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Childern's Adventure Garden Brings Life to a New Park in Atlanta

By Lisa Frank

Designed by Altamira Design and Common Sense, Inc. for DeKalb County Parks and Recreation, the Children's Adventure Garden at Brook Run Park in Dunwoody, Georgia, located just north of Atlanta's city limits was completed in April 2006. The play features, produced by Miracle Play Equipment, are constructed of steel and PVC plastic. Adding to the park's natural feel, TifSport Bermuda sod and a newly planted white oak tree surrounds the play area.

Well-designed playgrounds--strategically placed in public parks--are giving families with children what they need most. When kids have easy access to attractive parks and playgrounds, they develop positive habits that translate into active healthy lifestyles and a connection to nature that last a lifetime.

Reclaiming a former psychiatric hospital campus, DeKalb County created a master plan to redevelop the property as a 100-acre public park. The first phase of redevelopment was designated 'The Children's Adventure Garden' -- a five-acre site within the park, completely geared toward children.

Meeting Public Need

Study after study proves that children with no place to play outdoors get little or no exercise. A direct outcome is a sharp rise in obesity among young people plus a spike in childhood diabetes and asthma. Regional parks departments are actively addressing the issue and trying to reverse the trend.

Within this context, Liane Levitan Park at Brook Run is taking its place as a valuable asset to a community of 1,250 families on the northern edge of DeKalb County, Georgia. Known as Dunwoody North, it is situated about seven miles outside Atlanta's city limits.

In the foreground, an anise shrub is blooming, while Japanese silver grass grows on the bottom right. In collaboration with a Citizen Advisory Committee and DeKalb County staff, Altamira developed a fresh identity for Brook Run's first phase to reflect the state of Georgia's diverse habitats.

No public playground existed within a 30-minute walk of this growing section of metro Atlanta. An innovative design for a Children's Adventure Garden by Altamira Design and Common Sense of Atlanta has brought the community's vision to life. The result is a heavily used playground with three distinct areas, geared to different age groups from one to 11. Ever since it opened in April 2006, the facility has been packed - especially on weekends - every month of the year.

Soon the community's teens will be rolling and gliding in a new skate park now under construction, certain to become a popular destination for skateboarders and roller-bladers from all over the region.

The pillars marking the park's entrance are constructed of Tennessee Field stone and Western Red cedar, complimented by Inkberry Holly and Carrissa Holly. Before Children's Adventure Garden, no public playground existed within a 30-minute walk in this section of Dunwoody, a community of families with children. The city of Atlanta is working to improve its ranking near the bottom of the list of major U.S. cities in terms of land preserved as parks.

Master Plan

After completing a conceptual Master Plan for the entire park property with another landscape architecture firm, the DeKalb County Parks and Recreation Department selected Altamira to provide detailed design documents for a world-class playground - clearly the community's first priority. The greater Brook Run property is a wooded 102-acre campus with tremendous potential to eventually become a first-rate educational center and nature preserve. The valuable green space, formerly the site of a hospital and nursing home for the mentally ill operated by the State of Georgia, was purchased for $5 million by DeKalb County in 1998. Three years later, DeKalb County took the lead in regional green space preservation when voters passed a parks bond initiative that dedicated $125 million to acquire and protect more land for parks. In a mostly urban county of 710,000 people, securing those funds for individual properties within the county is a competitive process. Already, $11 million has been committed to Liane Levitan Park at Brook Run.

A $2 million budget was allocated for the Children's Adventure Garden playground which encompasses 3.5 acres including a new parking lot and spacious restrooms. "Working closely with the community and DeKalb County staff, our challenge was to blend the new playground with its surrounding environment," explains Harry Housen of Altamira. Housen is principal of the Atlanta firm he founded in 1992 and recently merged with landscape architects and land planners Wood + Partners with offices in Hilton Head, Georgia and Tallahassee, Florida.

The outcome of several meetings with an active Citizen Advisory Committee was a vision for the playground's theme. It would reflect the state of Georgia's environmental diversity. Special features suggest the state's forests, mountains and meadow habitats.

A running brook begins at the upper pond flowing through all three play areas and is completely interactive with re-circulating water. Designed by Aqua Design Systems and with equipment from Roman Fountains, the stream system includes a 10 HP display pump that provides water to the upper end of the stream, pumping between 420 and 610 gallons per minute.

