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Texas Has a Prairie Dog Playground in It

Stephen Kelly, editor

ABOVE & RENDERING: Schrickel, Rollins and Associates, Inc., an Arlington, Texas firm that provides consulting services in landscape architecture, civil engineering, and planning, is working with the Grand Prairie Parks Department to develop Lynn Creek Park’s 784 acres. One commission is the new aquatic-themed SS Prairie Dog playground on the shores of Joe Pool Lake. Janna Tidwell, MLA, ASLA, was the project manager. The main structures are a custom ship and sail structure (center), a Sway Fun (north of the ship), the Lighthouse (left), various climbing structures, tunnels, slides, safety surfacing and color-coordinated site amenities.
Photos by Chad M. Davis, Architectural Photography.
Cost of Wisconsin
Playworld Came America

Grand Prairie, Texas (pop. 144,000) is a community in north central Texas. If you live in Grand Prairie, you could be in any one of three counties—Dallas, Tarrant or Ellis. The West Fork of the Trinity River and Johnson Creek flow through this area, one of the reasons a fellow by the name of Dechman bought land here and humbly called it Dechman. The name of the town changed to Grand Prairie in 1877, or so one story goes, when a visiting actress stepped off the train here, looked around and proclaimed, “My, what a grand prairie!” If you believe that, there’s a nice piece of property at a great price along the river ya’ll gotta see.

The Lighthouse custom play structure sits on a promontory (graded higher than the main play area). The sandstone boulders on the south face (water side) and weeping love grass lend a natural and rugged look. The play surface here is wood fiber a foot deep. The landscape architect chose a lighting standard (Lumec) with a bit of a nautical flair—“Bottleneck” poles and Candela luminaries. The light poles, fencing, benches and shower tower are color coordinated. The RAL color went to four vendors, who each sent samples to assure perfect color matching. (Ed. note: RAL is a color system developed in 1927 by Reichsausschuß für Lieferbedingungen (und Gütesicherung). The 40 original colors are now a palette of 1,900 color shades.

Grand Prairie Parks & Rec

The renaissance of Grand Prairie Parks and Recreation began seven years ago with a small measure—the passage of a quarter cent sales tax earmarked for the department. Grand Prairie acquired Lynn Creek Park, Britton Park and Loyd Park from the Trinity River Authority in 2001, according to Tim Shinogle, the city’s senior superintendent of park planning. Grand Prairie has over 5,000 park acres, 3,000 of which surround Joe Pool Lake, just southwest of Dallas. Opened in 1989, Joe Pool Lake attracts more than one million people a year to its aquatic activities, beaches, parks and campsites. The lake is really a hub of the metroplex, boasting excellent bass, catfish and crappie fishing and clean beaches. Water sport enthusiast love the 7,500 surface acres of open water. For the landlubbers there is golf (two courses), the Prairie Memorial Gardens and Mausoleum, picnicking, shaded parks, trails, a dog park (Central Bark) and camping facilities.

At the bow and stern are custom steel climbers that represent the fore and aft of the SS Prairie Dog.

In April 2007, Grand Prairie Parks and Recreation was nominated by the National Recreation and Parks Association as a finalist for the National Gold Medal Award, one of only four park and rec departments so honored in the U.S.

To the side of the ship is what the landscape architects think of as the “life boat,” but is an “inclusive glider” called Sway Fun. An accessible ramp provides wheelchair access. The glider rocks front to back. The benches are polyethylene and the curb and tabletop are Permalene for durability.

One task for the Grand Prairie Parks Department has been to redevelop the 784 acres of Lynn Creek Park. Enter Schrickel, Rollins and Associates, Inc. (SRA) (, a landscape architectural and civil engineering firm in Arlington, Texas. Through its ongoing work with Lynn Creek Park, SRA had the commission to design a new playground near or over the site of the former playground.

Looking aft through the ship’s wheel (a “Spider Climber”) you can see the rise in the slope toward the stern. The angled slats on either side of the center slide are climbing stations equipped with plastic chains for balance and support.

Janna Tidwell, MLA, ASLA, was the project manager for the new playground, which took the name SS Prairie Dog. Ms. Tidwell’s landscape architecture education was at Texas Tech University. While at the university in 1999, she began interning at SRA in Arlington, Texas. She is now an associate with the firm. She has also been an officer of the Dallas-Ft. Worth section of the ASLA Texas Chapter, one of the five Texas sections.

