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Planning a Park With Playgrounds for Every Age

by Todd Rhoads, Vice President, Landscape Architect, ASLA, Stantec Consulting

Cost of Wisconsin
Playworld Came America
Playworld Came America

Stephenson Park is in Elk Grove, Calif., a newly incorporated city of 145,000 people just south of Sacramento. Located just south of the park's reflexology path are strength and cardio workout stations (Triactive America). The station machines comprise the backstretch, a single sit-up board, a pull-up and dip station, multi-bar s-shaped jump bars, double airwalker, rowing machine and two-person rotator.

In some parks, the idea of a "playground" is limited to one or two designated areas for ages ranging from 2 to 12.

For one park in Northern California though, planners and designers used a veritable "playground-driven philosophy" to meet the needs of a quickly growing community by keeping one simple goal in mind: Treat the entire park like a playground for users of every age.

Stephenson Park's reflexology path offers different rock materials, sizes and positionings. The flat rectangular granite pieces in the middle of the tan stones are resting stones. Reflexology paths date back 5,000 years, with origins in China, India and Egypt. Today, reflexology paths are commonplace in many Asian park designs, but the first public reflexology path wasn't developed in the U.S. until 2005 at the Bastyr Naturopathic University in Seattle. The idea is to walk barefoot on these strategically placed, uneven, polished stones. This applies pressure to different parts of the foot (acupressure) to stimulate its many acupuncture points. The handrails help walkers balance and control various foot positions.

Community with a Need
The Cosumnes Community Services District (CCSD) serves Elk Grove (pop. 145,000), a growing, thriving, newly incorporated Northern California city outside Sacramento. Despite a healthy base of established family neighborhoods and public service facilities, the CCSD needed park spaces that blended outdoor recreation and fostered community culture.

"One of the challenges for any new park in a new community is creating a sense of place," observed Paul Mewton, CCSD's chief of planning, design and construction. "Community identity is still forming and financing is sometimes limited to providing only base amenities that fulfill program requirements."

A water play seat wall (with parents in mind) and a water-spitting serpent (Water Snake by Water Odyssey) provides refreshing fun. The waterplay area surfacing is a nonpermeable resilient surfacing ("AquaFlex" by The Fibar Group). Wood fiber (Sun-Up) is also used in the play areas.

Mewton and his CCSD planning team facilitated a series of community workshops in 2006 to gather input from local residents and determine the essential needs for a park master plan. Noting the average age of the residents was 33, among the youngest for a U.S. community, park usage and appeal would need to evolve with that demographic in mind.

"We realized that it became essential to provide multigenerational recreational opportunities and attractions," said Mewton. "Families with young children using this park today will have very different interests and needs in 10 years."

Among the features envisioned were sports fields for recreational use, playground features for children, skateboard elements for teens, fitness amenities for adults and picnic areas for families and groups. The land allotment for the park was 7.9 acres and given the working name Bilby Meadows Park.

The "skate" play element in the foreground (Miram, from Kompan) has two boards that slide on rails via ball bearings. Children can sit, lie or stand on the boards. The triangular net and frame at each end is a resting spot. This element is set in PebbleFlex, a permeable surfacing. The manufacturer (Fibar) says the surfacing is UV light stable, which keeps the colors vibrant. The middle ground shows Geosculpt Easter Island climbers with ropes (Monolithic Sculpture, Inc.).

Staying to Plan
The CCSD vested the greater portion of June 2007 through June 2008 developing its construction documents, finalizing the dynamic of its master plan and securing the necessary permitting for Bilby Meadows Park. Among the evolving design goals was to create a sense of interactivity and learning throughout the playground features and other park amenities.

To support and execute their strategy, Mewton and his team enlisted the familiar support of Stantec and its Sacramento-based landscape architects, led by principal Paul Marcillac (a group which had supported CCSD on several previous park design projects). Among the critical prerequisites of the partnership was an attention to cost efficiency, sustainability and multigenerational appeal. Following a three and one-half year design and construction phase, the project was ready for the public. It was dedicated as Stephenson Park as a tribute to a local family of original community settlers.

