

Union City hired Robert Mowat Associates to design several concepts for consideration to replace aging play structures in two playgrounds. The landscape architects created four conceptual schemes: a fog-themed play park with a central mountain slide; a music inspired park with play equipment and elements that make sound; a fossil dig and dinosaur theme; and a California theme-inspired park. The city chose “California Dreamin,’” with play, educational elements and topical themes to celebrate the Golden State.

The custom mining town play structure is designed around a towering sycamore. John Dalrymple, the design project manager, noted that was a challenge but “an opportunity to create a tree fort-like atmosphere, which is rarely seen in today’s public parks.”

The challenge was to celebrate and translate into play forms the significant historical and physical characteristics that make up the state’s identity. Principal Robert Mowat felt it was important to make the play areas interesting for the childen, but also for their caretakers, in the spirit of, say, Disney or Pixar films, with the goal of entertaining families.

There was a dedicated effort also on the part for the firm to make play as inclusive as possible. Accessible ramping would lead through all play elements, so that no play element was unreachable by wheelchair access.

Two ADA accessible ramps link the bridge and the gold mining town. The walls were hand sculpted from colored concrete and include built-in hand holds strategically placed at various points along the wall. The walls represent the Sierra Nevadas and such iconic geology as Yosemite’s Half Dome (bottom).

“Open Up Those Pearly Gates…”

The landscape architects felt the playground could be educational and embarked on finding ways to impart California’s diverse history and importance in the world in fun ways. After much internal office discussion, the firm chose the Golden Gate Bridge to be the central focus and icon for the California playground. On a sunny summer day the team from Robert Mowat Associates, armed with color sample books from several paint manufacturers, visited the bridge. The team discovered the color of the Golden Gate Bridge, although technically “International Orange,” turned out to be a rather somber shade of rust. Back at the office, the team decided a color more representational of what people imagine the color of the Golden Gate Bridge would be an appropriate choice for the play structure.

Sketches were made for the conceptual design. It had to be a completely accessible play piece. The exciting play value would be slides in the middle and the end sections, becoming “clatter bridges.” Details of the bridge were worked out with the Landscape Structures custom design group and Ross Recreations representative Cheri Yokoi. While the bridge “worked” on paper, field installation was more of a problem. The landscape architects worked closely with Ross Recreation and Landscape Structures to coordinate details that were difficult to fully plan without building full-size mock-ups.

For the youth who have outgrown the Kennedy Playground, the community center houses three-day camp groups. Here, students of a day camp are learning how colors are chosen with paint swatches.

A series of telephone and graphic email collaborations also took place with the creation of custom mining carts for the gold rush mining town. A herd of wild mustangs were also custom designed between Robert Mowat Associates, Ross Recreation and Landscape Structures.

Playground Design

The “California Dreamin’” playground concept design joined the two separate circles into one single area of continuous play. At the center is the replica of the Golden Gate Bridge. On each side of the bridge are naturalistic boulder ramps that are also climbers. They represent such California geologic marvels as the Sierra Nevadas, Yosemite’s Half Dome, El Capitan and Devils Post Pile National Monument. The ramps provide a continuous ADA compliant path of travel from the 2-5 age play area to the 5-12 age play area designed as the gold rush town.

Two ADA accessible ramps link the bridge and the gold mining town. A third ramp from the fort to the 2-5 play area was eliminated and transformed into a transfer station.

Four 48-year old London plane trees were on site. The landscape architects desired to preserve them for their shade and atmosphere. The play structures were carefully designed around the trees. One tree became the central focus of an ADA “accessible tree fort,” probably the only of its kind in a California playground.

The 5-12 year old play area has an old gold mining town theme. The slides and climbers come down from the decks to a play surface intended to resemble geodes or crystals. The façade (inset) is meant to resemble an old mining town with a bank and mine entrance. Numerous play elements connect to the three large play decks.

The play structure in the 2-5 year old play area expresses a California flora and fauna theme with resilient play surfacing designed to appear as the seaweed and waves. The 5-12 year old play area has an old gold mining town theme that includes a herd of wild mustang and mining cart spring toys. Some play themes, such as the horse and mining cart spring toys, were logical selections for the gold rush town. A standardized play element by Landscape Structures was named the log roll. RMA chose to link three of these together as one large log roll harkening back to California’s early history as a major supplier of lumber worldwide. Both play spaces pack in the maximum amount of play activities.

After seeing a row of stacked surfboards on the web, it was decided that standing surfboards would be an appropriate means to present ideas for playground visitors. A series of internal sketches and discussions ultimately arrived at custom precast colored surfboards with inset graphic stories on California’s physical and social identity. Other custom play elements to accentuate the California theme include a geode looking play paving and engraved play panels of California imagery. Benches that resemble ocean waves and surfboards are placed inside and outside the play areas. Ideas that were not workable during design programming led to other “out of the blue” inspirations, such as the bing boing play element remade into the stamen of a California poppy, the state flower.

