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Margate Playground -- How Ordinary Became Extraordinary

By Deb Mitchell, FASLA, JJR principal

The conceptual site plan for the play area shows the equipment layout (Landscape Structures and Kompan); custom art locations; site amenities (benches--DuMor Model 93, drinking fountains--Haws, picnic tables--Wabash Valley, waste receptacles--Victor Stanley Bethesda S42); paving ('El Campo' from Unilock); custom fencing and the landscaping.

It all started with Susan Bernhardt, a mother of three young children, an artist and printmaker. She wanted a beautiful playground in her neighborhood so she didn't have to get in the car and drive the kids to play. After speaking with her alderman, Mary Ann Smith, Susan was appointed to head a committee of volunteers to "design the best playground you can imagine." She did her homework, driving with her children to almost 50 different playgrounds around the region to find out what equipment the kids liked. It was particularly important to her to find new and different equipment to feature at Margate, as well as incorporating art components.

To bring the playground to realization, Susan worked with Mike McHale and the Margate Park Advisory Council to organize a volunteer committee which collaborated with the Chicago Park District (CPD) to bring the playground to fruition. Ward Alderman Mary Ann Smith provided generous funding towards the 14,000 square foot play area for toddlers through elementary school-age children, and she worked with community members to get additional funding from the CPD. "Families must have high caliber schools and the world's most beautiful parks," asserted Smith. "We have to make it possible for young families to afford to live here."

Security was an important design consideration for Margate, as the playground is close to busy Lake Shore Drive. There is also a nearby bike path and a tunnel that leads to the lakefront. An ornamental steel fence surrounds the park and a single gateway, adorned with large metal butterflies, is situated at the furthest point from Lake Shore Drive. The playground has an open design, with all areas readily visible from within and from outside the fence.

"We had a lot of creative freedom and a good-sized budget," said Anne Miller, CPD project manager. Miller developed the request for proposals for a landscape architecture firm, managed the project design process and listened to competing interests, while keeping the goal of a great playground in mind. The CPD commissioned the Ann Arbor Mich. firm JJR to design the playground and involved the Chicago Public Art Group (CPAG) to fulfill the art component. "We had a really good team from the very beginning," Miller said. "They did a great job of working together."

Imaginative Play Empowers Children

Ben Kutscheid, the JJR project manager, brought a deep understanding of playground design to the project. He articulates the design purpose of Margate Playground as "a stimulating environment that fosters physical, social and dramatic play for children of all abilities--and is fun." By incorporating all three types of play into the design, Margate enhances a child's play experience on all levels.

A central gathering area, thematically known as the "pond" is accented by three large insect metal sculptures--a bee, a dragonfly and a butterfly--mounted on poles above the pond. Vivid green and blue shades of rubber play surfacing represents land and water. The lighting fixtures are from Quality Lighting, the poles from Traditional Concrete, Inc.

Physical play improves coordination, as well as strengthening arms and legs for improved balancing, swinging, climbing, sliding and turning abilities. Climbing events, a mixture of vertical and horizontal play elements and multiple spring toys all add to the physical play experience. Social play helps children develop teamwork and social interaction skills. To encourage socialization, the design provides meeting spaces, interaction points, and play equipment requiring multiple children to operate. Dramatic play provides children the ability to develop imagination and expand the creative centers of the mind through play. Whimsical elements create a playground for the imagination.

Collaboration Elevates Design

After receiving input from the community and CPD, Kutscheid led an internal charrette inviting all JJR staff to participate in an open dialogue about the playground's design. John Pounds, CPAG director, joined the group as a special guest. "The Park District's willingness to test a new look in playground design was the critical first step," said Pounds.

The mosaic-accented seatwall and planter contains perennials and three newly-planted American beech trees that will eventually bring more shade and vertical structure to the play area. Preserving the massive elm tree next to the planter was a priority and influenced the planter's design.

"It was exciting to hear all the different ideas and realize that I would be responsible to do my part in achieving a built park that would do justice to the time and effort we were all extending," observed Nichole Sheehan, a landscape architect on the JJR Margate team.

Having Jon Pounds at the charrette was essential. Without him, the playground's art design could easily have been met with a sculpture created independent of the playground and placed after its completion. Instead, the JJR team and CPAG artists worked together to develop a uniquely integrated pond theme custom-made for and with community members.

The six to twelve year old playing area. The soft tiles and poured-in-place surfacing are from SofSURFACES.

Numerous design themes were developed and enthusiasm quickened as sketches appeared on trace paper. Several alternative concepts were developed and presented to the community including a pond theme, a snake theme and a bridge theme. After meeting with the community, the pond theme was the chosen favorite. The pond theme references Margate's proximity to Lake Michigan, including the design of plant and animal forms associated with the surrounding ecology and water life.

Natural Elements Infuse Design with Life

The "pond" was created by varying the colors of the seamless rubber play surface. Vivid green and blue shades loosely representing land and water are accented by deep brown stepping stones.

The large play structures, including swings, rings and some spring toys are from Landscape Structures.

