The Invisible Playground

By John Jackson

“So do you know how far the sound of children's laughter carries?”

The question was posed to me in a public meeting designed to gather input for a master plan for a park. The plan would ultimately lead to a design for a new playground, and the tone of the question resembled one that someone might use in asking about the smell of a combined sewer overflow or the sound of a concert venue. The tone also communicated to me that, as a park planner, this was something I should know. I replied I would have to check on that and get back to the person.

I mention this exchange because it is symptomatic of the tension that had developed over placing a new playground—not even a large one, actually—in a historic park in Bloomington, Ill. It occurred to me that the writers of the television show Parks and Recreation might want to incorporate this conversation into a future episode—sometimes you can’t make this stuff up.

Notable Names
To be fair to the person asking the question, some context should have been provided. The meeting was the first of two designed to gather input on a master plan for Franklin Park, the oldest park in the city. The park land was donated by three leading citizens of Bloomington: David Davis, Wm. F. Flagg, and Wm. H. Allen. The deed, dated April 26, 1856, records the intent of the donation: “to be used as a place of public resort, pastime and recreation for citizens and strangers forever.” The Square is named to honor Franklin Price, mayor of Bloomington at the time of the gift. The three donors were all contemporaries and friends of Abraham Lincoln, who was a frequent visitor to Bloomington. It seems almost certain that Lincoln would have spent time in the park.

Now very near the urban center of Bloomington, the property was far from the center of town when it was dedicated.

The early condition of the park was not much to be enjoyed and early improvements included the construction of wood fencing around the perimeter to keep livestock from destroying the turf and leaving behind the results of their foraging.

Over time, the small park began to take on a rather grand air. Shortly after the Civil War, the leaders of McLean County determined that the county’s 700 war casualties should be honored in a public setting. To that end, a monument was designed and constructed by James S. Haldeman in 1868 for the center of the park. Land values in the surrounding neighborhood began to grow as the park matured, and “Franklin Square,” as it was later known, became a fashionable and tony location in which to build stately homes. Many of those homes face the park to this day and contribute to a sense of place and enclosure. The families that occupied these homes directly influenced the political, commercial, educational, and religious life of the city, the county, the state, and the United States. To name only a few, the neighborhood was home to Adlai Stevenson I (Vice-President of the United States in 1892), Joseph Fifer (19th governor of Illinois), and Frank Funk (congressman from 1921 to 1927). Ulysses S. Grant, Theodore Roosevelt, Carl Sandburg, and Clarence Darrow were all, at various times, houseguests of influential Franklin Square residents.

Eventually, the war memorial, which was made of a soft limestone, began to weaken and fall apart. It was destroyed for the most part after being hit by lightning in 1914 and was rebuilt at the newer, larger Miller Park on the city’s growing southwest side.

It is not certain when play equipment was first installed in the park, but a slide, swing set, and other modest pieces provided enjoyment for neighborhood kids for decades.

Fast Forward To 2013
Bloomington’s 2011 Parks and Recreation Master Plan identified Franklin Park as a place in need of improvement. Dying trees, large, turf-less patches of ground plane, broken sidewalks, and crumbling stone curbs—not to mention the decades-old playground equipment—conspired to give the once grand park a forgotten appearance. In spite of that, the neighborhood around the park continued to enjoy strong property values and a reputation as a place attractive to history buffs, the creative class, and anyone seeking authenticity. Residents lamented the development of expensive parks in new neighborhoods while Franklin Park languished. 

In response to the neighborhood's desire for improvements, the parks department turned to a playground manufacturer’s representative for assistance in creating a design for a new playground. The rep crafted alternatives showing a variety of ways the company's standard components could be used for a number of play experiences. The alternatives were graphically depicted on a flat, green setting that could have been anywhere. There was nothing really so wrong with the ideas except that this was Franklin Square, and it was full of people who lived there because it gave them a connection to history, and to a time when things were made to last, and to neighborhoods built to foster community. The parks department held a public meeting to show the neighborhood the new plan, and the meeting didn’t go well. Neighbor after neighbor lamented the brightly colored plastic components, and more than one attendee suggested the playground may be right for McDonald’s, but had no place in Franklin Park. 

The next day I received a phone call from the parks director. “I need your help,” he said, and went on to share the events of the meeting the previous night. “We thought we had this thing figured out, but we need to step back and do a master plan and really think this through.” We talked through the situation, and I then wrote a proposal outlining an engagement plan that fit the limited budget. The plan included stakeholder interviews and two public workshops.  From this input, we would eventually produce a master plan that identified all of the necessary improvements and associated costs for the enhancements, but above all, it would size and locate a new playground and note the character of any new play equipment. Bloomington signed the proposal, and we set about scheduling the public-input sessions and conducting our own inventory and analysis.

Digital Diagrams
Through the stakeholder interviews, we learned that the biggest issue with the new playground was that the neighborhood didn’t know what the playground would look like in the context of the park; the representative from the equipment manufacturer presented drawings that could have been for any place. The vast majority of the people we interviewed wanted a playground, but did not want anything too garish. Those who were initially reluctant came around to the idea of having a playground but did not want to see it. The neighborhood wanted an invisible playground.

In order to address these concerns, we developed a digital model of the park that located every tree and existing amenity. Once we developed a model, we further created simplified versions of each house on the square. With that, each resident on the square was able to see from their front porch what the park would look like with the new elements. 

Next, we gathered precedent images of contemporary play equipment and photos of playgrounds in historic settings. Some of the images included nature play types of experiences.

During the workshops, we showed the attendees a number of options for play equipment we felt met the needs of the community. The options consisted of as many different styles and materials as possible, and attendees were allowed to vote on their preferences. The survey indicated a preference for highly transparent, contemporary components. Play equipment that included small, enclosed spaces was perceived to be unsafe, particularly because the park was a destination for a number of homeless people. The survey also revealed that the neighborhood wanted some type of nature play experience in the playground.

RATIO gathered the opinions and preferences shared during the first workshop and developed two options in the digital model that showed how they would look. The options included a nature play-based concept to be constructed from locally available materials, and the other option was organized around an off-the-shelf play structure. The options were then presented at a second open house. Attendees were able to spin the digital model around to understand the concepts and what they would look like from critical vantage points.


Hocus Pocus
The feedback received suggested that the process include a smaller version of the pre-manufactured equipment, as well as a nature play experience, so RATIO combined the two ideas into one cohesive plan. There was also strong support for relocating two existing swing sets that had been in the park for at least 20 years. The swing sets were refurbished and relocated next to the new play equipment. New walks provided accessible routes, and several benches were relocated to provide seating for caregivers. The nature play space included several large sections of tree trunks to serve as stepping logs. A wood deck will give children a sense of being just above the surface of the playground without the fear of falling. Sand was added to the nature play experience, providing a place for digging, while also solving the nagging problem of not being able to grow turf in this particular area of the park.

Bloomington parks staff installed all of the concrete flatwork, nature play, and pre-manufactured play equipment.

RATIO specified a muted color palette of dark-brown and green for the play structure, which sits within a shady setting. During the summer, and even in winter from different vantage points, it would be easy to look right past the structure were it not for the throngs of kids clambering over the it and digging in the nature play space.

Although the process initially involved some tension and uncertainty, the project was ultimately successful due to the Bloomington Parks, Recreation and Cultural Arts Department’s desire to incorporate feedback from various voices in the community—and let that feedback inform the final character and program of the play experience.  Franklin Park is a great example of the power of collaboration!

John Jackson, PLA, LEED AP, is a Principal and Director of Landscape Architecture & Urban Design at RATIO in Indianapolis. Reach him at