Sandstone boulders at the ship’s bow perhaps tell the story of the S.S. Prairie Dog running aground on a rocky shoal. Such scenarios are only limited by the imagination of the children. The lichen-covered boulders at the ship’s bow are flatter than those at the Lighthouse. Weeping love grass is planted between the boulders at the bow of the ship and at the Lighthouse. “You’ll see lots of kids playing in the boulders (by the bow). We’re not only about supplying kids with the standard kinds of recreational elements, but adding those that encourage free-form play. You’ll sometimes see kids playing more there than on the standard elements.” — Janna Tidwell, MLA, ASLA, project manager for the SS Prairie Dog playground

SRA began by working with the city to decide exactly where to situate the playground. The consensus was to build the playground where it would be visible from the nearby vehicular bridge that crosses Joe Pool Lake. Because Lynn Creek Park has an admission fee, the city felt compelled to build a playground that was a step above the neighborhood playgrounds, something “bigger and more fun” to draw the public to the site. What pressure!

SRA had already built some playgrounds for Grand Prairie Parks, developing playground themes that met the city’s “Discover Grand Prairie” initiative, that is, relating the play areas to the area’s history or resources. As the playground would be near the lake, an aquatic theme seemed most relevant.

There are five strands of lights festooning the steel frame of the “sail”/shade structure. Each strand has 60 LED lights (rated for 100,000 hours of use) inside very tough acrylic globes. The vendor (Tokistar Lighting) asserts they do not break. Several SRA landscape architects tried to break one but could not.

“At that point we began working with the playground vendor, LSI (Landscape Structures), to build a custom piece of playground equipment,” Ms. Tidwell explains. That central piece would be a “ship” with a prominent “sail” that would provide shade and be visible from far away. LSI worked in conjunction with Sun Ports International to coordinate each other’s custom elements. Sun Ports, for instance, had off-the-shelf shade sails, but not at the larger dimensions envisioned by the design team.

Linear bands of cobblestone, grouted into concrete, emanate from amidships on both sides of the SS Prairie and meet at the bow. Horsetail reed is planted on both sides of the ship.

“Both vendors were really great working with us and getting what we really wanted,” commends Ms. Tidwell.

The landscape architect also wanted to light the play structure, as the park is heavily used after sunset. A glowing “ship” would be inviting and be visible from the road at night.

ABOVE & BELOW: The compass rose, at the stern of the ship, is stained concrete. The compass directions (N, E, S, W) are stainless steel, 6-in. tall, and embedded in the concrete.

“We came up with the festoon lighting that hangs from the ship’s masts,” she explains. There are five strands of lights, each with 60 lights. The lights are LEDs inside very tough acrylic globes. The first concern, of course, was that dangling lights in a playground would get broken. “The vendor (Tokistar Lighting) told us they would not break,” she recalls. “Several of our landscape architects took it upon themselves to see if they could break a globe, but they couldn’t. We’re interested to see how they will hold up under the amount of wear they will receive.”

The Wave Fence provides a sense of movement and keeps kids from falling onto the rocks on the southern end of the Lighthouse area. The many existing native hackberry trees on site were not disturbed. Although not a particularly pretty tree, the hackberries are healthy, hardy, drought tolerant and provide much needed shade.

LEDs were certainly a good choice, as they’re rated for 100,000 hours, compared to 3,000 hours for incandescent bulbs. Let’s see if the festoon lighting is illuminated an average of 10 hrs. per day x 365 = 3,650 hrs. per year, ÷ by 100,000 hrs.=27.39726 years! From the environmental standpoint, LEDs consume up to 90 percent less power than incandescent bulbs and generate no heat (are cool to the touch).

The LEDs should hold up quite well over the years, as they are a solid-state design that uses an electronic chip encapsulated in an epoxy substrate to increase durability and to seal out foreign elements.

These “gang planks,” which get you to the “water” in a jiffy, are the most popular elements on the playground. The kids have several slides of different sizes and configurations to experience.

With the ship design in place, the LAs wanted to go beyond just adding some standard pieces of playground equipment. They sought to add extra character to the playground, interesting elements that would drive the kids’ imagination. “We identified the playing surface as one of those elements,” says Ms. Tidwell. The idea was a design conveying a ship’s movement over water, accomplished by curving bands of blue circling the ship’s stern and bands of color sweeping around the sides of the boat. The effect is enhanced by the curving sidewalk going around the stern, and the sweeping bands of cobblestone emanating from amidships to the bow. The stern area was graded higher than the bow. The effect is a ship tilting down a bit at the bow. At the bow are stone outcroppings, perhaps suggesting the SS Prairie has run aground on a reef or rugged coastline. The ship is on a south by southeast course toward the lake.

Little sailors espy the high seas (Joe Pool Lake) from the ship’s port holes.

Aft of the ship’s stern is a large concrete compass rose, oriented to true north, evocative of those captains of yore who used the northern star as their navigational guide. “The kids like to run around it and jump from the numbers. I’ve seen them do lots of interesting things,” says Ms. Tidwell.

