Promoting Recreation and Play in Public Spaces

Design Issues

children playing in water at st patricks island

As the saying goes, “school’s out for summer,” so it’s time to play! And we’re not just talking about kids. Play can mean any form of leisure or recreation, for any age group, in any season; but there’s no doubt that summer draws us all outside, and we feel better for it. The benefits of play and other forms of physical activity are widely understood to include mental and physical health, mood, energy, and more. This motivates our mission to connect people with nature and with each other. Many of our recent projects include spaces that promote different forms of recreation and play:

At St. Patrick’s Island Park in Calgary, Alberta, we helped to transform one of the city’s oldest yet abandoned parks into a thriving destination for hiking and biking, water play, concerts and events. Restoring a functional breach in the river – i.e. letting the water flood parts of the island naturally – reconnects residents and visitors to the river and provides a safe space for outdoor recreation. An amphitheater also sits atop the hill, offering some of the best views of the city in addition to space for programmed entertainment.

Yoga at North Carolina museum of Art park

Outside of Raleigh, North Carolina, the Ann and Jim Goodnight Museum Park “connects art, nature and people to encourage creative experiences and human interactions.” Surrounding the North Carolina Museum of Art, the 164-acre park not only provides unique space for exhibits and sculptures; this time of year especially, it’s also frequently used for events like story time in the garden, sunset yoga, sculpture tours, and concerts. And though Raleigh is a bustling metropolis, the park’s hilly site and abundant trees ensure that the nearby city feels far away, as visitors can properly immerse themselves in nature.

black bear park

Black Bay Park in Post Falls, Idaho, offers a similar escape into nature. Occupying a 56-acre parcel of land between the town and the Spokane River, many people consider the park a well-kept secret. Our renovation of the park will maintain its natural features yet improve access for everyone through a new network of trails and boardwalks, floating docks, recreation courts and play areas.

Whether it’s a vacation or a staycation, parks are wonderful summer destinations. The National Park Service reports that there were more than 297 million recreation visits to the park system’s more than 400 national parks in 2021. 73 parks had more than one million recreation visits last year. The Great Smoky Mountains or Gulf Islands aren’t reachable for everyone though, and sometimes we just want a park in our own backyard.

5280 trail sketch

Here in Denver, our master plan for the 5280 Trail – a 5.280-mile loop through downtown Denver – proposes a strategy to get people out to experience six different neighborhoods in healthy new ways, with new perspectives. It creates urban green space that is visible and accessible from each neighborhood, easily reached within a few minutes’ walk and open to everyone. Several existing landmarks are linked together by the trail; for example, the historic Sunken Gardens Park will benefit from enhancements that increase its useability and attract new users from the neighborhood and beyond.

Jones center play area

In Springdale, Arkansas, where we’re creating a vision for the 52-acre campus of the already popular Jones Center, our extensive public engagement process made it clear that this diverse community craves a dedicated place to gather and play. New outdoor courts will be available for basketball, pickleball and more. A large, sloped lawn area will act as a new community amphitheater. A triangular play zone will feature an accessible play structure as well as space for nature play and different zones for different age groups. And garden spaces and wildflower meadows will be the backdrops for small, informal gatherings, and quiet connections with nature.

twin silo park

With a playground at its core, Twin Silo Park in Fort Collins might seem the most literal of our “playful” projects, but a broader view makes it clear that a wide variety of recreation spaces serve a wide variety of residents and visitors – all celebrating this community’s close relationship with nature. The award-winning park’s recreation trails, creek-side natural play area, BMX course, baseball and soccer fields – as well as its innovative playground – have turned Twin Silo into a destination that draws people from many miles away.

Research conducted by The Vacationer indicates that over 80% of American adults – 208 million of them – plan to travel this summer, an increase of 19% over 2021’s numbers. Gas prices and inflation, war and political tensions, and the third summer (and counting) of a pandemic aren’t holding us back. But whether we’re one of the millions of travelers or simply staying close to home, we all need to make more time to get out into the world, so we’ll continue to design places that make it a little easier and more fun to do so.