Never in my wildest dreams could I have guessed that I would leave my exhilarating Silicon Valley career and spend seven years of my life creating a city park. Yet, this is exactly what I did and the ultimate completion of the Magical Bridge playground in Palo Alto is the experience of my lifetime.
Now open to the public and heralded as the “nation’s most innovative inclusive” playground, its success speaks volumes about the need to disrupt an entire industry. The time has come for the playground industry to meet the various play needs for the many types of abilities that make up our communities. Playground designers and equipment manufacturers should no longer simply provide “accessible” solutions, but must go beyond.
Families of all abilities deserve to nourish the joy of outdoor play because there are far too many waiting and still watching on the sidelines. When you design for everybody, nobody stands out. If we unite in this cause today, we lay the foundation for the kind of world we can only dream of tomorrow. One, where the need to label a park “inclusive” or “accessible” disappears and all parks simply get designed this way.
At the youngest age, children learn valuable life lessons from their neighborhood park. It is a place that serves as their first outdoor classroom, and there, they establish a sense of belonging to their community. They build physical and social strengths, explore ways to communicate and learn how to make friends. Sadly, for the 1.1 billion children and adults living with a disability around the world, these critical developmental experiences are seldom experienced. The shameful reality is that the rapidly growing disabled population continues to be overlooked by the playground industry.
When the U.S. passed the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990 as a way to create greater equality for the disabled, it was indeed a promising beginning. While helpful for increased awareness about needs of the physically disabled, this law primarily called for what most would now consider minimal “access” into public spaces and employment opportunities. By focusing primarily on the needs of individuals using a wheelchair, ADA overlooked the needs of millions.
70% of those living with a disability today are not wheelchair users, but are people living with autism, visual and auditory limitations, cognitive and developmental challenges and other complex differences. Disabled individuals represent the largest and fastest growing minority in the world and yet, they still have no parks to play in.
In fact, in the 25 years since ADA came into law, virtually no enhancements were made to improving playground design. Children with autism come to mind as a particular and shamefully forgotten group. When ADA law passed in 1990, 1 child in 2,000 was being diagnosed with autism. Today, this figure is 1 in 45 and expected to grow rapidly.
Step back and really think about it — Where are these children playing? How can they feel included in their communities when none of their local parks have been designed to meet their unique play needs?
The most prominent impact ADA has had on playground design is their introduction of what I refer to as a “ramp and clamp” pathway. Formally called the post and deck system, it was originally created for use for an elementary school by Jay Beckwith. Often called the “father of the modern playground,” Beckwith laments how the industry misuses his invention today.“In those days we talked a lot about “play environments,” he says. ‘We did not intend that post and deck play structures become the total play space, which is now sadly the rule.”
Not only do the ramps do little to enhance anyone’s play value but they are an eyesore to any landscape. To understand why parks are rapidly losing their audience, one need not look further than today’s typical “ADA accessible”
Desperate for a different kind of park, parents around the United States have valiantly taken it upon themselves to raise extra funds needed and help cities make an attempt at a more interesting and inclusive place to play. It is remarkable that most playgrounds considered “accessible” or “inclusive” are typically the result of a parent and/or volunteer group effort. It is exactly this reason that makes it even more heartbreaking when the end result of these community-led projects still resemble those that preceded them.
The reason for limited design and equipment diversity is because cities limit their scopes to the inadequate parameters set forth by the ADA. No one wants to take on the extra effort and cost to go beyond the standards and, as a result, equipment manufacturers lack the motivation to innovate.
Hadley’s Park in Maryland is one of many such parent-sponsored public parks. An effort lovingly spearheaded by the Kramm family for their child with cerebral palsy to have a place to play, it was the very first of its kind in the state of Maryland. While more vibrant (and expensive!) than a typical city-sponsored park, the generic equipment and ramping system layout still remained largely, again, because of the mandate to adhere to ADA law.
For the autistic or anxious child, this confined and connected play space is sure to be over-stimulating. These children benefit from predictive play and a variety of retreat opportunities to have the ability to calm themselves when needed. Sometimes older children, who are much younger cognitively, will find the equipment sizing to be too small and noticeably stand out among their smaller playmates.
My frustration with today’s playground design started with the surprise that, of the 34 parks in my mindful, privileged Silicon Valley community, my youngest daughter Ava had no place to play. Born with significant global disabilities that made walking across uneven surfaces difficult, holding onto the chains of a swing impossible and ultimately realizing that she will play like a 2 year old even when she is 15. I set out to be the next parent to produce a great “accessible” playground in Palo Alto.
I researched those who had come before me and discovered there was not a single park anywhere that captured the magic I was looking for. When I told my wise friend Dawn Billman that there were no parks that inspired me, she enthusiastically encouraged me to create the kind of playground I envision not only for Ava, but also for the countless like her in our own neighborhoods. “We will do it!” she exclaimed and with those four words, she and I became the founding duo of what would become a 7 year labor of love.
We assembled a team of passionate volunteers, secured land from the city of Palo Alto and began our quest to dream up a playground that children and adults of all abilities would find more magical than any other!
American manufacturers like Landscape Structures, GameTime, PlayCore, Playcraft and others limit their innovation to the ADA law. Play equipment catalogs have separate categories to find “inclusive” equipment but shouldn’t all playgrounds be inclusive? The manufacturers also prescribe age grouping, like 2-5 and 5-13 so those who are older than 13 are not encouraged to play, no matter what their abilities or interests. There are too many different kids today to place such restrictions on age definitions within a park.
