A Conversation about the 2021 Pioneer Park Playground Redesign

Fairbanks North Star Borough (FNSB) has been working on a redesign of the Pioneer Park playground for several years. FNSB hired Bettisworth North to help them consolidate and illustrate the borough’s ideas for the redesign. The project team included representatives from the Fairbanks community, FNSB staff members, designers from Bettisworth North, and representatives from playground equipment manufacturers. The multidisciplinary team completed the concept design in January of 2021.  The concept design is the first step in the future renovation of the play area, and, once built, will include new accessible play equipment; interpretive and educational opportunities focused on Alaska’s history, natural environment, and culture; and an ice-loop for wintertime skating. For more information please visit the FNSB website.

Corey DiRutigliano and Mélisa Babb, employees at Bettisworth North, were involved in helping to bring FNSB’s vision to life via facilitating design charrettes and then producing concept site plans and marketing graphics. Corey and Mélisa recently sat down together to talk about why this project was so important to them, both on a personal level and as design professionals.


 

Personal history/connection with playgrounds

Corey: Some of my earliest memories from childhood—like many of us—revolve around playgrounds. Learning balance, coordination, what time of year sun-basked metal is great for sitting on and when it’s not, where to find the best puddles after the rain and how best to convert play equipment into forts. For me, the playground was, and is (equipment permitting), a place where I could have free, unbounded play with other kids from all over the community. I can still recall the improvisational games we’d make up on the playground (hot lava, capture the flag and zombie tag to name a few), and I see that as a sign of importance. That after all these years, those moments and memories have stuck with me, and I think played a critical role in why I am now designing spaces professionally.

Photos curtesy of Corey DiRutigliano

Mélisa: I grew up in remote areas without any formal playgrounds, so outside play was always free-range. We climbed trees, built forts, played in the mud, etc. When we did finally move to a more populated area that had playgrounds, I’m old enough that the playgrounds didn’t have safety surfacing, the equipment was mostly made of metal, and there were very few safety precautions in place. I loved all of it though. Free-range play, play that involves imagination and a healthy amount of risk, is super essential for children’s development, and I was lucky enough to have that when I was very young. I want every kid out there to experience the fun of natural and imaginative play, so building and designing public playgrounds is very important to me.

Photos curtesy of Melisa Babb


The challenges in designing contemporary playgrounds, specifically in Alaska

Corey: In so many ways, I think of Alaska as being the largest playground in the US. It’s a destination for people of all ages and has vast, amazing spaces and parks. From fishing and hunting, kayaking, hiking there are boundless opportunities for residents and visitors to explore and discover. When you zoom into a community area to craft a structured play space, the biggest challenges I find are trying to capture the energy present in the natural world around us. Designing for elements of surprise, discovery, experimentation and, like Mélisa mentioned, allowing Free-Range play, is so important and takes a lot of care to balance correctly. Too much polish and a space can feel contrived and hermetically sealed, too loose and it seems like there was no attention given. Then when you layer-in Alaska’s seasonal weather factors, how play equipment behaves under different conditions, and trying to keep the space inviting, the project demands an extra level of skill.

Mélisa: Safety, seasonality, and universal access are the three most challenging pieces of a playground design in Alaska.

Modern playgrounds are colorful and attractive and much safer than they used to be, but it is much more difficult to provide imaginative and natural play in such a controlled environment. My goal with the playgrounds I design is to provide that free-range play feeling for kids, while ensuring they are safe from serious bodily harm.

Like Corey mentioned, seasonality plays into that as well. We have short summers, but kids are out on play equipment year-round, so we must consider how the kids will be using the equipment in the winter, will it still function the same way, are there other programming options or play opportunities for wintertime?

Universal access is only challenging because it is a newer concept in the world of playground design. People think of playgrounds as spaces for kids, but historically a lot of kids with disabilities were left out of the picture. They couldn’t reach the play equipment because the pea gravel was too difficult to navigate in a wheelchair, or they play equipment wasn’t attractive to kids who needed different sensory input. And adults never considered joining the kids in the play area. Teachers, guardians, parents, grandparents generally observed from benches on the edge of the playgrounds. Now, we are proud to be helping foster this move toward more inclusive environments. We are inviting kids with disabilities into the space and hoping that the easier access means that parents and grandparents will be more likely to wander into the space as well.

