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Elm Creek's Creative Play

by Jason Amberg, RLA, Project Manager, Brauer & Associates, Ltd., Hopkins, Minn.

The Elm Creek creative play area in Maple Grove, Minn. features a 17' 8" x 17' 8" x 18' 5" "Neptune" (Berliner Seilfabrik) net climber (left), accessed in this version of the Univers series via a net (right) or via ladders. A spinning "Albero.02" (right background) is a kind of "big tree" for a large group of children to enjoy a gentle ride around the trunk.
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The project began in 2009 when Brauer & Associates, Ltd. was commissioned by Three Rivers Park District to plan, design and administer the construction of the Elm Creek Creative Play Area within the Elm Creek Park Reserve in Maple Grove, Minn.

Three Rivers Park District is a park system in the west suburban Minneapolis / St. Paul metropolitan area of Minnesota that manages almost 27,000 acres of park reserves, regional parks, regional trails and special use facilities.

The panorama of the Elm Creek Creative Play Area in Maple Grove, Minn. is viewed from the upper deck of the "Dual Megatower" (Miracle Recreation Equipment Co.).

Nine of the Park District's parks provide play areas, which are among their most popular and sought out amenities. The final result of the collaborative design effort between park district staff and Brauer and Associates, Ltd. is a unique, high-energy, high-capacity play area with more than 20,000 square feet of useable play space.

At the onset of the master planning, we worked closely with our primary client contact Mr. Stephen Shurson, Park District Landscape, and other park district staff to develop a comprehensive project program for the play area. This project program was used as the basis for developing a wide variety of concepts that addressed the client's desires using different methods and themes. These preliminary plans and themes generated fun discussions between Three Rivers Park District staff and Brauer & Associates, Ltd. and reflected the fun that we hoped future park visitors would find at the Elm Creek Creative Play Area. In the end, the final master plan evolved and incorporated bits and pieces of the different concepts and ideas that were the best received.

Ribbons of green "flow" from the custom Dual Megatower over the ground, fencing and walls. The Dual Megatower includes a covered bridge that connects the 14 ft. high decks of each tower. The roofs of each tower are approximately 25 ft. above the ground. The structure includes a total of seven slides (five from the 14 ft. high decks, two from the 8 ft. high decks).

The creative play area design focused on maximizing user capacity, accessibility, parental observation, safety, and creating a uniquely fun "sense of place." The site includes a series of seven distinct play spaces at different levels, which are terraced into the existing hillside. Some of the terraces are separated by retaining walls while others are defined by the creation of sloped hillsides blanketed with rubberized safety surfacing to maximize the pedestrian flow between the various play area terraces. Each of the seven areas offers its own unique play opportunity and includes an adjacent plaza space for parental observation, which is accessible via the perimeter trail. Collectively these opportunities include the following:

  • Sand Play: The target user age here is 2-5 year olds, with the intent to let young children experience sand play and also have the opportunity to learn about dinosaurs by uncovering a buried 30-foot long replica of an Allosaurus fossil.
  • Role Play: This area is also targeted for the 2-5 year olds. It's a place where younger children can participate in role-playing activities primarily served by a home and rescue-themed tower. Other ancillary events include spring riders and a seesaw.
  • Multimotion: This terrace offers equipment that provides the primary motions of swirling, spinning and skating.
  • Climbing: The primary climbing equipment is located within two separate areas. One is designated solely for nets; the other combines natural looking climbing boulders with a custom net system that allows transition from the lowest container to the highest container.
  • Towers & Slides: A large traditional play structure in this container proves to be enjoyed by park users of all ages. The 14-ft. high decks of two large towers offer great views of the entire play area. The towers also provide seven slides for rapid descent back to the ground, which promotes repeat loops and races among the users.
  • Swinging: The large disc swings allow multiple users to ride together to experience the to and fro swinging motion of this equipment. It is common to see three to five users on the same disc at one time.
  • Roller Ride: The unique equipment located in this area was manufactured specifically for this project and provides users with a zip line experience via a looped track.

The multimotion area of the playground offers "Galaxy" equipment such as the "Miram Skater" (foreground) and the "Pollux" (background right). This area has engineered wood fiber safety surfacing.

Brauer & Associates, Ltd. is always sensitive to a client's budget, whether it is a large multimillion-dollar outdoor recreation facility or a small overlook along a scenic trail. We needed to design a unique and playful site with a limited amount of custom play equipment for a project to be successful in providing the play capacity required within the park district's budget. While keeping budget in mind, we were able to incorporate very interesting off the shelf play equipment with the color themed and terraced play containment system. Extensive product research and our connections with play equipment vendors and manufacturers were keys to maximizing the fun value in the equipment. Some of the customized play equipment at this site includes:

  • Miracle Recreation Equipment's custom "Dual Megatower", which includes a covered bridge that connects the 14 ft. high decks of each tower. The roofs of each tower are approximately 25 ft. above the ground surface. This structure includes a total of seven slides (five from the 14 ft. high decks, two from the 8 ft. high decks).
  • Landscape Structure's "Roller Ride" that mimics a zip line via a looped track system.
  • Berliner Seilfabrik's "Neptune" structure with custom hillside net. There were approximately 55 miles of steel cable used to construct the 3,000 linear feet of rope on this net structure alone.

The total cost to construct the project was approximately $1.2 million.

This view is from the upper deck of one of the towers looking down at the tunnel/bridge and main plaza area.

