Koret Children’s Quarter

Situated near the eastern end of Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, the Koret Children’s Quarter playground is a popular destination for city residents. It was built in 2007, replacing the former Sharon Quarters for Children, which was originally constructed in 1888 and believed to be the first public playground in the U.S.  The current play area includes a combination of natural elements, unique sculptures, and manufactured playground structures. One major attraction is an undulating concrete slide built into a hillside.

In 2017, the large play structure was destroyed by arson, but was replaced a year later.

Natural play elements:  sand, rocks, & vegetation
The main play structure includes a ramp connecting to a hillside path,
providing wheelchair accessibility.
The beloved concrete slide
Ocean-themed play sculptures
Lots of plantings surround the play area.
Play sculpture area for pre-school kids

Photos by Alice Webb

Project design by MIG

Olympic Sculpture Park

Situated on a former industrial site along Seattle’s waterfront, Olympic Sculpture Park consists of a series of dramatic angular surfaces that rise from the shoreline toward the urban center, bridging both a busy street and a railroad. A variety of sculptures accentuate the landscape, which ranges from open lawns to wooded slopes.

The park, which is part of the Seattle Art Museum, was completed in 2007.

“Wake”
“Eagle”
Eye benches and Father and Son fountain
“Echo”
Staircase entry from the waterfront area
There are also sloped walkways to the higher elevations of the park.
“Seattle Cloud Cover”
This piece is situated along a bridge over railroad tracks.

Photos by Alice Webb

Project design by Weiss/Manfredi

Freeway Park, Seattle

I had the opportunity to visit Jim Ellis Freeway Park in downtown Seattle last June – an iconic public space designed by landscape architects Lawrence Halprin & Angela Danadjieva. It was the first park built over a freeway, and was conceived as a means of re-connecting neighborhoods that were severed from the downtown when Interstate 5 was built. The original section of the park was opened on July 4, 1976 – the nation’s bicentennial.

The park’s structures were designed in the brutalist style that was in vogue at the time, including board-formed concrete walls, planters, and fountain elements. Also, Halprin envisioned the character of this space as “freeway vernacular” (hence the emphasis on concrete), while representing the region’s mountain ranges with the various heights and shapes of the fountain structures. Waterfalls were a large part of the fountains during the early years of the park, and effectively masked the noise from vehicular traffic on the freeway below. However, due to maintenance and safety concerns, some of the fountains were shut off in more recent years. When I visited, no water was running, and I don’t know whether the fountains are turned on at all during the summer.

Plantings throughout the park were also designed to help mask freeway noise and to reduce vehicular pollution. The plant communities represent those typically found in the natural areas of the nearby mountains, and include many mature trees and broadleaf evergreen shrubs.

Urban parks built in this style in the decades following World War II have often suffered from neglect in recent years, but this space seems to be relatively well-maintained and appreciated, at least for now. I hope the interest and support for Freeway Park will persist into the future.


Main fountain structure in Freeway Park


Typical zig-zag walkway with seating


One of several park entrances


Smaller fountain structure next to one of the park’s plazas


Typical seating design


Main fountain structure, sans water

Photos by Alice Webb

Post Office Square, Boston

In Boston’s financial district, a lovely 1.7-acre park is nestled between the office buildings, giving workers and others a pleasant respite for enjoying lunch and relaxation. Post Office Square, also known as Norman B. Leventhal Park, features numerous trees and other plantings, an open lawn, a pergola along one boundary, fountains, and a café. This space is privately-owned and maintained, but open to the public. It was completed in 1992 on a site that was formerly occupied by an above-ground garage. Parking is now located below the property.
 
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A central lawn, pergola with benches, and other seating areas provide plenty of opportunities for relaxation.
 
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Fountain near the north end of the park
 
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Seating wall along the west side of the space
 
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Café with outdoor seating at the south end
 
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The park is flanked by several attractive art deco buildings.
 
Photos by Alice Webb

North End Parks, Boston

On a chilly, windy Sunday back in late March, I walked the majority of the Rose Kennedy Greenway while visiting Boston. I found that most areas were devoid of visitors, except for the North End Parks and the southern-most tip at the Chinatown gate (which always seems to have activity). The two North End parcels (divided by a cross street) include a spacious steel pergola running along the east perimeter, facing a lawn and linear water play areas. I imagine that these spaces attract big crowds in summer, judging from the amount of use they got on the cold day I visited. The parks feel quite connected to the city, with views in all directions of downtown and north end buildings, as well as the iconic Zakim bridge. However, ample plantings and some grade separations help to segregate these spaces comfortably from the busy perimeter streets.
 
North End Parks 1
All the swinging benches in the pergolas were occupied at the time – unfortunately, I’ve heard that they’ve been removed due to maintenance/safety issues, and replaced with standard benches (which were there before).
 
