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Lafayette's Landmark: San Francisco's Adventure Playground

Project by HAGS

The newly expanded Lafayette Park in San Francisco, Calif., includes a play structure with a 17-foot central tower structure, crawl tunnels, slides, climbing nets and a wooden footbridge. Viewing scopes at the top of the tower provide a conqueror's perspective of the surrounding area, as Lafayette Park sits atop one of the highest points in San Francisco on a two-square-block lot.

On June 28, 2013, residents of San Francisco's Pacific Heights neighborhood celebrated the opening of a new inclusive and nature-inspired play space at Lafayette Park, designed by Miller Company Landscape Architects. Working with firm principal Jeffrey Miller, Kit Steven and Miracle Playsystems, the team chose play equipment for the project from the Swedish brand HAGS. "HAGS is a distinctive brand of play equipment," said Steven. "Its simple, clean lines and usage of natural materials like wood and steel made it the perfect choice for this project."

"The notion is how to creatively design physical challenges. We find that playgrounds become repetitive so we wanted to create an experience that we felt was unlike other playgrounds," Miller said. The focus on designing a play experience inspired by the natural world landed Miller in another type of playground: a rock formation in Northwestern Montana.

More than 200 tons of Prichard Shale boulders were handpicked for the rock formation, which gives off earthy, warm colors during the day and reveals a blue-gray undertone at dusk. Many of the features are universally accessible; the rock mountain has a wheelchair transfer station and grab bars for traversing the stepped boulders.

Intrigued by the golden quality of Prichard shale, Miller observed how the russet and ochre-colored stone slabs gave off warm colors by day and reflected a blue-gray undertone at dusk. Miller's team photographed, sketched, and hand-picked more than 200 tons of boulders, shipped them back to Lafayette Park, and broke ground on a key feature of the play area now known as "The Gorge."

Lafayette Park stands on one of the highest points in San Francisco, overlooking Marin County from a lot spanning two square blocks. A perimeter of tall trees barricades Lafayette Park off from the urban bustle, creating a quiet and bucolic oasis in the city. "The inspiration was to create a natural setting at the core," Miller said.

Even the financing for the project was out of the ordinary. Lafayette Park was allocated $950,000 by the city in 2008 to build a new playground and expand the former 3,000 square foot lot to more than 13,000 square feet. Local residents created a Friends of Lafayette Park subgroup during planning, guiding the park's future and contributing more than $850,000 in donations to enhance the park's special features.

A community group formed to provide local guidance on the project, "Friends of Lafayette Park," supported a nature-based motif, and nearly doubled the city's original budget for the park's improvement with donations. HAGS custom play structures were selected in part for their use of low-impact, chemically untreated timber, enhancing the natural theme with sustainable practices.

Medieval Mischief
Intrepid new arrivals to the park have been stopped in their tracks by the 17-foot-high castle turret, which looks like it was transported to the S.F. Bay area from a misty medieval quest. From the view on top of this yellow turret, climbers can see out over the Lafayette Park neighborhood and widen their grasp of the coastal city they call home. Descending from the towering beacon, explorers cross a wooden footbridge that arches over a flowing creek, passing a giant serpent's head covered in freckled pebbles to mimic the pattern of snakeskin. The serpent shape rises up out of the ground to open up a crawl tunnel for small spelunkers.

The park play area includes many green construction components, including low water and low maintenance plantings, minimal asphalt, the reuse of existing playground materials, and the capture and use of storm water in the creek bed feature.

Stone transfer platforms support a 60-foot long raised creek, equipped with accessible pumps which children work to power the water flow. Miller wanted kids to experience the role pressure plays in transporting water, so he installed a modern disc pump and an "old fashioned" turning pump for experimentation. With smooth rubber surfacing, the creek offers accessibly through extended water tables to those in wheelchairs, and is built at a height so that kids in a chair can easily put their hands in the water. The Montana stone enhances the creek setting with muted red and gold hues.

In an age when imagination is too often muddled by the noise of media, Lafayette Park rescues young heroes and heroines from less creative forms of play and drops them into an adventure story, complete with crawl tunnels and climbing ropes. Free and open to the public, the playground at Lafayette Park reminds even the oldest among us that there is nothing more exciting than make believe, especially when a giant serpent and a towering castle are involved.

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October 13, 2019, 6:46 pm PDT

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