Shade is provided by the blue, three-sided Parasol Sail (Poligon) and a 26' x 30' Wayside structure, both from Poligon. Colorful Egyptian motifs decorate the structure's cross beams. A barbecue island (the tan concrete block in front of the structure), horseshoe pits, 8 ft. concrete picnic tables (Outdoor Creations) and 6 ft. benches (Wabash Valley), with and without backs, black powder-coat black bike racks (Dumor), plus 32 gal. trash receptacles (Wabash Valley) are among the amenities. The sod here is a 90 percent dwarf fescue, 10 percent bluegrass mix.

Inviting Every Generation
In its finished state, Stephenson Park provided areas and amenities to cater to the varying lifestyles of the CCSD community.

The sand play area in the tot lot sports a Geosculpt Pyramid of Giza climbing rock (Burke). The children can excavate a shallow buried "sarcophagus" (Universal Precast). Surrounding the area is 24-signs on fence inlays displaying the hieroglyphic alphabet, accompanied by a translation key. The fencing establishes a secure, supervised play area, which is used by the nearby preschool.

From a Child's Eyes
Marcillac and his team carried out the CCSD vision of an Egyptian archeology-themed play area for children, with designated areas for 2 to 5-year-olds and children ages 5 through 12. Visually, a scaled pyramid climbing rock anchors the sandbox area with a shallow buried custom "sarcophagus" for children to excavate and discover.

Surrounding the area, 24-unilateral signs posted on fence inlays display the hieroglyphic alphabet. Researched carefully by the CCSD and Stantec design teams, with input from graphic artist Melinda Lang, the alphabet is accompanied by a translation key posted for children and parents in the play area, creating an educational and interactive element. The fencing also provides a secure supervised play area used by the adjacent preschool.

A large variety of static and dynamic play equipment offer opportunities for older children to challenge and develop their social and motor skills.

Safety surfacing designed to resemble a river (perhaps the Nile) provides visual connectivity between the play areas.
A centrally-located ancient Egyptian themed water play area anchors the two play areas for use by all age groups.

An artistic component of the Zen garden is the labyrinth paver pattern (The Labyrinth Co.) inspired by the Chartres Cathedral labyrinth. The eight circuit, 29 ft. dia. labyrinth features a central rosette and perimeter lunations. Path to line ratios are 4.5 to 1, as at Chartres. Behind the labyrinth is a glimpse of a section of the regional bike trail.

For the Teenagers
Skate elements designed for the skate plaza had teens in mind, providing an age-appropriate recreational outlet, while diverting skating activity from other areas of the park, often a source for surface wear and damage. Catering to teens and various age groups, the designers also included a Cal Ripken regulation-size baseball field, centered by a concrete plaza and two sets of dugouts and bleachers.

For the adults, a lifestyle of fitness and healthy living are conveyed throughout the park design, beginning with a meandering jogging trail that circumnavigates the park and intersects with the regional bike trail system. Several adult fitness stations are grouped within the park to provide cardiovascular and strengthening exercises.

While not a full-fledged skate park, Stephenson's has a skate plaza with a ramp and rail (Spohn Ranch, Inc.) and a table for area youth. The park was dedicated on May 27, 2010. The park's namesake is James Stephenson, who at age 21 in 1849 came to California during the Gold Rush, found his share of the precious metal, then gravitated to ranching, raised stock, started a dairy, then grew pears and became a banker.

A Family Destination
Several shade shelters with adjacent barbecue pits and horseshoe sand pits were positioned adjacent to play areas to provide space for family gatherings. Open spaces accented by seasonal color, grasses, and evergreen and deciduous trees provide pleasant settings for families to gather for less formal events.

The Egyptian theme at Stephenson Park is continued through signs posted on fence inlays that display the hieroglyphic alphabet. The designers also included a Cal Ripken baseball field, centered by a concrete plaza and two sets of dugouts and bleachers (Aluminum Seating, Inc.). Cal Ripken fields are smaller-dimension baseball diamonds geared to the physical abilities of 12, 10 and 8 year old players. Ripken also creates fields for disabled kids.

