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Helen Diller Playground
San Francisco, California

Steven Kirn, TimberForm

Helen Diller Playground, a $3.5 million installation in Mission Dolores Park overlooking downtown San Francisco, replaced a small play area built in the 1920s and haphazardly maintained for most of a century. Today, the playground spans one acre and features multiple levels, slides, a 60-foot-long pedestrian bridge and customized musical play equipment.
Credit: Koch Landscape Architecture

In March, San Francisco's 14-acre Mission Dolores Park became the new home to the Helen Diller Playground, an urban play area filled with customized features that hundreds of local children, school groups and parents now use on a daily basis.

The new play area replaced a small playground built in the 1920s in a converted wading pond that had been filled with sand to create a soft base for climbing structures and slides.


The custom "mound slide" (Columbia Cascade) provides a six-foot-wide, 30-foot-long space for children and families to ride down in tandem. Custom stainless steel hoops and "Spirelli" Climbing Poles (Urban Design Berlin) are anchored into the safety surfacing (Tot Turf) for other play options.


For decades, the former pool would flood after rainstorms from surface runoff and groundwater seeps. Despite the flooding, the playground carried on until its last injection of public capital in the mid-1980s. Laden with lead paint and caustic wood preservatives, the playground was finally closed and demolished.

By the time local officials cut the ribbon and opened the new play area on March 31, 2012, the drainage issues were resolved, the new slides and climbing features took full advantage of the hilly topography San Francisco is famous for, and groves of palms and shade trees nestled the play space comfortably into the park's terrain. After nine months of construction and $3.5 million invested, the playground is once again the main attraction for families from the Mission and Castro Districts, and has become a destination playground for the region.


Custom climbing nets (Landscape Structures) were installed in the "slice of the pie" left out of the central mound. The wall beneath the climbing net is covered in a vertical faux-boardform finish (Fitzgerald Formliners) and climbing holds (Passe Montagne Climbing Systems).
Photo Credits: KLA


The property that Mission Dolores Park inhabits has a long and colorful past, beginning with the Yelamu tribe that lived in the area prior to the arrival of Spanish missionaries in the late 18th century. After the great earthquake and fire of 1906, the site served as a temporary tent city for 1,600 refugees who lost their homes. Dolores Park is dedicated to Miguel Hidalgo, the father of Mexican independence; the park's name was borrowed from his hometown of Dolores Hidalgo, Guanajuato, Mexico.


Drill marks and chiseled handholds offer varying levels of difficulty to climbers of all abilities on this custom granite climbing structure, installed between freestanding net climbers and the "Super Chute." The roughhewn Sierra White blocks were furnished and assembled by Coldsprings Granite.


Koch Landscape Architecture (KLA) was commissioned by the Friends of Dolores Park Playground to design a "world class urban playground" as a tribute to the San Francisco philanthropist Mrs. Helen Diller. The Mercer Foundation, which contributed $1.6 million to the project to honor Diller, mandated the use of as many natural materials as possible, such as wood, stone and plant material; also, to avoid the use of plastics, inordinately startling colors and explicitly-themed play equipment that limits free association and imaginative play. The rest of the project was funded through park bonds, city budget money and private donations.

The design team conducted several community workshops that elicited creative input from the neighborhood children and parents, and promoted interest and personal investment in the park among locals. After reviewing many options, KLA developed an imaginative, child-centric play environment that met Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) playground safety guidelines. The design integrates the steep terrain and as many plantings as possible, with many customized play elements to meet the community's expectations of uniqueness.


A boulder retaining wall backed by Phormium 'Yellow Wave' plantings provides a barrier and backdrop to the toddler area. Site boulders were strategically placed throughout the playground to provide additional climbing/seating features and encourage nature-based play. The customized "small play boat" in the toddler area (one of two wheelchair-accessible play boats on site) features a precast concrete shell, wood decking and stainless steel rails.

Photo Credits: KLA


One of the flagship features is a narrow and sinuous 40-foot-long 'Super Slide' that stretches down the hillside and offers great panoramic views of the cityscape. The slide is the "high point" of the playground, and provides an elevation change of nearly 30 feet. Anyone that climbs up the boulders or rubber surfacing area to the entrance is in for a wild ride.


Vertical chimes, a metallophone, and freestanding tubes crafted into colorfully-capped drums (Freenotes Harmony Park) are highlights of the 'sound grove,' where kids can bash away to their heart's content. In the background, the 60-foot long customized pedestrian bridge (GatorBridge) hangs over a walkway.


Mounds of Fun
The focal point of the main level of the play area is a 10-foot-tall raised play mound. The top of the mound can be reached via an accessible sidewalk, an elevated bridge or climbing nets. At one end of the bridge, near the stairs to the Super Slide, is seating that overlooks the play environment for parents and supervisors. Boulders and vegetation were added to the backside of the mound to blend the mound with its surrounding environment. A customized 60-foot-long pedestrian bridge provides an accessible route to the top of the mound for persons with mobility impairments to join the play at a high elevation. The bridge provides a challenge as children walk from the lookout area over to the top of the raised mound. After the kids conquer the mound, a 30-foot-long and 6-foot-wide stainless steel "mound slide" occupies another area, and is large enough for friends or entire families to slide down together. Steps also provide easy access back to the top for those disinclined to climb.


Riders on the Super S-curved Chute (KLA/Columbia Cascade) wind their way down 30 feet of hillside on one 53-foot-long piece of custom-built stainless steel. Safety surfacing and naturalistic boulders (Syar) help children who don't want to take the stairs climb back up the hill for another ride.
Photo Credits: KLA


Climb, Any Way Possible
The combination of climbing options on the play mound and at the playground provide graduated levels of challenge, so that climbers of all experience and ability levels can have fun.

