A Tour of Portland Playgrounds

Mara Kaplan's picture
Posted By Mara Kaplan
September 10, 2015

Portland Oregon parks

I had the pleasure of visiting Portland, Oregon a couple of weeks ago. I spent much of my time seeing their newer playgrounds, and I have to say I was incredibly impressed. Their playgrounds were far from the cookie cutter playground that I often see in large cities. Each of the playgrounds I visited had a different feel, different types of activities, and a good design.

I learned later that the head of Portland Parks and Rec, Mike Abbaté, is a landscape architect with 30 years of experience in the planning and design of public parks and recreational facilities. Abbate has been with Portland Parks and Rec since 2011. In 1997 Mike co-founded GreenWorks, an award-winning landscape architecture and environmental design consulting firm, recognized for its sustainable design philosophy. You can see the influence of the landscape architect’s beliefs throughout the parks.

Prior to the hiring of Abbate in 1999, Portland Parks and Rec developed a vision and strategic plan for the city – Vision 2020. Vision 2020’s goals are:

  • Ensure Portland's park and recreation legacy for future generations.
  • Provide a wide variety of high quality park and recreation services, and opportunities for all residents.
  • Preserve, protect, and restore Portland's natural resources to provide "nature in the city."
  • Create an interconnected regional and local system of trails, paths, and walks to make Portland "the walking city of the West."
  • Develop parks, recreation facilities, and programs that promote community in the city.

What I saw in Portland that impressed me was their effort to provide access to nature, and a concerted effort to ensure access and inclusion for people with disabilities.

I visited 7 playgrounds and discovered many fountains that were attracting tons of kids on a hot day. Below are descriptions of my five favorite playgrounds. Some of these playgrounds were designed to be inclusive; however, I was able to find things that children with disabilities could do in most of the playgrounds. You can find many more pictures of my Portland Playground Tour on the Let Kids Play Facebook Page.

Dawson Park

Dawson Park - Portland Oregon

Dawson Park was renovated in 2013 and much was done to increase its accessibility. The playground has beautiful turf surfacing making it easy to maneuver on the playground.

I really loved the water feature, which not only enabled all kids to play in the water, but also respected the long history of the park. Each of the granite boulders are engraved with historic moments that happened in Dawson Park.

The playground includes many inclusive pieces such as Landscape Structures Wee-Saw, spin cups, accessible swing seats, and a Freenotes instrument. There are also traditional games such as basketball and four square available. The historic gazebo was renovated to make it accessible, and there are great accessible picnic tables and other amenities.

Arbor Lodge Park

Arbor Lodge Park - Portland Oregon

Arbor Lodge Park is home to Harper’s Playground, a universally accessible playground. The playground is a combination of manufactured play equipment and unique structures built specifically for this Harper’s Playground to promote inclusion.

Harper’s Playground opened in 2012 as the first of its kind in the Portland area. The playground has been so successful that the people behind it are working with Portland Parks and Rec on two additional playgrounds.

Some of the features include:

Westmoreland Park

Westmoreland Nature Play Park - Portland Oregon

Westmoreland Nature Play Park, which opened in 2014, is a pilot project for the park bureau's Nature-Based Play Initiative, which aims to connect children with nature and promote environmental appreciation. It enables kids to climb on logs and boulders, play in sand and water, and build with branches and other natural materials. Some of the features include:

  • A concrete stream channel with water pumps where children can manipulate the water's flow
  • Logs tilted at varying inclines for children to climb on
  • Stone markers along the stream engraved with the story of Crystal Springs
  • A grove of giant sequoia trees
  • A grassy picnic area and benches
  • Low fencing to help keep younger children within the boundaries of the play area

The project has received many awards including:

  • Oregon Chapter of ASLA with an Honor Award for design
  • Best Public Art Projects of the year by Americans for the Arts

This playground has been mobbed since it opened. Children of all ages (including some in their 80s) can be found daily playing in the sand. There is great seating around the water and sand areas to allow children some space, but just as many parents have their hands in the sand along with their children. As you can see in the above picture, the sand area is filled with fun equipment to play with, all brought to the park by families and left there for others to use.

The climbing structures were built by an artist, and depending on the side you go up, it can be easier or more challenging. There are sticks around to build your own stuff.

I especially liked the area under the amazing trees. It was quiet and beautiful and a perfect place for children to use their imaginations or just get away from the activity for a while.

This playground was not specifically designed to be inclusive, and a child using a wheelchair might not find enough to do here, but it is a truly wonderful community asset.

Washington Park

Washington Park entrance - Portland Oregon

Washington Park is a huge destination park which includes the Portland Zoo and the Portland Children’s Museum. The area I visited was the Rose Garden Children’s Playground. The playground is a more traditional ramped structure; one that is very well done. Here are a few examples:

  • Many interesting things to do along the ramps
  • Stainless steel slides
  • Overhead events are at different heights
  • Spaces to play underneath the structure

There is a sand play area, which would be difficult for someone using a wheelchair to access, but that other children would greatly enjoy.

There are also swings, including accessible swing seats.

Khunamokwst Park

Khunamokwst Park - Portland Oregon

Khunamokwst is the newest park I visited, having just opened up in May. The park features:

  • Traditional children’s playground with a ramped entrance and an innovative “nature play” area with boulders to climb on and a slide on a hillside
  • Interactive water feature and play area
  • Paths for walking and jogging
  • Native plants
  • Accessible picnic tables and shelters
  • Skate dot – small skateboard park with kids and beginners in mind

I liked the water play area at Khunamokwst, which has a pump that was easy to access as well as interactive features that let a child control the spray. Unfortunately, only some of this playground has turf surfacing; many of the nature play pieces are on engineered wood fiber. However, the swings, the module structure, and the water feature are all easily accessible.

The families I found playing there were thrilled with their new park.

Fountains

Waterfront Salmon Street water feature - Portland Oregon

In addition to these playgrounds, I found tons of fountains throughout Portland that were full of children of all ages and abilities. These were often found as part of community squares and gathering places, not as components of playgrounds. They offer another good reason to go “play” in Portland.

Conclusion

I am impressed with the amount of detail that is available on each park’s page on their Parks and Rec website. It provides detailed accessibility information including what type of surfacing the playground has.

Last year the citizens of Portland passed a $68 million bond measure to “Fix our Parks!” Coupled with this is their 20 year ADA transition plan to remove all barriers in Portland Parks and Rec facilities, which is detailed out on their website, including identifying every barrier. With these initiatives I foresee many more accessible, inclusive, and unique play spaces in Portland’s future.

Kudos to all of Portland Parks and Rec staff, especially to Sandra Burtzos, who provided me with this opportunity to tour these playgrounds.

About Mara Kaplan

Mara Kaplan is the driving force behind Let Kids Play, a consulting firm working to ensure that all children have excellent play opportunities. She is an educator, a parent of a child with disabilities and a season advocate for inclusive play....

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