Extreme Makeover

Photos Courtesy Of Lee’s Summit Parks & Recreation

For more than 40 years, South Lea McKeighan Park was the home to youth baseball in Lee’s Summit, Mo. When the leagues relocated to a new sports-complex venue—700-acre LegacyPark—the 11-acre McKeighanPark site was relegated to a practice field that needed some updating. The park’s highly visible location at the corner of two busy arterial streets on the fringe of the city’s downtown district gave vision to a special type of park redevelopment.

Design Development

After 4 years of neighborhood feedback, planning and design workshops, charettes, and consultant refinements, parks and recreation staff members focused on a master plan, with the assistance of Bowman, Bowman, and Novick Architects of Kansas City. Careful attention was given to the park’s context within the older, neighboring residential area to the south and west of the park, while also being responsive to the adjacent land uses of a high school to the north and commercial and retail businesses to the east. The park needed a welcoming feel from the street while also conveying a sense that this was an oasis in a bustling, high-traffic urban area. One of the overriding concepts in the redevelopment was environmental sustainability through the use of stormwater-management practices (parking lot bio-retention swales), use of native plant materials, and low-impact development by making minimal grading and infrastructure improvements.

Another important consideration was to acknowledge both the recent history of the park with baseball, but also the site’s historical significance in the area’s early settlement prior to the Civil War. A small commemorative plaque was erected on the site of one of the field’s old home plates, along with interpretive boards explaining the site’s history.

An early decision in the planning and programming phase was that the park would resemble a more traditional neighborhood park with typical amenities, such as walking trails, park shelter, playground, restrooms, and open-play areas. But because of its highly visible location, the park needed to be more dynamic and appealing. After several months of planning, the board approved $1.9 million in funding to completely renovate the park with special attention given to developing a unique, one-of-a-kind adventure playground. The playground, a signature element, gives the park an identity and makes it a destination for both residents and visitors.

Defining The Vision

While the architects assisted the department in most of the design development and construction documents for the park, the department planning staff, in an effort to be more cost-efficient and to work more directly with manufacturers and product representatives, took the lead with a different approach. Once the location of the playground site was selected in context with other park amenities, staff members worked through a selection process involving a design competition that posed the question, “What can we do for this budget?” The term “adventure” playground was loosely defined by parks staff in an effort to open up a free flow of ideas from playground companies and their designers. Staff provided the companies a site plan of the playground area indicating access points and surrounding park activity nodes, a budget of approximately $600,000, and criteria for programming that is essential to playground development, such as ADA compliance, swing sets, and ground-level tot play equipment.

Equipment Selection

Staff members received several proposals that did meet the project criteria, and spent more than 2 months vetting all of the submittals and soliciting feedback from school-age children, neighbors of the park, and an open house at a “Friends of the Park” social event. After careful evaluation, staff members found there was a trend away from the popular “nature play” approach or a traditional “post-and-deck” model to more contemporary alternatives that challenged both the physical and problem-solving capabilities of all age groups. The more modern ”edgy” equipment offer these challenges while the areas outside of the use zones address more natural elements that allow children to interact with nature. A dry stream bed winding through the playground and the use of plant materials in landscape areas give the playground an ”oasis in the park” feel.

The centerpiece of the 15,000-square-foot playground is the Jupiter XXL (manufactured by Berliner Seilfabrik), a 30-foot-high metal-framed pyramid with intertwined climbing nets. With a capacity for more than 200, this customized tower pyramid offers children an opportunity to climb safely to the peak of the structure from ground level and then navigate down either using a curved slide attachment, climbing back down, or linking onto a suspension bridge attached to a smaller net climbing structure. Other play pieces that complement the large structure include a 70-foot zip line, a VIP Swing, Cloud 9 swings, climbing rocks, and other pieces of ground-level play equipment.

Balance Safety And Adventure

The free-play concept, which is the basis of the playground, is designed to tap into children’s intuitive development and sense of adventure. It also challenges children’s motor skills (strength, agility, hand-eye coordination). Climbing equipment—such as ropes, rocks, and other apparatus—tap into a child’s creative level of problem-solving in going from point A to point B with no specified path. This concept also facilitates repeat users. Park patrons enjoy a playground more when every trip to the park presents a different challenge or approach to solving a problem.

What is the proper balance between safety and adventure in playground design?  Climbing playgrounds are inherently risky. Accidents do happen, but fortunately standards for required fall-protection surfacing keep these risks low. Children—particularly those in the upper tier of the 5 to 12 age group—are naturally drawn to an element of risk in playground equipment. The European approach to playground design has always pushed the envelope due in large part to less-stringent safety standards. While risk of litigation and other factors significantly influence playground-equipment design, some European playground manufacturers are now tapping into a more balanced approach. The visual appearance of modern European equipment is much more intimidating than the actual risk, however. Due to the transparent nature of the materials, parents can have clear visual supervision of their children at all times, and this helps address parents’ concerns about ”stranger danger” issues.

Is a playground just for kids? Whether intentional or accidental—this playground is an interesting case study in the interaction of parents with their children. Parks staff members have observed that parents often take a more active role. Rather than sit passively on a park bench, parents monitor their children more closely on the equipment during the first moments of a visit. Once the initial parental trepidation has subsided, parents find themselves interacting with the children on the equipment and, in some cases, joining them on some of the larger climbing apparatus.

Staff members periodically monitor and observe how the new playground is being used with an eye towards the positive benefits of the innovative methods of play, while also looking for areas to improve with the next playground project in Lee’s Summit.

Steve Casey , RLA, ASLA, is the Assistant Superintendent of Park Planning & Development for Lee’s SummitParks & Recreation in Missouri. Reach him at (816) 969-1507.