Representing the bow and stern of the ship are custom metal, angled climbing bars painted white and with a powder coated finish. The landscape architect worked closely with LSI to make sure these structures were safe additions to the playground.

Elevated tubes let kids explore in the fashion of the playground’s namesake, that cutest of furry critters—the prairie dog.

Due west of the bow is an area graded higher than the ship. The designer thought this area also needed a unique play element. Keeping with the nautical theme, a custom piece of playground equipment was designed to evoke a lighthouse perched on a rugged promontory. The fence panels (Wave Fence), as the name hints, undulate as they run along the southern rim of the Lighthouse.

A curving brushed concrete walk connects the ship area to the Lighthouse. Imbedded in the concrete in shell patterns is recycled glass in aquamarine and blue shades. The walk that circles the Lighthouse is also concrete but with a salt finish. “We selected that because it has a weathered look, what you might expect to see in a nautical environment,” Ms. Tidwell explains.

The landscape architect chose a lighting standard (Lumec) that has a bit of a nautical flair—“Bottleneck” poles and Candela luminaries.

ABOVE & BELOW: The curving sidewalk around the stern and the bands of blue sweeping from the back to the sides of the boat convey a feeling of movement of a ship over water.

The landscape architect looked for a planting palette of dune grasses. In the cracks of the boulders at the bow of the ship and Lighthouse is weeping love grass.

ABOVE & BELOW: Western Texas was once covered by shallow seas, so fossils and shells are commonly uncovered here. The “shells” here are a tooled pattern applied to wet cement, along with recycled glass in aquamarine and blue shades. When the cement hardens, it is sandblasted to expose the glass. The lettering here in stainless steel is the “She Sells Sea Shells” tongue twister.

The existing trees on site are native hackberries, not a particularly desirable tree, i.e., not one the landscape architect would have specified. In fact, the locals sometimes refer to them as “trash” trees, because of their gnarled look. However, the opinion in the office was that these abundant trees were healthy, hardy, draught tolerant and provided much needed shade for those long, hot Texas summers, and it would be inappropriate to change the hackberries out for a prettier tree. There are some existing cedar elms, a more esthetically pleasing arbor. The landscape architects were careful not to compromise any existing trees, which was a bit tricky when it came to creating the grade for the stern and lighthouse areas.

The rubberized poured-in-place safety surfacing, manufactured and installed by the No Fault Sport Group, is quite cushy. It is five-inches deep around the climbers and other higher elevations of the play structures, but thins to only two inches at the perimeter.

The SS Prairie Dog has tunnels for kids to explore, the Sway Fun “boat” that mimics the movement of watercraft and various climbers.

This highly imaginative playground is a great addition to Lynn Creek Park and the citywide parks master plan.

Project Specs

Schrickel, Rollins and Associates, Inc. (SRA) provides consulting services in landscape architecture, civil engineering, and planning. In 1955, Arlington, Texas resident Gene Schrickel teamed with engineer Frank Smith to form Schrickel and Smith. A year later, the company became Gene Schrickel and Associates. Mr. Schrickel was the 38th registered landscape architect in the Lone Star state.

Albert Rollins, P.E., former city manager and city engineer for Arlington, and later director of the Texas Turnpike Authority, partnered with Mr. Schrickel in 1967. He served as principal-in-charge on more than 50 roadway projects and was project engineer on more than 600 projects at the company.

The SRA staff has strong affiliations with civic organizations, in particular the Alzheimer’s Association. Gene Schrickel, Jr., passed away in 2005 from that disease.

Project: Grand Prairie Playground,Lynn Creek Park
Project Size: 1-acre
Cost: $975,000

Team & Vendors & Product Supplied/Created

Schrickel, Rollins and Associates, Inc. • Prime Consultant: Landscape Architecture

Friberg Associates, Inc. • Electrical Engineering

James Pole • Irrigation Design

Northstar • General Contractor

Don Illingworth and Associates • Structural Engineering

LSI • Custom ship stern that features ship name

Leggi, represented by Outer Space Landscape Furnishings • Wave Fence

Tokistar Lighting Inc. Local agent, Hossley Lighting Associates • Festoon Lighting

North Texas Bomanite • Glass Shells

Manufacturer: Lumec. Local agent, Architectural Lighting Associates • Pedestrian Lighting

North Texas Bomanite • Compass Rose

Most Dependable Fountains • Shower Tower

Dumor • Benches

Landscape Structures, Inc. Represented by Greg Hawkins Recreation Consultants of Texas • Playstructure

BIG • Gatehouses

Sun Ports International • Shade Structure

No Fault Sport Group, LLC • Poured-in-Place Rubber Surfacing


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December 14, 2019, 7:51 am PDT

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