North End Parks 2
 
North End Parks 3
Area with water play jets
 
North End Parks 4
 
North End Parks 5
 
Photos by Alice Webb

An Uncommon Playground

I finally got to visit the play area on the Common in Cambridge, Massachusetts – A superbly-designed space with hills, custom wooden structures, sand and water play areas, logs, plants, and other fun and unusual components. It includes many elements that help define a successful playground – one modeled on natural features that fosters imaginative, open-ended play. Although there weren’t many children there when I visited (likely due to cold weather and other plans on Easter Sunday), I could tell that the playground is well-used and loved, with sand tracked all over the place!
 
Cambridge Common Playground 1
A challenging wooden climber
 
Cambridge Common Playground 2
Sand play station
 
Cambridge Common Playground 3
Swings, plants, rocks, and a wheelchair-accessible merry-go-round
 
Cambridge Common Playground 4
Climbing net on a hillside
 
Cambridge Common Playground 5
A custom wooden structure, slide, and tunnel
 
Cambridge Common Playground 6
Water play station (too cold in March for the water to be turned on yet)
 
Cambridge Common Playground 7
One of several attractive custom wooden benches
 
Cambridge Common Playground 8
Custom wooden picnic table and seats
 
Cambridge Common Playground 9
Sculptural entry gate
 
Cambridge Common Playground 10
Logs provide a balance challenge
 
Cambridge Common Playground 11
Wooden “ship”
 
Cambridge Common Playground 12
Double slide embedded in a mound
 
Photos by Alice Webb

Landscape as Art

While attending an outdoor concert at the North Carolina Museum of Art in the late 1990s, I remember feeling curious about a seemingly odd series of large shapes in various materials lined up between the museum building and the amphitheater. I also wondered about the geometric forms protruding from the stage in strange directions, and a gray-painted rectangle superimposed on part of theater seating area. I never closely investigated the objects, being more interested in the musical entertainment at that time. Then I happened to see an aerial image of the site, discovering that the shapes are actually letters spelling “Picture This”— clever, but really only when viewed from above. I later learned that some of the letters include phrases that reference the history, culture, and landscape of North Carolina – at least that is something to be gained when viewing the objects at ground level, where most people see them.
 
Aerial 1
“Picture This”, a sculptural installation at the North Carolina Museum of Art
 
In my opinion, for art to successfully function as part of the landscape of a public space, it not only needs to be comprehensible from eye level; it also should communicate well with its surroundings. Furthermore, the design should include a sufficient amount of elements at human scale (such as seating and planted areas), especially when a plan includes vast expanses of pavement. In recent years, various blogs I’ve followed have included striking images of public landscapes with interesting flowing forms, geometric lines and shapes, and bright colors. Many of these photos, however, were taken from above. For some projects, aerial images were the only ones included, which makes me wonder whether these spaces truly work: Are they comfortable and inviting places? Do people tend to linger in these settings, or are they devoid of much activity?
 
One such project that intrigues me is the seafront promenade in Benidorm, Spain, probably because of its rainbow of pavement colors and curvy walls which mimic ocean waves. I haven’t visited this beach, so I couldn’t say whether it succeeds as a public space, but I like how each color lends some identity to every section of this extensive walkway, instead of repeating the same pattern and/or colors along its entire length. I think that certain unifying elements are important throughout any type of site design; but long, linear spaces should include some variety as well, to avoid creating a monotonous experience along these corridors.
 
Aerial 2
Seafront promenade, Benidorm, Spain
 
For comparison, in another part of Spain, a median promenade along the Avenida de Portugal, in Madrid, includes large flower motifs throughout its length, referencing a valley in the region known for its cherry blossoms. The median is actually the roof of a highway tunnel, and the image below only shows one portion of this walkway. I’m curious to know whether this space is well-used.
 
Aerial 3
Avenida de Portugal, Madrid, Spain
 
The following aerial images include a few more public spaces which are fascinating and attractive when viewed in two dimensions. Some of these and others that I’ve seen in photos from above make me think of abstract paintings or fiber art works. Do they function well in 3-D at human level? I will reserve judgment until and unless I have the chance to experience them in person. (Even photos taken from the ground don’t often give me a sense of how a space feels.) If any of my readers have been to these or other sites with an emphasis on artistic forms, I would love to hear some comments.
 
Aerial 4
Grand Canal Square, Docklands, Dublin, Ireland
 
Aerial 5
Earthly Pond Service Center, International Horticulture Exposition, Qingdao, China
 
Aerial 6
Superkilen (south section), Copenhagen, Denmark
 
Aerial 7
Superkilen (north section), Copenhagen, Denmark
 
All images obtained from Google Earth.