03-07-23 | News

Camp Matecumbe Park, The Hammocks, Florida

Douglas Thompson, LandscapeDE
by Staff

Camp Matecumbe Playground is a new nature-focused play space located on an existing 98-acre park in western Miami Dade County.  The existing park includes a significant pine rockland preserve and also houses the historic Camp Matecumbe, where many children refugees escaping Castro's Cuban Revolution in the 1960's were sheltered.  The new playground sits on a 2-acre portion of the park.  Its location was determined by a previously developed park master plan.  At the start of the project, the playground site was predominantly an unirrigated general-purpose field with a baseball backstop. It was nearly flat with very little topography. It contained a substantial stand of trees comprised almost entirely of invasive species, mostly Australian Pines (Casuarina equisetifolia) and Brazilian Peppers (Schinus terebinthifolia). 
The project's scope included a playground and a parking area.  The client, Miami-Dade County Parks Recreation and Open Spaces Department, asked the landscape architect to develop a play space which would blend in with the existing nature of the site, particularly with the Pine Rockland habitat.  This habitat once had covered significant amounts of land in Miami-Dade County, but in recent times it has been reduced to just a few small stands.
In addition to blending with the existing nature of the adjacent preserve, our goal was to create an immersive play experience in which the play area would be intertwined with natural elements.  Our approach to the design was to create a space that would inspire curiosity of natural beings and mimic the exciting explorations children might discover when playing in nature.  We also sought to create a safe space that would allow children to run around freely in a large open area and explore their environment. 
The new playground is defined by pathways and open spaces covered in engineered wood fiber (EWF).  The woody EWF provides ASTM certified head impact safety while also providing a naturalistic feel.  The play spaces and pathways intermingle with native planting islands planted with large mature specimen Live Oak trees and Slash Pine trees.  The oaks for the project were carefully selected for naturalistic characters, with gnarled and twisting branches, and multiple trunks.  The inclusion of mature oaks helps to create an established and natural feel while lending substantial shade for children at play, avoiding the need for artificial shade structures.  The intermingling of the planting areas and the playground allows children to run through and around the spaces between the trees and evokes the sense of being within a forest environment. 

A significant feature of the new play space is a new 120' x 90' x 10' tall constructed earthwork hill covered with native Pine Rockland planting including Slash Pines, Saw Palmettos, Fakahatchee grasses, and Cocoplum shrubs.  Children can climb the hill via large stepped native oolite blocks or by a gentler slope covered in mortared river rock.  After reaching the top of the hill, children can then slide down on a super-sized 20' long embankment slide leading back to the main playground level.   
The center of the playground is marked by a dome shaped jungle gym with a variety of play elements, including rope climbing nets, swings, slides, and membranes to jump or rest on.  The galvanized steel arches seat the dome as a sculptural element within its "forest" context without overwhelming the natural elements.  Several of the large character oaks encircle the dome, providing ample shade for children at play.
Another notable component of the play space is an obstacle course comprised of constructed wood elements.  Of these wood elements, several are constructed of cypress sinker logs recovered from Florida rivers.  One of the sinker logs included in the design was selected particularly for its naturally formed hollow core, allowing children to pass through.  A large peep hole on the side of the log allows children a peek out.  There is also a log walking beam and steppers made out of cut sinker log segments. Ship worm textures on the sinker logs lend an interesting and unique character to the play elements.  The obstacle course also contains more traditional wood pieces produced by a manufacturer out of Locust wood.  These include a rope swing element and wood stepping stilts.
Also included in the play space is an area for smaller children which has a wooden playhouse, bug-themed wood spring riders, and play panels. Large new oak trees also shade this play space, including two double-trunked live oaks.  Cut oolite blocks and wood benches offer seating spaces for parents and caregivers to observe children at play. 
The play space also includes a swing set with traditional belt swings, toddler swings, and a large nest swing which can accommodate several children at once. Also throughout the playground are musical instruments such as bells, metallophones, and chimes.
The entire playground is surrounded by generous native planting that defines the play areas. Native grasses, wildflowers, and shrubs were carefully placed underneath the oaks and pines in order to provide habitat for various wildlife species.  The inclusion of pollinator friendly plants, host and nectar plants for various butterflies, and fruit producing shrubs attract a variety of wildlife to the planting areas around the play space. 
Our new playground has been extremely popular among the families. It draws significant crowds, especially on weekends, which fill the parking area and require families to find parking spaces further away.  The client, Miami Dade County, has also been very pleased with the design and function of the playground and with our permission has used our design as a model in the development of other new or renovated playgrounds at various parks throughout the county.  They have asked other designers to study our playground when developing their own designs.  The client has also hired a firm to develop a guide-book that incorporates the design ideas from our playground for use in other future playgrounds of the county.
The upcoming Parks Issue of Landscape Architect and Specifier News saw many firms submit their projects for feature consideration. This project was not chosen for a Feature in the issue, but we at thought the project deserved to be showcased online . . .
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