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Going Green is Easy as Child’s Play

By Ann Warren, HGOR writer

Granite boulders double as seating for parents and play for children. Incorporating this natural element into the design helps connect the playground to the natural setting of Piedmont Park.
Photo: HGOR


On September 1st last year, about 100 people gathered on the site of a new playground about to be unveiled in Atlanta’s Piedmont Park. As a Boundless Playground®, it was designed to be inclusive of children of all abilities, enabling them to interact, learn and play side by side. The project would also include a new green restroom facility, helping replace the outdated restrooms of the nearby historical bathhouse that would not be renovated for another few years.

The playground is designed for parents and children to interact together. Here, Dad (builder Chris Howell of Brock Built) helps his son play the drums. Standing to the right, an older child has just as much fun on the same piece of play equipment.
Photo: HGOR

The unveiling of the playground was part of local ABC affiliate WSB TV’s “Extreme Green Makeover,” a prime time special that was part of its Going Green campaign, an initiative designed to transform Georgia into a more sustainable state by encouraging others to become environmentally responsible.

On the morning of the ceremony, families with children of all ages and abilities were anxiously standing by, cheering “Let’s go play,” literally waiting for the curtain to fall and the playground to open.

Although it all came off without a hitch, the road leading up to the momentous and celebratory occasion wasn’t so easy. The work that went into the creation of Mayor’s Grove Restrooms and Playground required wholehearted commitment from a multitude of partners in a very short period of time.

Children of all abilities can play together on the playground. The Lily Pods are used for swinging and balance, from either a seated or standing position.
Photo: HGOR

The Project Begins

Earlier that year, WSB TV approached Piedmont Park Conservancy, the non-profit organization charged with preserving Piedmont Park, with its idea for the green makeover. The station’s proposal was to follow the creation of an environmentally-friendly project in the park from start to finish, and create a special television program to showcase the effort. Presented with this incredible opportunity, Debbie McCown, president and CEO of the Conservancy, met with her team to identify possible projects.

Although there were already plans for several new all-accessible playgrounds as part of the Park’s 53-acre expansion project starting in 2008, the park’s only existing playground had become outdated and unfortunately wasn’t slated for any renovations. McCown had found the perfect candidate.

Her first step was to call Robert (Bob) T. Hughes, ASLA, a principal of HGOR, a national landscape architectural firm headquartered in Atlanta, to vet the idea. “Over the years, Bob has been instrumental in developing Piedmont Park’s sustainability policy,” McCown said.

HGOR has a long history of support for Piedmont Park. As chair of the Conservancy’s capital improvements committee, Hughes saw another opportunity to help support the park and advance its sustainable elements. He gave his seal of approval and agreed to take on the project pro bono.

“We knew an inclusive, green playground would resonate with the Piedmont Park community,” said Hughes.

A mom helps her daughter move from one Lily Pod to another.
Photo: Sarah Shanks, Piedmont Park Conservancy

Without Limits

The decision to make the playground a Boundless one was easy. A few miles away, the well-respected non-profit organization had designed the city’s first Boundless Playground several months earlier, and it was met with much success.

When the organization got the call for this project, it was thrilled at another chance to make a difference in Atlanta.

“Atlanta has embraced the concept of inclusiveness,” said Monique Farias, senior technical services specialist with Boundless Playgrounds. “Piedmont Park is a perfect location for children and families, since play is all about an experience. Mayor’s Grove Playground is in a natural setting. The park’s trees, the different textures of pathways, the lake – they all play a part in your adventure.

The playground allows for both independent and cooperative play. As children move, they are also gathering sensory information. Diversity in movement sensations and experiences helps them acquire proficiency in motor skills and sensory integration.
Photo: HGOR

Time Crunch

After receiving input from various members of the community, construction began on a much-accelerated timeframe. WSB TV’s production schedule was tight, with a hard deadline of September 1. Design started in May, allowing a mere four months for the project to be completed, start to finish. Site construction began July 1, and equipment construction followed soon thereafter on August 1.

By the time construction was underway, workers were putting in full days in 100 degree plus heat. Just a week from the deadline, it rained almost every day for the entire last week. In spite of the various challenges with which the team was faced, the project was completed, incredibly, by the first of September.