Park Features

The playground's signature visual element is an extensive series of hand-built rock walls, designed to provide fun places for kids to climb and balance. Huge boulders are incorporated into the playground's perimeter and smaller boulders are beautifully arranged in naturalistic interior walls. "These walls will be here forever," Housen says. Like Georgia's mountains, they are intended to imply permanence. Some of the walls suggest curving bodies of serpents and lizards, covered with more detailed smaller rocks to mimic scales on a snake's skin.

Another important element uniting each play pod is a naturalistic water feature that pays tribute to the park's original name, Brook Run. The flowing brook, also made of low rock walls and lined with Tennessee fieldstone along the bottom, is meant for walking and splashing. It's a favorite place to cool off warm feet and hands on a hot summer day, reminiscent of walking in a real mountain creek. "Some of my happiest childhood memories are playing in backyard streams growing up in Atlanta," offers Marti Watts, associate and project manager for Altamira. Watts managed the Brook Run project from start to finish. Unfortunately, Atlanta's streams are no longer clean enough for children to wander in anymore; their counterpart at Brook Run is very similar to a swimming pool. Its chlorinated water system is filtered to keep the water clean and safe.

By popular demand, a 20,000 square foot skate park will soon be built at Brook Run, adjacent to the Children's Adventure Garden. Altamira Design provided master planning and construction drawings for the innovative new amenity to be completed in the summer of 2007--the first of its kind in the Atlanta area. In addition, a new building will complement the skate park with restrooms, concessions and space for skating tournaments with covered viewing areas

The man-made stream starts at the highest point in the playground so water flows down hill, meandering through the entire space. "Another requirement from neighborhood parents was that the playground engaged all five senses," Watts goes on. The sound and feel of the water adds tremendous appeal, giving children another environment to explore and experience. A large pond at the bottom of the stream collects water, suggesting the path water travels in nature, always ending up in the ocean - another echo of Georgia's geography.

All play areas are surfaced with poured-in-place rubber material called TerraSoft, produced by Spectra Contract Flooring. Adding color and creating a festive sense of place, the surface complements the play structures. In addition, colored and stamped concrete surrounds the equipment and provides the natural look of stone.

Play Areas

Play areas are arranged in three inter-connected pods. Each has playground equipment appropriate for that age group. One play pod is for tots - age one to three. Almost two times the size of the others, one is for tikes - age four to seven. The third is for pre-teens - age eight and up. Not surprisingly, kids gravitate naturally to the activities that are right for them. The popular Trike Track features a poured concrete path with gently undulating curves, making the tricycle ride more fun and interesting than on a flat surface. Wide smiles on the faces of tiny tricycle drivers maneuvering the dips in the road say it all. The path required extra effort from the general contractor and is now affectionately known as Wacky Wavy Walk.

Since the tree house decks are excellent nature viewing spots, prefabricated bird houses are placed on many of the trees in that area in order to attract wildlife, such as owls, woodpeckers, bluebirds, and marlins. Trex material is used for the custom built bridges and decking, while pressure treated wood makes up the remaining structure.

The floor of the entire playground is covered in a new poured-in-place rubber product called Terrasoft by Spectra. The surface is comfortable to walk on, porous, safer in case of a fall and easier to maintain than loose wood-chip mulch - the material previously used in DeKalb County playgrounds. Based on its success at Brook Run, the rubber floor has become the new standard for future DeKalb County parks. To set the playful mood, Altamira designers artfully incorporated bold, whimsical curving shapes into the rubber flooring. Soothing, earth tones of ruby red, lapis blue and emerald green complement the muted primary colors of the playground equipment above.

Three gazebos, providing shady places for moms to congregate together, are positioned with good sight lines and easy visibility for scanning the entire playground. After all, one child may be in the tots area while a mother's second child plays in the tikes section.

An interactive "World Fountain"--which is a 36" solid granite sphere etched with the world's continents--sits in the center of the park. Children can spin the globe which appears to float on a thin layer of water.

