“Imagine this epic journey to the peak of the castle.”
That’s how designer Mike Salisbury envisions the experience of his “Spiral Mountain” playground in the Queenston Commons park.
Kevin Turcotte, Niagara-on-the-Lake’s manager of parks and recreation, says Salisbury’s design for a natural playground was easily the most popular proposal after a series of community engagement sessions in person and via the Town’s Join the Conversation website.
Village residents had been very clear they didn’t want a traditional children’s playground. “They thought the character of Queenston didn’t lend itself to fluorescent colours,” says Turcotte. A natural alternative was proposed, and Turcotte and the Town were intrigued. “I was excited about it,” he says. “We haven’t done it before, and I’m excited to see how it turns out.”
Turcotte says research supported this kind of treatment. “The chief medical officer of health says kids need to have access to nature,” he says. “It’s about personal challenge, active play — about kids getting in there and getting their hands dirty.”
Salisbury certainly agrees. “Really the direction we’re going for is modern kids, like millennials, are no longer interested in being told they have to do a certain thing a specific way. They like to use their imagination, and create their own experience. Neither millennials nor kids are interested in seeing teeter totters, or the teeter totters of the working world,” he says.
“The most dangerous thing on a playground is boredom. If you don’t give them something to challenge themselves, they’ll find a way to create challenge,” says the Guelph-based designer.
Salisbury designed a unique layout based on a spiral, with a low grassy berm on one end, and a wood fibre mulch area on the other. On the berm is a small castle top, with large rocks spiralling out from it. “The berm is about one metre above ground level, and the castle walls are three quarters of a metre high. The stones are random, although I chose them myself — I found one that is six feet long which I plan to place vertically, or at least on a diagonal,” he says.
The limestone is from the Queenston quarry, and the small castle will be built by Willowbank students. “When I learned about the Willowbank students, I said, ‘You know what? This would be a really cool way to involve the community,’” says Salisbury. “I know they’ll do an artisan job. They’ve been a really great bunch of people, and this will be a good portfolio piece for them. It’s exciting to have them be part of it.”
On the wood fibre side are wooden poles, two to two-and-a-half metres tall, punctuated with several levels of hand- and toe-holds, “created to be technically scaleable to a variety of physical abilities or thresholds for risk,” says Salisbury. “We hope kids say to themselves, ‘Next week I’m going to challenge myself to try to climb to the next level.’ The climbing structure is designed to have a number of ways to use it, up to and including some really, really challenging things. The posts are designed so that it’s close enough to make that step from one to another, but also difficult enough to make you wonder if you can make it.”
Both Salisbury and Turcotte assure all users the park is “fully expandable to all levels of family use.”
Safety has also been considered, with all elements having CSA approval. The grass around the rocks will grow through a rubber matting in a grid format that has an excellent impact rating, and will allow the grass to stay healthier longer, and need less mowing. The wood fibre mulch is a high safety fall surface, and is also wheelchair accessible, says Salisbury.
“The really interesting thing for me, is that this is the first time I’ve submitted a plan that I really liked, and I didn’t expect them to go for something this unconventional, but they did,” says the designer (who also happens to be a Guelph city councillor), thrilled with the collaboration with the residents of Queenston, and with the Town.
“I want people to walk up to it and say, ‘What is this?’,” he says. “It’s designed for open-ended, creative play. Inevitably kids come up with entirely different ways of using it.” He describes the berm, when it’s been seeded with tall grass and fescue, as “a furry mountain.”
“We’re all park age,” Salisbury continues. “One thing I wanted to do, which might be the hardest thing of all, was to have something challenging for all ages to do. I’m going to give it a shot,” he says of trying to climb to the top of the poles.
Turcotte says he looks forward to bringing his own family to the new park. “I take my kids to great playgrounds. A unique park like this, people will search it out,” he says.
“It’s our first natural playground,” Turcotte continues. “The small size will give us a good gauge if the community decides to go natural in a new or refurbished playground anywhere else in NOTL,” he says, explaining the price points are similar, although the results and maintenance are quite different for each.
Both the Town employee and the playground designer were thrilled with the collaborative elements of the project. “I’m excited the community is behind us,” says Turcotte. “It was a great process of working with the community throughout the design process. I’d like to thank the community for their feedback and engagement.”
Salisbury echoes those sentiments: “I’m pretty grateful for the community to have that enthusiasm for something pretty different,” he says. He goes on to express his gratitude to the Willowbank students who offered their own input. “They suggested design ideas, and I incorporated them. It’s a very small park, but we packed a lot of stuff in there.”
“If everything tracks as it should, we should be done by mid-May,” says Turcotte.