Universal Design. Why is it such an important part of the play experience?

Mélisa: There’s a saying that the disabled community is the largest minority community and the only one that anyone could join at any time. I could go skiing today, injure my leg, and end up in a wheelchair or using a walker for the rest of my life. If that happened, I’d still love to be able to get out onto the playground with my kids. You know, be at the bottom of the slide to catch them if they need me, but I wouldn’t be able to do that on a playground that isn’t specifically designed to accommodate my disability by providing a walkable surfacing instead of gravel or sand.

Imagine all the kids out there who were born with disabilities, or who ended up with one somehow, who have to sit on the side of the playground at school while all the other kids are playing. That’s terrible! And it’s not just terrible for the kids on the sidelines, it also means that the kids out playing on the equipment don’t have the opportunity to interact and be social with the kids using the wheelchairs or with their elderly relative who’s sitting on the bench at the edge of the play space because the area is too difficult to navigate with a cane. That one small adjustment to the kind of surfacing used on a playground can open up so many opportunities for great social interactions and learning. And providing equipment geared toward different sensory play for kids with autism or kids with sensory processing disorders can do the same thing. The playgrounds suddenly function well for everyone. The question really becomes, why wouldn’t we want to build for universal access and enjoyment?

Corey: Mélisa you hit the nail on the head, universal design doesn’t have to mean watered down, or somehow diminished design. It means that no matter who you are or what you can do, you belong here. Universal design also means that the design, equipment, and materials can and must still provide levels of excitement and risk factors; elements so important to play. I also think that childhood (and frankly it shouldn’t stop there!) is a super important time where you are creating your foundational understanding of the world. If the playground, the melting pot for our youngest minds and minds largely free from stereotype or prejudice, has a built-in level of access privilege, this telegraphs a terrible message about who is welcome in our community. If we want our communities to embody inclusivity, then the playgrounds in our public spaces are the perfect place to start. For more information on inclusive design click on this link.



Community

Corey: When our office had the opportunity to help plan and design for the next generation users of the Pioneer Park (AlaskaLand) playground, we were thrilled to be able to contribute. My family and I have years of memories tied to the park, regularly visiting throughout the seasons. From gear swaps to Halloween town, and train rides to soft serve, I’ve watched my kids grow up here and evolve from too-shy-to-wander-off, to see-you-in-a-few-hours. The park and playground have been a continual fount of energy and eclectic events, one which humbly speaks to Fairbanks as community with a rich of history and a diverse, resourceful, active, and resilient people. Working on a core playground in this community is a humbling experience and one which we hope will continue to serve as a gem at the center of the golden heart.

Mélisa: I wholeheartedly second that. Pioneer Park is such an important part of Fairbanks that I was honored to have a chance to work on the design for the playground. My hope is that it ultimately feels like a natural part of Pioneer Park, that it functions like an outdoor living room for Fairbanks residents. And, since Pioneer Park is a well-loved tourist destination as well, the hope is that the playground redesign will provide visitors from all over the world a fun opportunity to learn about Alaska’s unique history, geography, and culture.

I’m grateful that FNSB invited us to participate in their vision for the playground, and I am excited to see the concept plan implemented.



Bios:

Corey DiRutigliano is an architect and graphic designer, who enjoys working in both urban and rural environments. Project experience ranges from designing super-tall buildings in the middle east to small single-family homes in Rural Alaska, and most recently is working with several Fairbanks-area agencies and the Bettisworth North team on parks and surface transportation projects in the North Star Borough.

Mélisa Babb is an Alaska landscape architect who specializes in arctic and sub-arctic landscapes, site planning for public institutions, universal playground design, municipal green infrastructure systems, and complete streets. She grew up in rural and remote areas in the lower 48, so moving to Alaska was like coming home.


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