All Together Now

By Karen Krolewski

The Rotary Club of San Jose, Calif., asked the landscape architecture firm, PGAdesign, to create a playground that would be accessible to children with the widest possible range of abilities. We soon discovered that the Rotary PlayGarden would have to go far beyond what is called for by the Americans with Disabilities Act’s design standards. ADA guidelines—while ensuring that equipment is physically accessible—does not always encourage children of all abilities to play together. For example, ADA code stresses wheelchair accessibility. In fact, many disabled persons are not in wheelchairs. Some children who would use the playground—like those on the autism spectrum—have no physical disabilities at all. We tried to make the space universally accessible in two ways:

  1. By going beyond the current physical-access codes required by ADA
  2. By creating elements that will appeal to more than one type of user.

The firm wanted to make a place where kids and adults, with all types of challenges and abilities could interact and share the experience of play as freely as possible.

Equal-Opportunity Equipment And Furniture
This approach had implications for the site plan, which would require clear layout and pathways, and gentle contours. It meant addressing different modes of recreation, and providing opportunities for repose as well as for activities that might range from tentative to robust. And it guided the selection of furniture, play structures, and equipment.

The merry-go-round chosen, for example, sits at grade. Someone in a wheelchair can roll right on. Meanwhile, participants not in chairs can ride the merry-go-round while standing or seated. And it can be pushed by either leg or arm power, so it can work for everybody, simultaneously. For swings, we put three types adjacent to each other so they can all be used at the same time:

  1. ADA seats that offer back support
  2. Flat, swinging discs
  3. A pair of swings connected by a spring mechanism that allows one able child to pump propel another child, who cannot.

The see-saws used have seats for two at either end, so a user who has difficulty supporting himself or herself—or who may be fearful—can be braced by another person.

Similarly, furniture choices were made with the goal of allowing people to be together, regardless of varying physical constraints. In the picnic area, benches are freestanding rather than connected to the tables, which requires swinging one’s legs over; space for wheelchairs is provided at the tables’ ends. We designed an outdoor classroom with two concentric rings of low concrete wall that serve as benches. Seating spots with back supports alternate with backless ones, and the rings are interrupted with voids where wheelchairs can go; no matter what seating situation is needed, one can feel included. 

Safe And Secure
We realized the park’s users must be able to engage its features and equipment at a variety of heights, depending on individual stature, strength, and mobility. Safety rails at the top of a slide are an ADA requirement, but additional handholds were installed to help kids maneuver in. A transfer platform was also included so someone who might have difficulty crouching could get into position. We discovered that plastic slides can short-circuit electronic cochlear implants, which some hearing-challenged children have, so that figured into the decision to use custom slides of concrete, which also has the advantage of staying cool. All the PlayGarden’s users need protection from physical injury, so rubber safety surfacing was used throughout. And people challenged primarily by social engagement also need support in feeling safe, so slides in adjacent pairs were arranged, for example, so a parent or more confident child can provide support by sharing the experience side-by-side, even holding hands. ADA standards, we found, while well-intentioned, don’t currently address those types of needs.

ADA standards can even be self-defeating. Engineered wood-fiber chips are deemed accessible, for example, but because they shift, they can be difficult to navigate for wheelchair users and for those on crutches. The transition from an area of wood chips to a fixed surface can also be problematic: the chips normally settle, creating a ridge that must be negotiated. There are even concerns that splinters from wood chips can embed themselves in the flesh of someone who might not be able to feel the wound. We researched the complex needs of the PlayGarden’s intended users by visiting other projects, in person and online, and by interviewing caregivers. We also met with Pamela Wolfburg, Ph.D., of San Francisco State University, who researches the needs of individuals on the autism spectrum in the areas of socialization, play, and inclusion, which are often overlooked in park planning.

Imagine The Possibilities
The Rotary PlayGarden is located alongside a tributary of San Francisco Bay and next to an airport. Our design used motifs of waving grasses, flowing streams, and animals moving with ease through water and air. This imagery expresses what we sought to inspire: physical motion and the sense of possibility inherent in long vistas, and in flight. On the otherwise flat site, a semi-circular embankment establishes contour, enclosure, and insulation from street traffic. Its sloped side can be climbed, but its crest also offers a gentle route up to the slides, and for views down to the main activity area. Some children, we learned, need to watch from a distance before they’re comfortable entering a busy space. The top of the embankment is also a place from which to watch planes descending toward the airport, perhaps to imagine being inside one, while seated in the row of concrete “airliner” seats installed there.

Funding by the Rotary Club of San Jose and from the Santa Clara County Office of Education has made possible a particularly elaborate playspace. The reported construction budget was $6 million, although some of that amount was donated time and construction services. While on the high end for a playspace project, the size is also on a larger scale, 5 acres. Typical projects for parks are of an acre or less, and we usually find $500,000 to be the construction budget. While the sculptural elements, the sand and water-play structures, and the slides at the Rotary PlayGarden were custom-fabricated, the rest of the equipment was off-the-shelf. Many of the pieces of play equipment and the kinetic sculptures have moving parts that will require periodic maintenance, however. The Rotary Club’s long-term financial commitment allowed us to choose these elements; planners of parks supported by municipal funding alone might not have that leeway. But now that the PlayGarden has been in use for a year, we see that some of its most successful and popular elements are not the costliest ones. Three stand out:

  1. The slides built into the embankment, if replicated in metal, would be cheaper and easier to install than the concrete we specified
  2. A tiered rope-climbing structure that spins and has a solid bottom deck, which kids of all abilities can enjoy at the same time
  3. Multiple types of swings.

Many of the successful elements we implemented can be achieved elsewhere. Imaginative layout, sensitivity to the end user, and even earthwork are strategies that do not cost a lot.

Karen Krolewski is a Principal and Landscape Architect of PGAdesign Landscape Architects in Oakland, Calif. She specializes in the design of municipal spaces, on-structure affordable and market-rate multi-family housing. She also is a Board member for ReScape California, which focuses on incorporating the use ofsustainable practices into landscapes. She was the lead designer and project manager of the Rotary PlayGarden in San Jose. Reach her at and