The play area's main entry plaza, complete with seating areas and shade canopies, was developed to serve as the primary gathering space with direct connection to the playground and the accessible circulation trail on the perimeter of the overall play area. The circulation trail includes connections to each of the seven play areas and additional parental seating plazas, providing parents the opportunity to supervise from every angle of the play area. Each of the seven terraced containers is themed with a specific color that "flows" from the equipment and shade canopies onto the safety surfacing, then "spills" over the retaining walls and custom graphic panels on the fencing to connect the play containers, parental observation areas and main plaza with "ribbons of color." The flow of colors through the Elm Creek Creative Play Area gives youngsters exceptional creative play experiences and strong visual cues.

The new eye-catching Elm Creek Creative Play Area is twice the size of the original play area it replaced in this park and provides an appealing overall atmosphere for all ages, including parents and extended family members.

The custom net system connects climbing boulders in the lowest container to the upper container.

The increased size of the play area, combined with a greater variety of play equipment options, resulted in a play capacity of more than 500 children at any given time. Public demands were high with an expected 1,500 visitors per day during the peak season. The new play area was opened to the public in June of 2011 with a warm welcoming from the park visitors. After two years of planning, design and construction administration, it was very satisfying to see the large number of people enjoying everything the site has to offer and filling it with laughter and activity.

The Dino Dig area also offers climbing on the "fossilized" rib and discovering "fossilized" remains of a full-size Allosaurus replica (both by Exploration Playgrounds). The fossil concept for playgrounds was created by Research Casting International, which was recently commissioned to restore and mount the Barosaurus for the Royal Ontario Museum. The Barosaurus is the largest dinosaur ever displayed in Canada and the only original fossil Barosaurus in the world.

The site improvements were designed to fit within the confines of the healthy existing mature vegetation with minimal tree loss. This reduced the need for extensive new plantings and the related concerns associated with establishing and maintaining such materials within an area that consists of extremely high levels of foot traffic. Three Rivers Park District staff designed and implemented mass planting areas in key locations using native vegetation like nannyberry viburnum, dogwood, bushhoneysuckle, hardhack spirea, and an assortment of native grasses. In addition to the mass planting areas, staff also planted new trees to complement the site and provide additional shade in the future. These trees included trembling aspen, bur oak, hackberry, red oak, basswood, sugar maple and black cherry.

The classic seesaw has been updated as the Garden Seesaw. Two or three children can safely seat at each end. Crossbars top and bottom allow the kids to secure their hands and firmly place their feet. The upper crossbar also keeps kids from falling forward. Even the younger kids can safely use this seesaw.

About the Firm
Brauer & Associates Ltd. is a Minneapolis-based land use planning and design firm that has been providing professional landscape architectural services since 1963. The majority of the firm's experience involves park and recreation projects, including park and trail planning, regional and state parks, community parks, neighborhood parks, athletic complexes, campgrounds, unique play environments, performance areas and formal gardens. With over 500 public-related projects in the last 12 years alone, the firm's collective experience provides clients with vast, relevant experience that can be applied to projects of varying type, size, and complexity.

The landscape architect's son, J.T., experiences the motion of the Satellite Spinner, part of the Pollux play shell. The curved bar allows children to control the speed of the spin.


Three Rivers Park District Consulting Team

Brauer & Associates, Ltd.: Prime Consultant / Landscape Architect
Thatcher Engineering, Inc.: Subconsulting civil and structural engineering
JQP, Inc.: Subconsulting ADA and safety compliance specialist
Northern Technologies, Inc.: Subconsulting geotechnical testing

Ebert Construction: General Contractor
Larson Contracting: Earthwork & Utilities
Advanced Wall Structures: Retaining Wall Construction
Halverson Concrete: Concrete
Koolmo Construction: Play equipment installer
Surface America: Rubberized safety surfacing
Popple Creek Manufacturing: Ornamental fencing
T.A. Schifsky: Asphalt trails
Seed & Sod: JJ Mack Construction

Miracle Recreation: Dual Megatower, Dynamo Biggo Flyer,
Buzzy Bumble Bee, Lucky Ladybug
Most Dependable Drinking Fountains
Kompan: Supernova, Pollux, Miram Skater, Garden Seesaw, Daisy, Home Rescue Multi Tower
Berliner: Seilfabrik's Neptune and Albero.02
Exploration Playgrounds: Allosaurus Dino Dig, Rib Climber
DuMor Site Furnishings: benches
Superior Shade Inc.: cantilevered canopies (main plaza area)
Anchor Industries: Palmbrellas (perimeter plaza areas)
Dero: bike racks
Fossil Industries, Inc: custom graphic panels for fencing:
Luma Sales: Millerbernd banner poles

The Supernova is a communal, multimotion spinning attraction for the 6-15 year old set. Kids can just lie or sit on it as someone spins it. To challenge their balance, kids stand on it. As you walk, it begins to move. The faster you walk, the faster it spins.

The orange "Roller Ride" (far left) was manufactured specifically for this project. It mimics a zip line via a looped track system. The yellow "Neptune" net climber is seen in the foreground.

The main plaza area offers cantilevered canopies in various colors that correspond with the ribbons of colors throughout the site. Palmbrellas shades, boulders, picnic benches and benches (DuMor) define the area.

The red ribbon of color in the ground plane at the sand play and role-play areas provides a playful connection that leads from the perimeter plaza, through the play area and ultimately to the main plaza.

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October 15, 2019, 4:49 am PDT

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