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A Jewel Once More

Nature-Based Playground in San Francisco

by Miller Company Landscape Architects

Lafayette Park, located in San Francisco, was once a rundown and out-of-date park. However, with the design and implementation of a new playground that connects kids to nature, Miller Company Landscape Architects turned the park into an accessible play destination for local families.
Children can duck down to enter a striped pebble-surface crawl tunnel or run up to play on the two custom stainless-steel slides designed to look like dragons, which split into separate slide zones.
Shale slabs form the two pillars that make up the area in the park called the Gorge. An arched footbridge connects the rocky outcroping above the Gorge creating an intimate connection below and an outlook above.
Custom galvanized steel and heavy woven rope railings, designed to look like cat-tail and other river grasses, line the stairs that lead up the rock formations to the play structure.
250 tons of rock were used overall on the playground, serving as benches and steps to get from ground level to the elevated play structures.
250 tons of rock were used overall on the playground, serving as benches and steps to get from ground level to the elevated play structures.
A picnic area to the side of the playground offers shade in the form of an arbor covered in wisteria over a belvedere sitting wall.
A 60-foot-long water station allows children to activate water play at multiple hand pumps. As shown, the stone walls of the station are also utilized as benches for those who wish to refrain, or take a break, from playing.
The final plan for the site displays the 15,600-square-foot playground at the center with gathering spaces and seating areas surrounding it.

In 2013, after years of deferred maintenance, San Francisco's Lafayette Park was no longer the crown jewel of Pacific Heights that it once was. The existing playground, prominently located in the center of the park, was decayed and non-compliant with current accessibility and safety standards. A public bond initiative was passed, and the entire park was slated for renovation by the San Francisco Recreation and Park Department. Friends of Lafayette Park, a neighborhood advocacy group, offered additional funding to sponsor development of a new, custom-designed playground that would meet the needs of families and the general public. After an extensive search, the group selected Miller Company Landscape Architects, who proposed a unique, nature-based play environment.

There are two features that are adjacent to the playground including a 3300 square-foot picnic terrace and a 3000 square-foot picnic lawn. The project scope required numerous public meetings to solicit feedback on the design and included coordination with public agencies to secure approvals from the Recreation and Park Department, Mayor's Office on Disability, Planning Department, and the Arts Commission. Miller Company provided a full scope of design services for the playground, illustrative drawings to foster private fundraising within the community, budget management, and intensive on-site assistance with installation.

A Place for Families
With an awareness of the larger civic context of the park, where multiple uses were desired, the design team extended their concept beyond the limits of the expanded play area to create supportive social settings useful to the community. The team envisioned an expanded picnic area framed by a belvedere sitting wall to the south of the playground and a social gathering area to the north featuring a curved, wisteria-covered arbor that links the character of the neighborhood's classical architecture to the central setting of the park. Caregivers and park users have a place in the design, both inside the playground and in adjacent social gathering spaces. Configuring the expanded footprint of the playground within a stand of existing mature trees and adding new perimeter plantings provides a shaded setting and reinforces the historic and natural ambiance of the park.

The starting point of Miller Company's design concept was generated by the desire to create a place where children could experience the personal and shared power of play, connected to the act of touching stone, wood, and water. It was intended to promote social possibilities within the playground, offering the potential for large group play and social negotiation as well as spaces for more intimate interaction.

A Place for Everyone
Accessibility was an important consideration and the landscape architects provided plans that offered full navigation for all playground users. They designed a variety of play experiences for children ranging in age from infants to young teens, providing opportunities for challenging age-appropriate adventure. The design features two climbing "mountains" constructed from shale slabs sited closely together to create a rock-walled central passage known as "The Gorge." The raised elevations provide entry points for two custom stainless-steel slides that split into separate slide zones and form the backdrop for a central natural amphitheater. Transfer stations are formed into the base of the mountains, and custom railings designed to echo cat-tail and river grasses line stairs providing access to the various natural rock formations.

Quiet play is encouraged in the "Open Cave," an area skinned with coral colored pebble stone that sits below the "Serpent's Head," a raised sculptural rock platform that connects to the upper playground outcrop. The serpent motif slithers from the "Serpent's Head" through the playground rising to form a striped pebble surface "Crawl Tunnel" and meanders into the 60-foot-long "Raised Stone Creek," where children activate water play at multiple hand pump stations. Climbing walls, rope nets, curving slides, and swings entice children to balance, explore, bask, and engage in group or solo play. While the design suggests an imaginative world of castles and dragons, the golden stone and other natural materials sensitize children to the beauty of nature. The natural structure of the playground challenges children to navigate at their own skill level and offers important lessons of negotiation not often found in standardized play environments.

A Place in Nature
Earth-toned resilient playground surfacing surrounding the rocky outcrops of the central mountains, and the raised creek area mimics the fluvial process of flowing water throughout the playground. Integrated mud-colored decking, manufactured from recycled materials, offsets the sitting areas and stroller zones within the playground area. Two custom designed wood-posted climbing structures and two age appropriate swing zones surround the central stone outcrops, providing further activity for children of different ages. The natural material of the structures and the subtle color of the play elements integrate into the overall scheme, reinforcing the nature-based theme.

Once approved, the careful selection of stone was essential to the success of the project. Miller Company hand-selected stone slabs from a Montana quarry for the playground, being particularly sensitive to color, size, and texture. Each stone was photographed, measured, marked, and numbered at the quarry and prepared for shipment to the project site. Upon returning to the studio, the design team used this information to create detailed drawings identifying the location of each stone within the layered composition. Both the naturally flat and irregularly-shaped stone elements were placed according to the plans and worked on site with extreme care to create a safe and challenging play environment while meeting stringent ADA regulations and rigorous inspections.

Miller Company worked closely on site to direct the installation contractor as fine-tuning adjustments were required to fit and place the stones due to the natural shape of each slab. Drought-tolerant plantings with water-efficient irrigation soften the playground's edges beyond the perimeter of protective fencing and further implement the connection to nature-based play.

The playground at Lafayette Park demonstrates a successful public / private partnership, with city grants providing half the funding, and the rest being raised through private donations from the neighborhood. Collaborative work with the city of San Francisco and a participatory design strategy engaged the community in shaping their own environment and giving their kids an exciting place to play.

Team List
Landscape Architects: Miller Company Landscape Architects,
Principal Landscape Architect: Jeffrey Miller, ASLA, LEED AP
Project Manager/Designer: Maya Nagasaka
Consultant: Nate Williams- Mosswood Engineering, Structural Engineer
Collaborator: Lizzy Hirsch - San Francisco Department of Public Works

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November 20, 2019, 2:07 pm PDT

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