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From Parking Lot to Playground
North Transfer Playground, Seattle, Washington

Rachel Dotson, HBB Landscape Architecture


In Seattle, one of the city's public facilities for collecting and processing waste, garbage and recycling was getting an environmentally friendly, sustainable upgrade from Seattle Public Utilities. In addition to adding a green roof and public open spaces to the North Transfer and Recycling Station, a nature-inspired playground, designed by HBB Landscape Architecture, was built across the street on the former site of a steeply sloped asphalt parking lot.

The new North Transfer and Recycling Station in Seattle's Wallingford neighborhood is a state of the art public facility that collects and processes the city's food and yard waste, garbage, and recycling. Seattle Public Utilities set out to build a sustainable facility that not only minimizes environmental impacts in a highly urbanizing and residential area, but also provides a public amenity for the neighboring residences and businesses.

The result is a new public open space in two parts. The main site, called the Woodlawn Open Space, includes plazas, public art, native and adaptive plantings, a meandering dry cobble swale that collects stormwater runoff from the site and adjacent roofs, sedum green roofs, outdoor fitness stations, a basketball court, and a parkour course. The playground space is just across the street and includes a nature-inspired playground.


Extending the forest and climbing theme, the playground includes two terraces, one with a net climber and one with a tree house inspired play structure, both by Landscape Structures. The net climber, which is over 17 feet tall, is on the upper terrace and allows kids of all ages to see the views of the park and downtown Seattle.

The new playground is located on what was once a steeply sloping, one-third acre, asphalt parking lot. While built on a small site, the playground's recreational value extends far beyond its two main play structures. Every site feature was considered as an opportunity to maximize play, including the existing slopes and new retaining walls. Its grades and site accessibility were closely considered during the design and resulted in an accessible permeable concrete paver pathway that meanders through the playground and comfortably brings visitors though the 13 foot elevation change. Starting at the upper playground entrance, it leads to each different play pod and eventually connects to the Woodlawn Open Space across the street.

The design began with a community based, public process to help determine overall goals for the site design and to explore different design concepts. The community was especially excited to incorporate natural play elements into the topography of the playground. This led to a playground design inspired by Pacific Northwest forest elements, such as tree houses, logs, and climbing activities.


The northern area of the open space consists of two hillside lawns. Salvaged logs and large boulders lay scattered in one lawn as an informal extension of the play area using natural elements. This multifunctional space can be used for picnicking, parkour (free-running obstacle course), or story time gatherings. The second lawn is a bowl shaped, open lawn for passive recreation or unstructured play.

The site has two lawn areas: one open for unstructured play and the other with strategically placed logs and boulders to naturally extend the play space. The upper terrace is home to a 17-foot tall climbing net that provides views of the park, Queen Anne Hill, and downtown Seattle.

The lower terrace hosts a tree house inspired play structure. The two are connected by a custom log stepper wall designed for various levels of climbing ability, improvised play, and informal seating. The log stepper wall was sculpted by ID Sculpture and matches the aesthetic set by the tree house play structure. Two accessible overlooks are built into the wall, each surrounded by a custom guardrail inspired by the tree house theme. One overlook includes two periscopes that peek out over the park and playground, and the other overlook integrates a talk tube that is connected to the tree house play structure.


The tree house structure incorporates a slide, multiple climbing opportunities, and a bit of whimsy as kids discover animals and insects throughout the sculptural pieces. In addition to earning LEED Gold certification, the playground was given a Seattle Green Factor score of 0.4, indicating that roughly 40 percent of the site is landscaped.

A variety of picnic tables, benches, and low retaining walls are integrated throughout the playground and offer visitors plenty of space for seating and gathering. Ornamental deciduous and evergreen trees help provide shade to the seating areas and integrate seasonal interest. Native plantings, including ferns, azaleas, and fountain grasses, have grown in and mimic a Pacific Northwest forest around the playground, helping the site to meet LEED® Gold certification and achieve a Seattle Green Factor score of 0.4.

Taken as a whole, the playground is a great example of how small spaces and challenging sites can integrate innovation and extend play opportunities for kids of all ages and abilities.

As seen in LASN magazine, February 2018, Playground.

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November 19, 2019, 10:24 pm PDT

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