by Cheri Ruane
Universal (or inclusive) playgrounds can be defined as those that “enable and empower a diverse population by improving human performance, health and wellness, and social participation” (Source: University of Buffalo Center for Inclusive Design and Environmental Access). Universal playgrounds are designed to be used by children with special physical, emotional, or sensory needs, and their caregivers. They allow all users to enjoy the thrill of sliding, spinning, swinging, or other activities in ways that able-bodied children do with ease.
The new universal playground at Danehy Park in Cambridge is one such effort. The City of Cambridge worked with Weston & Sampson and a team of designers, engineers, landscape architects, and environmental scientists to design and construct this new playground. The facility is on a 0.75-acre, underutilized grassy site on top of a closed landfill that offers a convenient location, is close to other recreational facilities, and provides nearby access to public transportation.
Danehy Park’s universal playground design addresses the needs of both users and caretakers and integrates features that are attractive for people of all abilities and ages, while also focusing particularly on those who face a host of physical and cognitive challenges. We worked closely with a focus group of parents and other community stakeholders whose lives are connected to individuals with a range of capacities and abilities. The focus group was well positioned to help inform design solutions that would serve the specific needs of Cambridge’s population.
The team began by conducting a thorough site evaluation and holding coordination meetings with the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection. The team then performed geotechnical investigations and developed preliminary concepts. After refining those concepts and determining the preferred design elements, we developed schematic design plans and prepared construction documentation to put the project out to bid. Design and construction permitting occurred concurrently and was a collaborative effort with regulatory agencies. A key part of the project was overseeing construction activities and working with the contractor to respond to the inevitably unpredictable subsurface conditions of a closed landfill.
The design process included collaboration with the local arts community, including an artist with autism who creates vivid and compelling acrylic paintings. Collaborators also included the NuVu Studio, an innovative school for middle and high school students that focuses on developing myriad design skills, and Mitch Ryerson, a Cambridge-native artist renowned for his ability to design naturalized play experiences that are well integrated into their surroundings.
Universal design elements include:
- Sensory/nature play areas
- A play slope that makes use of the site’s high elevation point to engage and encourage climbing and rolling
- A water play/splash pad area
- Separate, accessible, and active play areas for children ages 2-5 and 5-12 while accommodating physical, sensory, and social needs
- A primary entry area with parking and a drop-off zone, a secondary entry area, and inclusive circulation
- Areas to accommodate gathering (both social and refuge)
- Elements that offer a balance of sun and shade
- On-site stormwater management features with educational signage
- Protection of the existing tree canopy and new plantings in support of Cambridge’s urban forestry efforts
We designed the playground to work with the existing unusual landforms related to the landfill as well as custom climbing features inspired by the site’s historic uses. This created a unique sensory experience while also providing a place where everyone is welcomed and enabled to enjoy the simple yet important pleasure of play.
Cheri Ruane, FASLA is a vice president and design discipline lead at Weston & Sampson.