Christina Carlisle, HGOR landscape architecture project manager for the site, knew how much needed to get done in such a short time frame. “Our role was to design the hardscape and landscape areas, which included the pavement, seating walls, granite edging and surfacing of the playground, as well as all the planting materials. We had about six weeks to design the site, less than half the time we typically need.”

The rest of the partners were feeling the pressure as well. “Nine to 18 months is typical for a Boundless Playground to reach completion,” said Farias. “I have never completed a project this quickly or been a part of one so organized.”

The Triple Race Slide is fun play for all ages and encourages socializing and competing on the playground. Even parents and caretakers can be part of the fun and race down the slide with the kids. The Look Down Panel to the left of the slide angles out over the playground. Children can “hang out” suspended over the ground by a clear Lexan panel, which gives them a feeling of risk and adventure. This allows for interaction between the elevated play structure and the ground level component.
Photo: HGOR

Designing the Site

When HGOR set out to design the site, Carlisle made sure to consider the sustainable elements of each component.

Reuse of material from the old play site was the first step before tackling the new playground. Cypress bark mulch was removed and reused beneath existing trees in the park. Even the old playground itself is now being enjoyed in the backyards of other children throughout the city.

The new site was designed with granite edging around all the new pathways, which is standard for Piedmont Park. The granite used is a local material, cutting down on transportation energy, pollution and costs that would have been associated with materials brought in from other areas.

Granite seating and other decorative granite boulders were included as a way of integrating the site into the park’s natural setting. The granite “bench” eliminated the need for manufactured seats, further reducing the strains on the environment.

A key feature when designing a Boundless Playground is accessibility. The existing concrete sidewalk was reconfigured to allow a flush entry at the playground edge. The playground is now accessible to children on bikes, in strollers and in wheelchairs, enabling them to easily maneuver on to the play equipment area. The redesigned pathway allowed the same barrier-free access to the restrooms building and adjacent historic bathhouse, creating a stronger relationship between the various buildings.

Respecting the existing vegetation, the restrooms building only required the relocation of one small flowering tree to another location in the park. Construction was carefully staged and coordinated to protect root zones to ensure the livelihood of the vegetation.

A girl helps a fellow playmate up the Climbing Web and Stump Jump. Another girl makes it to the top to gain an aerial view of the kids at play.
Photo: HGOR

Native Plantings in the Face of a Drought

The choice of plantings was particularly a challenge because of the current drought Atlanta is experiencing. Native plantings would normally fare best in the ongoing maintenance and natural reproduction of the site’s vegetation. Because of the drought, however, choosing the most appropriate plantings for the project required a slight change of strategy.

Steve Sanchez, a principal at HGOR, has over 20 years experience specializing in native planting material as well as in planning and design solutions. For this project, he advised his team to choose native plantings which tolerate dry conditions once established. A proposed bioswale was designed with plants that could handle both wet and dry extremes, given the considerations of future drought years.

The vast majority of the chosen species are native to the Georgia Piedmont. Approximately one year after planting, they should not require additional watering. “Smart plant selection will be critical in creating a lasting landscape in Atlanta’s unpredictable weather,” Sanchez said.

After narrowing the list, other factors that influenced the final choices included watershed management, slope stabilization and aesthetics.

“Designers should never divorce themselves from the aesthetics of a landscape in the pure interest of the environment,” said Sanchez.

Plants of particular interest were Henry’s Garnet sweet spire (Itea virginica ‘Henry’s Garnet’), planted in the rain garden and little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) planted as a groundcover in place of the ubiquitous Liriope. These extremely adaptable plants can tolerate both dry and wet climates.

The Bounce Buttons help kids with balance and can also act as a bridge from one play area to another. Some of the buttons move and some are stationary, creating elements of anticipation and surprise. Kids can sit or stand on them, bounce up and down or walk across them.
Photo: Sarah Shanks, Piedmont Park Conservancy

Managing Water Flow

Decades of foot traffic have caused the soils of Piedmont Park to become heavily compacted. This has prevented on-site infiltration of stormwater in many of its areas. As a result, the park’s main water body, Lake Clara Meer, is experiencing erosion along its banks and a large amount of silt and sedimentation is polluting its water. In an effort to reduce the amount of runoff and improve the quality of the water entering the lake, the landscape architects found a bioswale, or rain garden, to be the perfect solution.

