After six years of waiting, the Portland community gathered on May 4th to open the new Inclusive Playground and Plaza at Couch Park. Portland City Commissioners Nick Fish and Amanda Fritz joined Portland Parks and Recreation (PP&R) Director Adena Long, Metro’s Director of Parks & Nature John Blasher, Cody Goldberg from Harper’s Playground, and PP&R staff in speaking at the ribbon cutting ceremony to officially open the park.
Its design is simple, but creating it wasn’t easy. GreenWorks was honored to be selected to design a new playground, redesign the adjacent public plaza, install a public restroom, and integrate it all to respect the needs of the neighborhood and the City.
Judging by the rave reviews we heard at the ribbon cutting ceremony, it seemed like a big hit with the kids. We caught up with lead designer and GreenWorks project manager Ben Johnson to learn why it matters and how it came to be.
“Balancing technical aspects like grading, drainage, and customized detailing while preserving trees and working within the existing footprint made it an extremely challenging project,” Ben says. He worked with great partners to overcome the site’s challenges with responsive design. The GreenWorks team wanted to compel kids, all kids, to play in creative ways. That meant we needed to create a unique place.
Couch Park is a wooded hillside in Portland’s Northwest Neighborhood. For years it’s offered an off-leash dog area, plaza, a well-known wooden play structure, restroom, basketball court, paved paths, public art, and a few grassy knolls especially popular whenever it’s sunny.
“Parks are some of the most important public spaces we have. Making them accessible to everyone is our responsibility as designers.”
On a recent tour of the site, officials from a nearby park district peppered Ben and Gary Datka, PP&R’s manager for the project, with questions about the electrostatics of artificial turf, sealants for wood structures, the geodesic dome play structure, and the site’s stormwater conveyance. In all the details it was easy to forget the significance of this playground; it’s one of the first in the Portland metro area fully accessible to people with disabilities.
The City of Portland is aware of this deficiency and is taking major steps to address it. In 2012, PP&R opened Harpers Playground at Arbor Lodge Park with help from Harper’s Playground—a non-profit organization dedicated to building all-inclusive playgrounds. PP&R, with help from Harper’s and numerous other partners, now incorporates inclusive aspects into all new playgrounds they design, and has plans for fully accessible playgrounds all around the city. Couch park is the second playground completed in that plan.
The new Inclusive Playground at Couch Park isn’t just accessible to people using mobility devices, though. “Our design uses unique swings for kids of all abilities within a smaller than normal footprint, and a soft, accessible orientation path around the playground so kids can survey the entire space in an imaginative circuit before jumping in to play.” It also includes anti-static synthetic turf to reduce danger to people with cochlear implants, and a perimeter fence for children with sensory processing disorders that may cause them to leave the play area unexpectedly. Each feature is important to the overall goal of making the space as accessible to the most kids possible.
As for the design, we explored both modern and natural play themes and ultimately arrived at a blend. The team wanted it to be imaginative—with hills, boulders, trees, and plants.
“The balance of equipment and natural forms is what makes it interesting. We played with topography to make it look less man-made.”
If you aren’t disabled, living with someone disabled, or in the thick of the playground design and development world, it may surprise you to learn that most playgrounds are nearly impossible for many people to navigate.
A crucial key to an inclusive playground is the “coolest thing”—the focal point—must be accessible to everyone. “By far, the new wooden play fort is the coolest thing,” Ben argues. The mobility-device-accessible route into the fort is an adventure. “The journey wraps around a big, beautiful horse chestnut tree, moves toward the basalt boulder scramble, then to a wide wood bridge between two more large trees, and then arrives at the fort. Once there, kids can hang out, use a talk tube, go for a slide, or roll down a small ramp to a perch on the top of the turf hill.” The design, now that it’s built, is receiving great reviews, but balancing the team’s design goals with site conditions was a major challenge.
The biggest of these was determining how to incorporate play surfacing and structures around the large, established horse chestnut and elm trees residing in the middle of the playground. Other aspects that tested the design team’s ingenuity included a reasonably small footprint of 8,000 feet, steep slopes—and above all making sure it was fully accessible. “I used all of my technical skills and creativity, as well as what we’ve learned here at GreenWorks in our more than 30-year history to solve the accessibility issues while creating a special place.”
“More and more, play is becoming structured.” Ben says. “We can’t play in the nearby woods because there probably aren’t woods nearby anymore and there’s more of a sense of danger all around us nowadays—I’m just as guilty of that.”
That’s why places like The Inclusive Playground and Plaza at Couch Park are important. Vital childhood development happens for kids while they play—they learn their personal boundaries, develop strength and coordination, and socialize with other children. The design for the urban playground at Couch needed adventure and creativity while balancing the realities of a heavily used public park.
“We tried to provide challenge for kids at their appropriate level, to make it fun for everyone.”
PP&R, with support from GreenWorks, coordinated an extensive public involvement process. Ben, along with PP&Rs Project Manager Sandra Burzos, hosted a series of fun design discussions with students from MLC to get a sense of how they used the space, while PP&R facilitated tough community dialogue.
"It was probably the second-most uncomfortable meeting that I've been involved in since I've been on the City Council." Amanda Fritz, City Commissioner assigned to parks at the time said, in an interview with the Portland Tribune. She was remembering when the neighborhood learned the beloved wooden play structure would be demolished for safety reasons.
Along with the design for a new play area, GreenWorks incorporated a new public restroom and integrated it all with a redesigned urban plaza. The space connects Couch Park to Metropolitan Learning Center (MLC), an adjacent Portland public school, and the neighborhood in a cohesive flow. The design also needed to recognize that both MLC and the religious school at Congregation Beth Israel, on the south side of the park, use the Couch Park Playground as their official play space.
The urban plaza is an important neighborhood thoroughfare. “It’s the kind of place people pass on their way to and from work, or from picking up kids from school,” Ben says. It’s not just a walkway and benches, though. The GreenWorks design draws from the geometric paving patterns from the previous design, but also incorporates stormwater planters in thoughtful ways that create social seating areas, frame the space, and add greenery.
“This playground was the crown jewel of the 2014 parks bond measure; it was an honor for us to be selected to work on it. Any firm in town would have loved to work on a redesign of an important public plaza as well.”
Couch Park is located at NW 19th Avenue and Glisan Street in Portland and is open from 5 am to midnight every day.