Playground equipment catalogs continue to associate wheelchair users with low cognitive abilities by creating low play value experiences for them. How much fun do these look like?
The urgency to create a place for children of all ages and varying abilities was so evident that our team could hardly wait to get started! We were not building a “wheelchair” or “special needs” playground but a true community playground. If we could create this in the heart of innovation, Silicon Valley, we hoped it would provide a beacon for others to follow.
With the skillful guidance of landscape architect firms Royston Hanamoto Alley & Abey (RHAA),Barbara Butler artist-builder, the city of Palo Alto’s Peter Jensen and Verde Design, we began the exciting journey of designing a new kind of playground. At an estimated cost of $4 million, most of which would be entirely privately funded, it gave us the latitude to create the park of our dreams. We were designing way beyond the standards set forth by ADA. We were determined to prove that when you design for everybody, no body stands out.
At the helm of our Magical Bridge team were graphic designer extraordinaire, Kris Loew, media guru Jill Asher, and the City of Palo Alto’s landscape architect Peter Jensen. In addition of hundreds of dedicated volunteers along the way, our dream team was ready!
Within 2 years of focused fundraising by the most determined people I know (and all the precious kids who spent weekends selling lemonade all over town) we did it! We raised the funds needed and broke ground June 23, 2014.
Some of the most notable elements that made Magical Bridge different than typical ADA playgrounds:
- 7 separate socially inclusive play zones to ensure predictability and easy navigation (These include a spinning zone, with five separate play structures a swing zone with four different types of swings; a sliding-and-climbing zone with four slides and a walkway bridge that reduces the need for ramps; and a “tot-a-lot” zone designed for children aged 2 to 5 and featuring a double slide, a climbing apparatus and a spinning bowl);
- A 2-story hand-crafted Barbara Butler wheelchair-accessible playhouse and tree house;
- Seamless paths with no “ramps and clamps”, but through landscape design and a variety of ground surfacing;
- Lots of shade throughout;
- All equipment sized to be appropriate for adult-sized visitors (excluding Tot Zone);
- Aesthetically pleasing equipment varieties, from various vendors around the globe;
- All-age-friendly, wheelchair-inclusive stage ready to welcome visitors of any talent and ability;
- A magical tree walk that takes visitors through the trees as never before;
- Retreat areas throughout the playground for children with autism or anxiety that get over-stimulated by traditional park experiences;
- 24-string laser harp designed by artist Jen Lewin, tuned specifically to be pleasing to the ear of an autistic child but enjoyed by all. Movement through the invisible beams create beautiful soothing music and help foster new friendships with all who come to play on the harp;
- A “Kindness Corner” ensures kids know that bullying has no place here, and it a reminds us to be kind to those around us;
- Kindness Ambassadors roam the playground, encouraging friendships, modeling kind behavior and even surprising some
On April 18th, 2015 the Magical Bridge playground opened to the public and we were elated with the response! Thousands showed up to experience a real community park. How could a place that welcomed children with autism, those with visual and sensory differences, the elderly, visitors with cognitive challenges and those living with medical conditions actually be fun? And that is the real magic behind the Magical Bridge! When one enters this space, differences disappear and kids who had no choice but to sit on the sidelines now play alongside everyone else, and parents whose mobility challenges limited their ability to play with their kids all feel the magic.
We expected crowds on opening day but what we didn’t expect was that these crowds would continue to come and multiply. Day after day, week after week, schools and families, traveling for hours, just to give their children a chance to play, often, for the very first time.
A school group in a town two hours away called to let me know that their community raised money to purchase a van for them so they could bring these special kids to the playground. They were 3-5th graders with medically fragile conditions that had prevented them from safely playing in any other playground.
The impact Magical Bridge would have in the weeks and months that have followed has been profound. Our founding team enjoys hearing from grateful families that appreciate our effort to highlight the diverse abilities in each community. It is time for ADA to be challenged and time for cities to serve everyone.
Hundreds of emails from around the globe have been asking for our advice on ways to capture the magic of the Magical Bridge and, until recently, we were not sure how we could get to each of them. Now, we are poised and ready to do exactly that.
The lives of those of us on the original volunteer team have been impacted so deeply with this work that we have just established the Magical Bridge Foundation as a new non-profit. With legal counsel and paperwork being offered to us (magically pro bono) by Silicon Valley’s premier law firm, we will begin this next chapter of work in January of 2016 to unite voices and impact change for playgrounds everywhere.
Only by bridging the gap between those with and without disabilities will real magic occur.
Olenka Villarreal spent 18 years working with start-up and technology companies in Silicon Valley. When her second daughter was born with disabilities in 2003, she turned her focus on improving the quality of life for the often-overlooked disabled population. Olenka serves on several Board of Directors in Northern California and was presented with the prestigious Jefferson Service Award in recognition for building the Magical Bridge Playground. She earned a BA from Pomona College and MBA from Golden Gate University. Olenka lives in Palo Alto California with her husband, 10th grade daughter Emma and now 12 year old daughter Ava.
This article was originally published in a publication of Design For All Institute of India, December 2015, Vol-10 No-12