A Peaceful Place
One of the most distinctive elements of the Stephenson Park design is a reflexology path and meditation garden, designed as a stress reliever and outlet for adults. Marcillac and his team worked extensively to deliver this component of the plan devised by the CCSD.

"The reflexology path delivered a rare and exciting design challenge," said Marcillac. "Researching accurate design delivery and local materials on a tradition dating back 5,000 years needs to be done with an exceptional attention to detail."

While history suggests that reflexology finds its origins in China, India, and Egypt, reflexology paths are commonplace in many contemporary park designs in Asia, sought out for their potential health benefits: improving blood pressure, balance and physical performance. The philosophy of reflexology is manifest in these paths through the practice of walking barefoot on strategically-placed, uneven, polished stones, so as to apply pressure to different parts of the foot. Citing 2005 Oregon Research Institute studies and first-hand experience held by Marcillac's team from projects facilitated in Taiwan and China, designers created a semi-circular stone path at Stephenson Park lined with hand rails to help with balance and the ability to apply focused or varied foot pressure. Interpretive signage developed by the CCSD and Melinda Lang gives some history and principles of reflexology and ways to use the path.

"The first public reflexology path wasn't developed in the U.S. until 2005 at the Bastyr Naturopathic University in Seattle," explains Marcillac. "The addition of this feature at Stephenson Park is a distinct amenity for the park and the region."

Paul Mewton and his team note the distinctive nature of the reflexology path and worked with the Stantec team on various designs and the selection of materials to meet the CCSD's budget and maintenance standards.

"We saw the potential this held for making Stephenson Park unique. It's not every day a reflexology path is placed inside a suburban park," said Mewton.

Stephenson Park has a full range of physical activities for youngsters. The Supernova (Kompan) is a large slanted ring that is easily set into motion. This turning, spinning "donut" is usually on display during the ASLA Expo and always garners crowd attention.

Addressing Challenges, Streamlining Design
As a complement to the reflexology path, the park features an intricate labyrinth surface that the CCSD originally conceptualized using painted acrylic on asphalt, similar to a tennis court surface. Following review with Stantec, prefabricated concrete pavers were recommended, a strategy successfully used on another CCSD park and several of Stantec's East Coast projects. The pavers last longer, are less reliant on application techniques and perform more suitably in the clay soils.

A Welcomed Community Addition
Following a public dedication in May 2010, the CCSD received widespread admiration from residents on the design, especially the various playground elements and amusements for residents.

Stephenson Family Park exemplifies the foundation blocks of the design principles identified in the CCSD master plan: creativity, programming for all ages, plus environmental and fiscal sustainability. "While the traditional playground elements attract families and children, I think we've created the perfect destination for everyone to live, learn, and play, regardless of their age," Mewton concluded.


Stephenson Park Team

About Stantec
Stantec (NYSE: STN) is a professional consulting firm in planning, engineering, architecture, interior design, landscape architecture, surveying, environmental sciences, project management, and project economics for infrastructure and facilities projects. The firm has some 10,000 employees operating out of more than 150 locations in North America.

Todd Rhoads: Principle-in-Charge
Paul Marcillac: Project Manager, Lead Landscape Architect
Tran Quoc: Landscape Designer
Jih-Shen Chao: Landscape Architect

Stantec provided all in-house services: landscape architecture, civil, electrical, and structural engineering for design development and construction documents.*

CCSD Planning
Paul Mewton: Chief of Planning, Design & Construction
Sheri Noblett: Senior Landscape Architect
Kari Biddix: Landscape Assistant
Erik Vierra: Landscape Assistant

Gene Moore
Landscape Construction Inspector. Responsible for planning, design and construction management

MFDB Architects (Preschool Bldg.)

General Contractor
Goodland Landscape Construction

Graphic Art - Interpretative Signage
Melinda Lang

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October 15, 2019, 10:30 pm PDT

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