Creating this bioswale began with understanding the topography and the natural hydrology patterns of the site, then determining the most beneficial location for the feature.

Structured soil, a lightweight soil mix containing expanded shale, typically used on roof gardens or plantings on top of man-made structures, was used to amend the nutrient-poor soil and improve infiltration in the rain garden.

The biological processes of the plants within the rain garden help filter the water of pollution. A stand pipe allows for overflow drainage in the case of ground saturation after a heavy storm event. The overflow water is then carried through an underground pipe that feeds a second, lower rain garden. This vegetated swale of native plants is a second opportunity to filter out additional pollutants before the water is diverted into the lake.

Some of the native plants, such as Henry Garnet’s sweet spire, also help with the stormwater management. Part of the reason it was chosen is because of its rhizomatous nature that stabilizes the slope along the lake’s edge. Its underground stems grow horizontally, giving it a lot of root matter to lock down the soil and reduce erosion. This also helps to slow down stormwater and allow infiltration along the slopes of the playground site.

There is no permanent irrigation system in the rain garden, so all plantings are watered by hand or by rainfall. Piedmont Park is under the same watering restrictions as the rest of metro Atlanta, which currently means no outdoor watering with potable water except for new landscapes for the first 30 days after installation.

Piedmont Park Conservancy chief operating officer and project manager for the Mayor’s Grove project, Chris Nelson, explains how it has been able to maintain the new rain garden and surrounding habitat in light of the drought. “Piedmont Park has been using water from our lake, Lake Clara Meer, as an alternate source to keep the new plantings watered until proper establishment. We are also looking to install rain barrels and other grey water collection sources as alternative ways to fulfill our watering needs.”

The site plan for Mayor’s Grove Playground at Piedmont Park shows the improvements made to the area, including the materials to be used for the walking paths, the location of the new rain garden, and the areas scheduled for new landscaping.
Image: HGOR

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Play Time

After garnering input from the community to gauge what features were most important to them, the team made decisions on the unique play equipment that was to be included on site. One of the biggest challenges faced by the group was the small size of the play area. The site was about a third of a typical playground site.

Another obstacle was accommodating children of all ages. Whereas many playgrounds intend to serve either children under five years old or those aged five to twelve, this playground needed to serve both.

Because of these factors, the team prioritized what features would work best. The playground was designed to incorporate a diversity of movement sensations and experiences for children of all abilities.

Climbing walls, double and triple slides, swings, and drum and bell sets are all part of the play experience. Sign language and Braille panels are included on the equipment as well.

The rubberized surfacing made of recycled tires varies in depth from 1.5 to 3.5 inches, depending on the height of the play equipment. Here, the bouncy surface is 3.5 inches thick to protect children from falls.
Photo: Sarah Shanks, Piedmont Park Conservancy

All Playground Surfaces Are Not Created Equal

One of the more interesting green features of the site is a unique rubberized surface composed of 100 percent recycled tires, which removed, conservatively, 1,500 tires from landfills. These tires are shredded and then bonded with a polyurethane binding agent. The result is a completely pervious, unitary surface to allow penetration of stormwater.

The universally accessible surface, provided by Rubber Surfaces and Trails, is soft and bouncy enough to cushion falls from even the tallest playground equipment.

The surfacing depth varies according to different fall zones of the site, ranging from one and a half inches thick for a four foot fall height to up to three and a half inches thick for an eight foot fall height.

For the rain garden, HGOR chose native plantings that could handle both wet and dry weather conditions. Each of the plants seen here will help increase stormwater infiltration and improve the quality of the rainfall that will be redirected into Lake Clara Meer.

Becoming Green

In addition to the sustainable elements found on the playground footprint, the restrooms building was designed with the environment top of mind. In fact, the whole site is currently pursuing LEED® (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification from the U.S. Green Building Council.

The building was designed to be extremely energy-efficient. Occupancy sensors and daylighting in the building mean electrical lighting is used only when it needs to be, typically after the sun goes down. The building’s electricity consumption is reduced by approximately 30 percent.