Kennedy Park Playground, Union City, Calif.

  • Client: Union City; Public Works, in association with Leisure Services
  • Public Works Director: Ms. Mintze Cheng
  • City Project/Construction Managers: Mr. Rick Sealana; Mr. Nelson Kirk
  • Designers: Robert Mowat Associates, San Francisco
  • Design Project Manager: John Dalrymple
  • Design Staff: Taeko Kawasaki; Melissa Lee
  • Contractor: Goodland Landscape Construction
  • Playground Equipment & Reps: Ross Recreation; Cheri Yokoi
  • Playground Structures: Landscape Structures
  • Bing Boing: Playworld Systems
  • Custom Bridge, Mining Carts, Mining Town and Horses: Landscape Structures
  • Custom Concrete Benches, Trash Containers, Surfboards: Quick Crete Products
  • Concrete Walls, Geologic Concrete Carvings: Cem Rock, Tuscon
  • Poured Play Surfacing: Tot Turf – Robertson Industries
  • Sign Manufacturer: KVO Industries
  • Surfboard Graphics/Photos: Robert Mowat Associates

Tots on bikes and trikes find the track a fun and challenging play course. A recycled streetlight is activated by a crosswalk push button to begin races. The streetlight turns red, yellow and then green in two-second increments.
Photos courtesy of Treve Johnson Photography

Seven Hills Park, Union City, Calif.

Robert Mowat Associates was hired to redesign and upgrade the playground in Seven Hills Park to ADA, CPSC and ASTM compliance. The playground, nestled into the foothills of the San Francisco Bay area, was slotted within a crescent shaped area bounded by a sloping concrete retaining wall and a semi-circular pedestrian pathway. Budget restrictions negated altering the playground’s shape.

Recycled city yard tires cover steel drum trash cans and are placed in the resilient paving to further reinforce the race track motif.

Kids, Start Your Engines

The landscape architectural design team decided early on the wall and walkway would remain. The concept for an auto racing play theme came during a brainstorming session between the city project manager, Phil Sachs and Robert Mowat.

A racetrack was created with poured-in-place play surface paving weaving through the play area. The paving is enhanced with graphic depictions of flames, smoke, racing lanes and a checkered-flag finish line.

Several unusual play elements helped create the auto theme. Recycled tires are woven into the play surfacing, creating climbing and balance play areas, along with covering trash bins to further the theme. The concrete retaining wall was used as a new play element. Its graffiti covered façade was coated with recycled paint from a local recycling center. Stainless steel “Hot Wheel” toy tracks were then installed atop the wall. Three tracks installed on two sides of the retaining wall allow wheeled toys to be rolled down to the finish line at the ends of the wall.

The Seven Hills Park playground is located within a crescent shaped area bounded by a sloping concrete retaining wall and a semi-circular pedestrian pathway. Budget restrictions negated altering the shape of the playground. Custom flags were created from standard sized play structure posts. Custom designed benches (Quick Crete Products) mimic racing car grilles and tires.

The inclusion of a recycled city traffic stoplight begins races in the playground. The firm designed custom benches in the shape of auto grilles and tires as playground seating. A set of custom-built exhaust pipes provided art and atmosphere.

The landscape architects hired an electrical engineer to assist in redesigning a recycled streetlight so a pedestrian crosswalk button would start a countdown for races. The button and light activate the streetlight to turn red, yellow and then green in two-second increments.

The playground installation was handled mainly by in-house city crews, which resulted in significant savings. All of the custom elements and play equipment were installed by the city. These savings created a finished budget reserve of approximately 20 percent of the city’s anticipated capital improvement outlay.

The new design is an exciting, unique environment of fun, play, color and imagination. The play area is now a popular destination for the Seven Hills neighborhood.

The landscape architects laid out the flame and finish line design in the field for the poured-in-place company to install the resilient play paving accurately to the design drawings. Stainless steel pipes fashioned into hot rod headers add atmosphere and sculptural effect. The existing concrete retaining wall is now a play element. Its graffiti covered facade was painted over and three stainless steel “Hot Wheels” toy tracks installed atop the wall. The Hot Wheels roll to the finish line at the end of the wall.

Seven Hills Park, Union City, Calif.

  • Client: City of Union City; Public Works in association with Leisure Services
  • Public Works Director: Larry Cheeves
  • City Project/Construction Manager: Phil Sachs
  • Designers: Robert Mowat Associates
  • Project Managers: Dean Williams, Roland Crighton
  • Custom Concrete Items: Quick Crete Products
  • Playground Structure and Play Equipment: GameTime
  • Playground Representative: Husbands and Associates
  • Installation: In-House City Crews – Public Works Department
  • Signal Light, Tires and Trash Containers: Recycled from City Corp Yard
  • Poured-in-Place Surface: Tot Turf Company – Robertson Industries
  • Recycled Paint: Alameda Paint Recycling Co.


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October 13, 2019, 6:56 pm PDT

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