A limestone boulder edge is placed at the perfect height for seating. Artist Roman Villareal's limestone sculptures of a fish, a frog, a snail, and a turtle rest in a portion of the pond set aside for very young children. Perfectly proportioned for toddler play, the stone sculptures invite nestling into a quiet niche in the park. A pier allows children to fish in the pond and talk to or perform for the limestone sculptures or patient parents perching on them.

Margate Park enables children of all abilities to access the upper decks of the play structures. Other accessibility accommodations include molded bucket swings and concrete ramps that wind through the landscape.

A seatwall functions as a planter for three newly planted American beech trees which will eventually bring more shade and natural vertical structure into the play area. Preserving the massive elm tree next to the planter was a priority and the design was arranged to protect this beloved tree.

'Art Receptive' Details Lead to Smooth Implementation

Artist Jim Brenner created overhead a nonferrous metal sculpture of swarming butterflies to greet playground visitors as they enter the playground. JJR designed the entry way so that the section with the sculptures integrate into the fence and gate fabric.

The limestone outcroppings at the pond provide informal seating and areas for quieter play. The overlapping metal screens of the five to-six foot wingspans of the bugs create fascinating moire patterns against the sky and interesting ground shadows.

With the help of community volunteers, ceramic artist Corinne Peterson designed a beautiful mosaic set into a curvilinear concrete retaining wall at the back edge of the playground. The mural colorfully depicts underwater life as imagined by neighborhood children and adults who created some of the elements in the design.

Mosaic artist Ginny Sykes led another team of volunteers fabricating ceramic tile and handmade ceramic elements. The mosaic design alternates geometric and organic shapes, wrapping around a large circular seatwall. The vivid colors of the mosaic tiles attract users of all ages to this gathering space in the center of the playground.

Artist Roman Villareal's limestone sculptures of a fish, a frog, a snail and a turtle rest in the pond and are a favorite of the young children. The mother and son are standing on an 8-inch elevated "pier."

Deeper into the playground, three giant bugs--a bee, a dragonfly and a butterfly --are mounted on poles above the pond. The overlapping metal screens forming the five to six-foot wingspans for these insect sculptures create fascinating moire patterns against the sky and ground shadows. The poles were all detailed to fit the sculptures easily upon installation.

Margate--a Playground for Everyone

JJR's project team placed particular emphasis on universal accessibility and the playground took into consideration many unique needs. Accessible, molded bucket swings were incorporated into the swing set to accommodate adults and special needs children. Concrete ramps that wind through the landscape enable children of all abilities to access the upper decks of the play structures. Margate Playground exceeds the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act Accessibility Guidelines.

In the tot area, fire trucks and other whimsical elements from Kompan create a playground for the imagination.

"We designed Margate to be inclusive," said Kutscheid. "It's important to make a playground where children with special challenges can interact with children who don't have those challenges. The experience needs to be exciting for all children."

With the close proximity of Margate to Lake Shore Drive, a tunnel to the lakefront and a bike path, the playground's perimeter needed to be secure. This was accomplished by surrounding the playground with an ornamental steel fence. The single entrance was situated at the furthest point from Lake Shore Drive, the tunnel and the bike path and adjacent to the field house with necessary facilities. Caregiver seating was also placed around the perimeter and at the single entrance to keep "eyes on the playground."

Margate Is a Destination

On a recent visit to Margate, its most important critics were polled. Six-year-old Sky gave a dissertation on her favorite elements of the playground. The fire truck is her favorite--well, the swings, too, are her other favorite. The limestone frog is her third and final favorite.

Jude, three (and a half) also liked the swings but pointed at the play surface when asked to name his absolute favorite feature of the playground. Parents also had comments about the play surface.

Ceramic artist Corinne Peterson designed a colorful mosaic mural depicting underwater life set into this curvilinear concrete retaining wall at the back edge of the playground. Neighborhood children and adults helped create some of the design elements. "Look! I made this tile."

Doug, whose toddler literally ran in circles around him as he spoke, commented: "Margate is the nicest playground in our neighborhood." He elaborated that the soft play surface makes him feel more comfortable letting his young daughter run freely.

What would users change about Margate? Jane, mother of two, would like to see more shade trees. Eight-year-old Devon would like a water park and a horse. Clearly, the imaginative play is working!

Most comment that Margate feels like a haven, a small world nestled within the big city. "Margate is a really unique play environment that leaves an impression," says Anne Miller of CPD. "It has become a destination for people on the north side."

Susan Bernhardt is thrilled with the results. "I was particularly happy with the community involvement in the mosaic. Public art enriches children's imaginations and makes their play experience unique to this space. It's really gratifying that people now drive to our playground."

A team of volunteers created mosaic tiles and mosaic artist Corinne Peterson led another team of volunteers fabricating ceramic tile and handmade ceramic elements.

"We stopped by Margate Playground tonight after having ice cream, and I wish I had brought my camera," reads a blog entry of Lucy Gray, mother and teacher.

"It is an ideal playground ... beautiful and very family friendly. I really liked the diversity of people there. All sorts of sizes, shapes, and ethnic groups were represented, sort of what you'd see in children's book on kids and cultures ... everyone living in harmony. It was representative of what we all hope the world would look like. There were no divisions of people. Children had brought us together to enjoy playtime and a beautiful evening. I left the park feeling good about the world."

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December 14, 2019, 7:42 am PDT

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