The building also has new solar electricity generating panels that provide over 10 percent of the building’s electricity needs, and it boasts over 40 percent savings in overall water usage due to low-flow faucet aerators and “hands-free” timers.

Paint and other construction materials, such as adhesives and sealants, were selected with low volatile organic compounds (VOCs) to ensure that harmful chemicals were not being emitted inside the building. Air quality is much improved as a result.

Native plants of the project include: Itea virginica ‘Henry’s Garnet’, Panicum virgatum ‘Haense Herms’, Myrica cerifera ‘Don’s Dwarf’, Fothergilla major ‘Mt. Airy’, Schizachyrium scoparium ‘The Blues’, and Callicarpa americana.

The Role of Landscape Architects in LEED Certification

When aiming for LEED certification, the entire site of the building or structure is considered. Points are earned for meeting various criteria in five areas: sustainable site development, water savings, energy efficiency, materials selection and indoor environmental quality. The total number of points awarded earns LEED certification in one of four levels: certified, silver, gold or platinum.

“When pursuing LEED certification, a project can often be just a few points shy of achieving the desired LEED level,” Carlisle said. “In this case, the use of native, water-efficient plantings, preservation of green space, heat island reduction strategies and use of local materials all contributed solid LEED credits.”

The equipment is designed for children of all ages. Here, three boys play on the Loopy Whoop on opening day. The founder of Boundless Playgrounds®, Amy Jaffe Barzach, is in pink.
Photo: Sarah Shanks, Piedmont Park Conservancy

Creating Value

On the day of the grand opening, it was smiles all around. Partners of the project, stakeholders from the community, parents, children and the media were excited as could be to be part of something so big.

The playground has been extremely well-received and has strengthened the Park community, according to Monica Thornton, vice president, chief development and marketing officer. “In addition to providing a sustainable playground, we were able to educate families about the value of preserving our environment and how it can be something every person can easily incorporate into his or her life.”

Since its opening, McCown has seen usage of the playground increase four or five times over. Vans from children’s hospitals travel to the playground to offer their patients the opportunity to play and laugh with other children their age. Word is getting out about the playground, and the Park couldn’t be happier.

“We have created an important and meaningful gathering place for the Park and for the families of Atlanta,” McCown said. “And that’s what it’s all about.”

The Players

Piedmont Park Conservancy

  • Debbie McCown, President and CEO of Piedmont Park


  • Chris Nelson, Chief Operating Officer and Executive

Vice President

  • Darrel McCook, Director, PR and Special Events
  • Josh Rush, Public Relations Coordinator

Piedmont Park Advisory Committee – Pool and Bathhouse Subcommittee

  • Megan Missett
  • Jinger Simkins-Stuntz

City of Atlanta

  • Dianne Harnell Cohen, Commissioner of Parks,

Recreation and Cultural Affairs

  • Pat Katz, Landscape Architect

HGOR, pro bono

  • Robert T. Hughes, Principal
  • Steve Sanchez, Principal
  • Christina T. Carlisle, Project Manager

Boundless Playgrounds®

  • Monique Farias, Senior Technical Services Specialist

Southern Playgrounds, representing equipment manufacturer Playworld Systems

  • Pete Zirnheld, Sales Manager
  • Jim Nedig, Boundless Playgrounds® Coordinator

Smith Dalia Architects

  • Markham Smith, Principal
  • Robyn Zurfluh, Project Architect
  • Jimmarie Bou-Vincent, Project Architect
  • Jeff Ross-Bain, P.E., LEED A.P. Director of Green Building Initiatives

Silverman Construction Program Management

  • Arnold “Arnie” Silverman, President
  • Susan Simpson, Senior Project Manager

Brock Built, LLC, pro bono

  • Steve Brock, Owner
  • Chris Howell, Project Manager

Rubber Surfaces and Trails

  • Terry Harris, Owner

Caldwell Tree Care, pro bono

  • Kevin Caldwell, Owner, Certified Arborist

Georgia Power, pro bono

  • Lee Cronan, Jr., P.E., L.C. Principal Engineer

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October 17, 2019, 6:20 am PDT

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