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Blog Post: A Playground in a Park – by Alice Reese, CPSI

May 9, 2017
Blog Post: A Playground in a Park – by Alice Reese, CPSI

With the grand opening of the Town of Nags Head Dowdy Park on May 13th, we wanted to share the evolution of our design process and how we used our imaginations to blur the lines of art vs. play.

At the Town of Nags Head kick-off meeting for the design of Dowdy Park, the Mayor Pro Tempore requested a “playground in a park, not a park in a playground” which, given that the majority of funding for the park was a grant for play equipment and the lot was only five acres, the request posed an exciting challenge. The Town also wanted a park heavy on artistic elements and a place where art could be incorporated in the future. Essentially, they wanted a park which would attract adults as readily as it would attract children while the grantor just wanted a playground.

To meet the challenge and strike a balance between designing a space for adults and kids, our approach was to blur the lines. While designing, we asked ourselves questions we thought park users might ask, such as: is it art or play? Is it functional or aesthetic? Is this exercise or a game? The short answer: at Dowdy, it’s all the above. Rather than solely consult a catalog for elements included in the park, we engaged in extensive design and exploration and carefully detailed each element to blur the lines between function and aesthetic, play and art.

We relied on a strong organic theme carried throughout the park with curving lines on both the vertical and horizontal plane and circular forms triangulated through the site to anchor distinct features in the park.  It is through grading details, the use of color, and custom design of site furnishings and features that the lines became blurred.

Although the park is a block away from the ocean and has less than a dozen contour lines, we used topography to elevate the experience of the park and the play value.  For the grass lawn area, instead of a typical sheet drainage approach, a slight bowl in the center was created which raised the far end of the lawn area.  This provides a better view of the stage from the farthest lawn seat but also provides a hill for rolling and an upper level approach to the play equipment via an accessible bridge. Not to mention the change in grade increases the level of exercise all park users will experience as they walk through the park.

To counter balance the elevated play equipment and to achieve the “playground in a park” request, we added a wall to soften the view of the play equipment from the parking lot and lawn area.  Named the hole-y wall, it blurs the line between aesthetic and function, play and purpose. It is more a natural version of the bright orange found on the play equipment, it has holes large enough for kids to crawl through and the top undulates.  It is wide enough to sit on when the lawn is packed.  The holes in the wall and the undulating top exhibit the curvilinear theme and beg the question, is this art or play?

Art and play blur again through the use of two colorful “dunes”. The dunes are created with poured in place surfacing with bands of color transposing from green to blue. As one drives past the park entrance on the Croatan Highway, the dune will be visible and will again pose the question, is that art? It will ignite curiosity from all viewpoints and invites closer inspection and participation. Adventurers scaling the modest dune will see another dune in the 2-5 play area with a slide and an even larger dune in the 5-12 play area practically begging the kids to come play.

Back to the ground plane, walkways also received keen attention to detail.  Because variety is the spice of life, we tried to include as many secondary pathways off the main walkway as the budget allowed.  The secondary pathways also curve and undulate and have different finishes than the main path. The main path is not boring either, as one can see baby loggerhead turtle tracks crossing from their nests (hidden in the sand) to the ocean.  A favorite detail which again blurs the lines between aesthetic and function is the use of the nautilus shell stamped into the concrete throughout the park.  Visitors may be fascinated with finding shell stamps throughout the park while Town staff knows the exact location of conduit for future utilities under the sidewalk.

Another feature used throughout the park which wind along and cross the sidewalk are pylons. The use of these pylons again blur the lines between use, function and aesthetic.  In the eyes of a child, the pylon row becomes yet another “path” to the active play areas.  They are perfect for walking and balancing, and the different heights challenge coordination.  Near the park area, they double as seats for adults.  They are also used throughout the park to serve the purpose of exercise stations such as “pull-ups”, “step-up” and balancing while keeping with the aesthetic of the park.

We had a lot of fun working on the park, although the quick schedule and extensive design and detail process often kept us up late.  There were sometimes disappointments in that the budget and our imaginations didn’t reconcile.  Such as we really wanted to include an entry feature of brightly colored posts sticking up out of the ground, similar to those used for playground equipment.  We wanted a bold statement, or should we say, a bold question immediately upon entering the park…is that art or play?  Not to be deterred, we found a similar feature made of painted bamboo and worked together to create the same design feature for Dowdy Park.  Due to the nature of the materials, it is a temporary art piece, but hopefully one that conveys to the Town of Nags Head our thanks in choosing us for the project and the joy and fun we had blurring the lines between art and play.

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