One section of the mound - a "slice of pie" - is carved out as its own play area, enclosed by a climbing net and adjacent to other net structures. The climbing net built into the mound has openings to allow children entry the cut out section, where a small climbing wall presents another challenge. The climbing ropes are anchored to the rubber surfacing and offer hand support while climbing up the slope. The rubberized surface of the mound also provides a cushioned surface to crawl up and roll down around the slide and other climbers.


Helen Diller's lifetime of philanthropic work led the Mercer Foundation to donate $1.6 million to the playground's construction in her name. Helen Diller Playground opened on March 30, 2012, after nine months of construction.

Photo Credit: KLA


The wooden play sculpture near the mound, also designed by KLA, provides another unique climbing challenge for adventurous kids. The artistic form of the "timber towers" provides children with carved hand and foot holds to climb vertically as well as laterally. The natural materials reflect the landform shapes within and around the play space.
Roughhewn 'Sierra White' granite blocks were used to create a sculptural stone climbing structure along the lower perimeter of the main play area, at the base of the larger slide. Designed by KLA, the blocks offer a realistic rock climbing experience. Children less experienced can climb the smaller boulders in the area, which provide graduated levels of challenge as children learn to master the movement of their bodies across the rock face.


The custom "timber towers" climbing structure are notched and grooved for children interested in seeing the view from the top. The staggered heights and levels of the wooden forms make it possible for climbers of all ages to try their luck.

Photo Credit: KLA


Preschool Playspace
The preschool area is separated from the larger area by a wide walkway. A much smaller version of the "hillside" slide is one of the features of this play environment.

Climbing opportunities include an easy set of stairs; a rubber incline on one side of the slide; a looped climbing pole, and a rock-climbing wall. These activities provide access between the two tiers of the playground while providing the opportunity to climb up, be inclined forward and backwards, as well as laterally. Climbing also encourages problem solving as children learn to "map out" their route of travel.

The addition of a musical 'sound grove' near the climbing area was also an instant hit with 2-5-year-olds, as well as children with mobility issues and those with sight impairments. The sensory-rich space features a variety of opportunities for the children to create sounds by using chimes and drums.


The renovation included installation of a new irrigation system, security site lighting and a subsurface drainage system below the play matting to collect and direct water runoff from rain and irrigation. Water management was a major concern for the design team, as the original play area was constructed in a converted wading pool that was prone to flooding.

Photo Credit: Public Laboratories


The original playground featured a boat that children and adults loved to sit and play on. This playground recalls that feature with two wheelchair-accessible boats, one for toddlers and one designed for older children. Nestled into the hillside, the toddler-area boat is complemented by a captain's wheel, telescope, and a "crew's quarters" that bridges the gap between the upper and lower level of the playground.

The sand area is set off from the active play environment to enable children to experience "immersive play," where they can become so involved in their creations that they lose focus on their surroundings and distractions. Boulders and natural elements that the children can sit on and build from surround this play area.

Through the efforts of Koch Landscape Architecture, Prometheus Development, the Mercer Foundation, the San Francisco Parks Alliance, the Friends of Dolores Park Playground, the San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department and all the residents who positively participated in the visioning workshops, a world class urban play environment is now open and available for San Francisco locals.


A separate area for swings is at the lower boundary of the playground, surrounded by a local plant palette. Five open-belt swings and one therapeutic swing seat with a head support (Columbia Cascade) were installed along the perimeter of the playground. Children can swing while looking out across the park, as if swinging over an edge, or face the playground with a view of the entire play area.


Project Team:
Client: San Francisco Parks Alliance
Donor: The Mercer Foundation
Donor's Rep/Construction Mgr: Mack5
Owner: San Francisco Recreation And Parks
Design Team:
Landscape Architect / Prime Design Consultant:
Koch Landscape Architecture
Associate Landscape Architect: Merrill Morris Partners
Play Consultant: Site Masters, Inc.
Civil Engineer: Lea And Braze Engineering
Structural Engineer: Abht Structural Engineers
Electrical Engineer/Lighting Designer: Reyes Engineering
City-Provided Services:
Geotechnical: San Francisco Department of Public Works, Bureau of Engineering
Surveyor: San Francisco Department Of Public Works, Bureau of Street Use And Mapping
Right of Way Engineer: San Francisco Department of Public Works
Hydraulics Engineer: San Francisco Dept. of Public Works
General Contractor: Bauman Landscape & Construction

Vendor List:
Coldsprings Granite: Custom Granite Climber
Columbia Cascade: Swings, Custom Slides, Custom Wood Sculpture, Custom Site Benches
Fitzgerald Formliners: Faux-Boardform Finish Formliners
Freenotes Harmony Park: Freestanding Drums, Chimes, Metallophone
Gatorbridge: Custom 60' Span Bridge
Haws Corporation: Drinking Fountains
Hi-Spy Viewing Machines: Viewing Binoculars
Hunter Industries: Irrigation
Hydrel: High Mast Flood Lights
Kompan: Rotating Riders And Toddler Spinners
Landscape Structures: Custom Net Climbers
Lymon Whitaker: Kinetic Art Sculpture
Passe Montagne Climbing Systems: Climbing Holds
Prisma Architectural Lighting: Direct Burial Signage Lighting
Reliance Foundry Co.: Retractable Bollards
Syar Industries: Site Boulders
Tot Turf: Play Surfacing
Urban Design Berlin: Three-Rail Slide, Climbing Poles

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October 23, 2019, 9:52 pm PDT

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