In 2012, the Chicago Park District recruited site design group, ltd., to design renovations to existing park playgrounds on Chicago's north and northwest sides. Located only miles from each other, the projects, which included Mellin and Merryman parks, were bid as one design and construction package.
The existing parks represented an ongoing problem with many urban play areas; they were not maintained over the years, and contained degraded and outdated equipment that did not meet current safety and accessibility guidelines. Each park went through a community process to help define play features, equipment, and colors that were best suited to the users. The completed parks illustrate the power of low-cost playground renovations, demonstrating that even the smallest playground can depart from the traditional post and platform structure with distinctive, dynamic and challenging play spaces.
Mellin Park, located in the Edgewater neighborhood, is a .22-acre pocket park situated at the intersection of Ashland and Bryn Mawr Avenues. Overlapping circular forms inspired the layout of the park, and were repeated throughout the design. A field of free-form rubber mounds and turfgrass berms bound the northern edge of the park, creating a space for 2-5-year-olds, who tend toward sensory play. A play structure for and swing set 2-12-year-olds demarcates the southern edge.
Seating opportunities exist throughout, including a shade structure over a picnic table (Landscape Structures) toward the center of the park, creating a perfect location for parents and guardians to watch their children play, or kids to gather for a game or study session. A color theme of orange, gray, and blue is evident throughout the park, giving the playground a playful facade familiar to Chicago Bears fans.
Merryman Park, a .15-acre lot sandwiched between residential homes on all four sides, is located in the Lakeview neighborhood, and features a unique and exploratory net dome (Kompan) that greets visitors at the entrance. Visitors move through a donor paver passageway surrounded by unique concrete 'twig' benches and rare turquoise boulders, and find a swing set and small play structure with opportunities for climbing, sliding, and twisting at the park's western edge. Several ash trees had to be removed, but many mature trees in and around the park were retained to maintain the site's shade canopy. Several rare native tree species were introduced, and more trees stood in the park when construction ended then before it began. Shades of green and blue can be found throughout the park, creating a lively but naturalistic aesthetic. Children from the community played a special part in selecting the colors and equipment at Merryman Park, including a rainbow-colored rope in the net dome.
The design provides inventive, exploratory play experiences and physical challenges for ages ranging from two to 12, and accommodates a number of disabilities, including physical, cognitive, and emotional limitations. The playgrounds all meet or exceed municipally mandated accessibility standards. The landscape at each park focuses on easily maintained and native or adapted species. Canopy trees, ornamental trees, and deciduous shrubs were specified for their bright spring blooms and lively fall colors. Specimens were hand-selected at the nursery by the landscape architect for their unique color and structure.
With only four months from the receipt of contract to the completion of the bid set, the massive effort and coordination that went into these parks is notable. The design and construction of these parks, although small in physical scale, was large in scope.