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Into the Trees:
A Custom Forest-Inspired Playground in Arlington, Texas

by John Fain, ASLA, LEED AP, DFL Group, LLC & University of Texas, Arlington, Landscape Architecture Program

The forest-Inspired River Legacy Park playground in Arlington, Texas does have some traditional play pieces, swings with toddler buckets, for instance, but everything else is customized, like the tree slides, the Inclined Web Crawler, and the glass fiber reinforced concrete bee.

When we were youngsters our parents taught us to respect the very young and the elderly.

"You were one of them once, and you'll be the other one day," I remember my mother saying. Now that I am one of "the others" it seems I have become more and more focused on helping young people play. I have devoted most of my 30 plus years as a landscape architect to park planning and design. I often wonder what led me down this path. I am certain one reason is that I can think of no other sound more splendid than a child's laughter.

Sculpted concrete tree trunks are a unifying motif throughout the playground.

Into the Woods
What parent or grandparent doesn't recall charging off into the woods and meadows to explore nature's wonderful gifts? We would climb trees, jump from boulders, catch bullfrogs, dive into ponds, chase rabbits .... and never worry about catching poison ivy or getting scared off by snakes. Sadly, it seems those days are gone forever. Children can no longer wander away from home in the morning and return hours later without taking a cell phone. And when they do venture onto the latest playgrounds, they are greeted with fences and warning signs and fall surfaces and clearance zones. Is "King of the Hill" allowed any longer? Have you seen a rope swing lately? I've read that some cities and schools are now banning dodge ball. It's a wonder kids enjoy playing outside at all these days.

Kids just love dinosaurs, probably because they're just plain big and scary. That they're extinct further inspires children's imaginations. The Trinity River Valley's prehistoric past is reflected in the reinforced concrete dinosaur climber.

Dedicated to Nature
So when the city of Arlington, Texas asked The DFL Group and The Landscape Alliance to design a new and creative playground in River Legacy, their premier park, we jumped at the chance. It seemed we had all the ingredients we needed to design something special....the perfect site, the ideal program and a client that understood the potential. River Legacy is Arlington's largest park (1,031 acres). Situated along the Trinity River in north Arlington, the park reaches across its entire border, touching three other north Texas cities. Fourteen miles of trails wind through largely undisturbed forests, fields and wetlands, allowing park users endless opportunities to interact with a natural river ecosystem. Organized active recreation like softball, soccer and tennis are not permitted in the park. The park is dedicated to nature, and related activities are constantly promoted by the city and the River Legacy Foundation, a private body that encourages education, recreation
and preservation.

"We wanted to do something exciting, something different, something special," explains landscape architect Kurt Beilharz, the Arlington Park project manager. "We quickly assembled a design team, including city staff and GameTime, a private playground manufacturer, to begin planning the playground. The challenge was obvious: How could we truly incorporate a natural play experience and at the same time respect the laws and regulations that sometimes encumber creativity?"

GameTime's PlayWorx division took the vision of landscape architects John Fain and Gary Kutilek to create a fully enclosed, vinyl-coated cable net system tunnel that takes children up into the tree canopy.

Into the Canopy
We visited several "nature" playgrounds and saw the latest glass fiber-reinforced concrete sculptures. Several parks in the area had structures that resembled trees set in an open lawn surrounded by wood chips, but that somehow didn't seem "natural." And we read about the latest efforts to bring play into a natural environment, particularly in Europe, but these also lacked opportunities for real interaction. That is when team member and landscape architect Gary Kutilek suggested we elevate the playground up into the trees. Everyone immediately realized the potential for such a design. We talked about several options, but the one clear element we agreed on was a suspended vinyl-coated cable tunnel system winding though the treetops. Since the trees were not a part of the organized play space, just an untouched grove of river bottom cottonwoods, the major challenge was to protect kids on such a playground. With no fall surface under the tunnels, it was clear the tunnels had to be totally enclosed.

The custom play sculptures mimic a forest landscape, including the center piece, a large tree with four slides and custom rock and vine climbers.

Once children were inside the tunnels, it had to be impossible for them to fall out. Perched almost 12 feet above the protected playground below, children in this upper tree canopy environment would be completely out of reach. The geometric spacing of the cables allows parents to see into the tunnels. And while the tunnels are clearly marked "Secret, No Grownups," adults can access the tunnels if needed. Although the playground is complete, we intend to strengthen and restore the riparian forest vegetation. Additional bur oaks and cedar elms have been planted, and park staff will add coralberry, inland sea oats and other natives in the fall. The design also allows staff to expand the tunnels.

The tunnels disappear into the native forest of river bottom cottonwoods. Plantings of bur oaks and cedar elms supplemented the woodland tree species. The park staff will add coralberry, inland sea oats and other native trees in the fall. Beyond the playground are 14 miles of trails winding through largely undisturbed forests, fields and wetlands along the banks of the Trinity River in northern Arlington, Texas.

A perfect extension and connection to the tunnels are the reinforced concrete tree trunks. Custom built with extraordinary detail by GameTime, they include seven slides, climbers, secret spaces, spyglasses and talk tubes, an endless variety of opportunities for children to talk, play and interact. There are also hidden animals, all native to the area--lizards, raccoons and bobcats. Another learning opportunity is a piece that plays recorded animal sounds of the Trinity ecosystem. More of a traditional play space, this area does include an engineered wood fiber fall surface. The playground does include some traditional pieces. How can you build a playground without swings? But what makes the playground special are the elevated tunnel pathways. This is a place for kids to safely climb up into the trees and explore nature's gifts. It allows children to play in a natural environment again. And if it has to be structured and pass all the safety tests, what better example than the River Legacy Parks playground?

This shaded area provides welcome relief from the hot Texas sun, and a view of a local denizen, the bobcat. River Legacy Parks has a Bobcat blog to record sightings of the wild felines.

The success of this project was obvious even before construction was complete. Children, aged 6 to 60 watched the entire operation and stood in line for the opening. Even before that, the word was out and other cities began planning similar projects. All it took was a municipality with the foresight and resolution to try something different, a consulting team with the creative skills to present the ideas and a manufacturer that had the technical experience to put it together.We knew we'd done it right when a parent wrote, "I want to play up there!" Well, he'll have to wait for another day.

From rendering to reality. The smaller tree trunk slide let's the younger children who might be intimidated by the larger tree slides join in the fun.

Design Team
- Kurt Beilharz, ASLA, city of Arlington, Texas
- Gary Kutilek, Landscape Architect, The Landscape Alliance
- John Fain, ASLA, DFL Group, LLC, and the University of Texas Arlington
- GameTime (PlayWorx)
Briana Morrison, LEED AP, Associate ASLA, city of Arlington, Texas
GameTime, Playground Construction
JDK Walls Inc., General Contractors
Other Consultants
- MJ Wright and Associates, Architects
- Winkelmann & Associates, Engineers and Surveyors
- Yaggi Engineering, Electrical Engineers
- Cawyer & Associates, Accessibility Consultants

Concrete jump pads replicate the umbrella-shaped pileus of toadstools, another link to the playground's nature theme.

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November 13, 2019, 7:14 pm PDT

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