Multipurpose Areas

Adjacent to the playground's slides, swings and bars, an open meadow gives children a safe place to run freely in unstructured play activities. Originally, this area was a ball field, limited to just one use. The new design creates a more versatile, multi-purpose area. Kids enjoy flying kites here, or racing each other. And it has become a popular spot for birthday parties. The meadow's gazebo has a power outlet and easy access from the street so parents can bring in packages of drinks and food. The meadow also offers a lovely setting for small concerts with comfortable seating - possibly a picnic on a blanket - on the lawn. A paved walking path encircles the grassy area and is often used by parents and senior citizens as an ideal place to walk for exercise.

Lined with newly planted white oaks and blooming natchez crape myrtles, paved trails with benches and picnic pavilions wind through existing woodlands, linking all park elements together. In addition, pre-fabricated gazebos, manufactured by Classic Recreation Systems, Inc., are located throughout the park, while existing pines, oaks and hickory trees provide a natural backdrop.

Tree Houses

To suggest Georgia's forests, a 1,650 square foot tree house is a place where parents can calm children down after a stimulating work-out on the playground. The tree house is meant to be an inviting spot to enjoy lunch or a snack. Two maturing red oaks are incorporated into the structure as if growing out of the floor. Trex is used as the decking surface to incorporate another efficient, low maintenance aspect into the design. Made from recycled wood and plastic, this material eliminates the need for staining and sealing. It is slip-resistant, extends the life cycle way beyond that of wood decking and repels moisture and insect damage. The tree house design is intentionally open ended so kids can imagine it to be many things. Today, it could be a pirate ship. Maybe tomorrow it will be a space ship. There are several grids of rope and plastic netting to climb on and a suspended bridge that sways and moves.

Bird houses to attract various species are placed on most trees surrounding the tree house, enhancing the chances of spotting wildlife with tree house decks as good viewing spots. The Master Plan designated this area as a transition zone since it touches the playground, the meadow and the woods behind. The entire structure is elevated on legs rising about six feet above the ground, leaving a natural draining area for water to percolate and filter run-off below the structure.

Georgia's mountains are represented by natural boulders, a running stream, two ponds and natural rock walls that suggest gigantic snakes and lizards. A crape myrtle tree is blooming on the left of the walkway, while the planter includes juniper and loropetalum.

Native Plants

Special attention was given to the plant palate, making every effort to use Georgia native plant material in keeping with the indigenous environmental theme. Hardy shrubs such as leucothoe, oakleaf hydrangea, azalea, service berry and inkberry holly are placed in naturalistic plantings in "places where nature might put them," Housen says. Native trees including red bud, dogwood and silver bell along with tough, native grasses were also used.

However, Housen notes that "young kids and plants just don't mix." It's too tempting to walk right through them. For this reason, plantings inside the immediate playground area are kept to a minimum along the edges. Several oak trees were added around the playground's perimeter. Over time, they will re-establish a tree canopy with the gift of cool shade in the summer.

Georgia's forests are represented with an interactive tree house accessed by a climbing bridge and walking trails. The treehouse is a custom design with Trex material used for the decking and pressure treated oak for the remaining structure. Other features include a standing seam metal roof, welded wire mesh fence panel integrated into the handrail design in lieu of pickets, and a cargo net made up of 1" Poly Dacron rope.

Unique Elements

At the playground's entrance, tall stone trellises topped with carved wooden planks serve as a visual focal point, creating a strong sense of arrival. Benches will soon be added to the entrance plaza, designed as a meeting and gathering place.

Realizing that this playground would become a favorite for people of all ages, The Rotary Club of Dunwoody funded another prominent element, both visual and interactive. Known as the World Fountain, a solid black granite sphere weighing 2,200 pounds with a diameter of 36 inches appears to float on a thin layer of water. Children are encouraged to spin the globe in every direction.

Park officials asked Altamira designers to include a feature that blind children could enjoy. The globe fit the bill. Its smooth polished skin is cool to the touch. The world's continents are etched into the granite, also a tactile element.

The playground is separated into three distinct areas for specific age groups:

o Pre-teens ages 8 and up

o Tikes ages 4 to 7

o Tots ages 1 to 3

Future Development

Directly across from the Children's Adventure Garden, local teenagers will soon have a stimulating outdoor experience of their own. Altamira Design is managing all aspects of creating a stellar skate park--one that promises to be the largest and most fantastic in the southeast region. The talents of skate park design expert Brad Siedlecki of Pillar Design Studios in Tempe, Arizona are essential to the project's success. "I am impressed with DeKalb County's commitment to take the leap and do everything right," Siedlecki says. In frequent meetings with neighborhood teens, Siedlecki found a savvy group of skating enthusiasts that knew exactly what features they wanted. Drawing on his own experience as a skateboarder, he builds skate parks around the country to help communities make those ideas happen.

The park addresses all skill levels from beginners to advanced and caters to every aspect of the sport - skateboarding, roller-blading and BMX (bicycle moto cross) bike riding.

Measuring an impressive 28,400 square feet, the curvaceous concrete landscape of bowls, drops, steps and ledges is all about re-creating the feel of skateboarding on city streets. Only here, it is completely legal. Special features--with names like the Volcano and the Death Box--make the project an excellent template for what a great skate park should be. A deep bowl with an 11-foot elevation change simulates the experience of skateboarding inside a dry swimming pool. Other amenities ensure that the park becomes a regional destination with spectator seating, food concessions, plenty of restrooms and a shade pavilion. Related colors will echo and visually connect the skate park to the playground. Now on the fast track with a total budget of $2.5 million, the new attraction is expected to be filled with moving wheels and live action by this summer.

Brook Run became an instant hit with the neighborhood and is always filled with children and adults of all ages. Several elements, such as stamped concrete and certain water features, created for Brook Run will be replicated in future DeKalb County parks.

Dog Park

And there's one more important draw at Brook Run that today's park-goers are putting at the top of their must-have list - a dog park. With only four public places in the Atlanta region for dogs to run freely, the dog park at Brook Run is a welcome addition. None of the others are set in a forest with shady nature trails winding though it. The 2.5-acre wooded parcel is a five-minute walk from the playground, giving a nice separation since dogs are not allowed in the Children's Adventure Garden or skate park.

Model For The Future

Marilyn Boyd Drew, Director of DeKalb County's Parks and Recreation Department considers Brook Run a model for the future of park design. She credits the tremendous involvement from the community as a large part of its success. In fact, Brook Run is so popular that it has been a challenge to keep up with routine maintenance, especially trash removal. "This park is full all day every day and it was from day one," she says. Crafting a creative solution, Drew's department is involving the nearby Warren Technical School to lend a hand. Warren teaches job skills to high school students with special needs to land a job after graduation. "One of their areas of study is grounds maintenance," Drew explains. "From January through May, six Warren students will work at Brook Run four days each week to help our staff stay on top of the ongoing maintenance that such an active playground requires." Drew is certain that the hands-on experience will be worthwhile. She already anticipates hiring students from the experimental program.

Official Naming

In November 2006, the entire property was renamed Liane Levetan Park at Brook Run in honor of the former DeKalb County CEO who was instrumental in acquiring it and advocating for parks and green space county-wide.

When asked about the lessons learned, landscape architect Harry Housen says it is the reactions of parents to his work that comes to mind. "Parents can have such different perceptions of the same thing. A few have expressed concern about the safety of the rock walls or even having their children walk in the water in the brook. Yet, there are many more who love those aspects. Pleasing everybody is always a challenge."

He reflects on the project's successes. From the beginning, every stakeholder was committed to making this playground the best it could be. "It is rewarding to see what a powerful gathering place it has become," he adds, glancing over at three mothers sitting cross-legged in a circle on the comfortable rubber flooring. They catch up on adult conversation while their children romp around the play equipment. Several tell us they often visit Brook Run not just once but twice a day.

Stimulating Bodies and Minds

In a high-tech world where children spend hours sitting still in front of computers and TVs, their lack of physical activity is sounding an alarm with health officials. In fact, health experts speculate that this generation of American children may be the first to have an average life span that is shorter than their parents.

By designing safe and stimulating places to play, a great park can open young minds, spark their dreams, connect kids with nature and inspire them to imagine their fullest potential. The long-term effects of special places like the Children's Adventure Garden at Brook Run Park will help build healthy minds and bodies. And that speaks to a brighter future.

Lisa Frank is an Atlanta writer and public relations consultant with a special interest in parks and environmental issues. Contact her at

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October 20, 2019, 5:57 pm PDT

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