11-09-21 | Department

Expanding the Budget to Create More Play

by: Robert Fowler

The Jardin De Las Rojas site is found in Santa Barbara. The play area features a multi-function play structure and a mural created by local artists in the background. Robert Fowler, the Landscape Architect who design the playground, wanted the mural to have a "Mary Poppins" aesthetic to have individuals on the playground feel as if they could jump into the painting.
In Guadalupe, California, the PSHH housing facility provide play opportunities for younger kids but lacked an older kid play area. Fowler designed this play area along with Game Time to accommodate for the older kids by having a more complex play area that focused on connecting each element to the next to have them seamlessly flow from one end to the end. Additionally, different flower and butterfly sculptures were incorporated to add the feel of a designed landscape without the inclusion of living plant material.
The main design element for the play area at the Villa La Esperanza multi-family housing was centered around an existing grove of Jacaranda trees. Two play areas were part of the central community hubs for the respective North and South ends of this project. Thus, Fowler wanted the colors to stand out against the simpler coloration of the surrounding buildings, and really accentuate these two community hubs of the site. Fowler credits the inspiration for his brightly color palette for the play structures to the thematic art of the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro in Brazil.

Robert Andrew Fowler, a licensed Landscape Architect in California, designed several play areas that are part of the provided amenities for a handful of "ground up" construction and remodeled affordable housing projects developed throughout the Central Coast of California. Fowler's design goals were focused on creating the most visually inspiring playgrounds, within the realm and fiscal constraints of a Section 8 - affordable housing project. Part of his inspiration to "up the game" of these play areas was influenced in seeing the creative and visionary results of so many other Landscape Architects whose regional park play areas/playground projects have previously graced the covers other LASN publications. Those examples "turned the light on" that even though these housing project play areas had more constrained budgets, they were still missing an opportunity to be far more creative and take advantage of the inherent qualities of each site.

Fowler was selected as the Landscape Architect on almost 20 Peoples' Self-Help Housing (PSHH) projects. PSHH is a non-profit affordable housing organization out of San Luis Obispo, CA that helps build affordable homes for low-income families, farmworkers, and the homeless. On the first couple of projects, he followed the organizations lead and usual approach to have him contact one of their typical play companies and have them "fill up" a simple rectangular space with one of their set equipment ensembles where the selection of the color scheme from one of their preset color palettes was one of the few major design decisions.
"However, after a couple of projects and play areas were completed, I had a conversation with the owner of Central Coast Playground where I saw a missed opportunity on our part to try and be more creative with the layouts and design schemes of these play areas and put forth a bigger "wow factor". Certainly, we had to be cognizant of costs since often these projects are primarily funded to a large extent with the public's tax dollars. However, what I (and many others) have noticed and what has proven true with affordable housing is that if you put forth an uninspiring and simple project designed to barely meet the minimum standards it will often go unnoticed and underappreciated by the neighborhood as the project's residents don't tend to display that pride of ownership and care that is fundamentally necessary for a project's
long-term success."
Fowler believed that the hardscape, landscape, and collection of site amenities and improvements within the costs of a new or remodeled building represents about 50% of what one sees and perceives but, not 50% of the overall construction costs. Therefore, his new mindset with these projects was to push the envelope and increase the standards to put forth a nicer landscape along with a better-than-expected play area to create a more livable environment for the residents and adjoining neighborhood. This creates long term success and durability that easily offsets the higher front end construction expenses. Fowler wanted to push the budget as much as he could to create the best and most impactful playground as possible in every one of these affordable housing projects.
"There was certainly an evolution in my approach, and I kept pushing the budget envelope on each subsequent project simply because these colorful play areas grabbed your eye and created a big wow factor at the ribbon cutting ceremonies. We were dealing with the public's money so we had a level of fiscal responsibility that needed to be honored so I couldn't propose something too over the top. I believe we started at $50 to $75 thousand - installed price and ended up doubling the budget to about $150K. This was still well under 1% of the project's overall budget. Likewise, I do believe that PSHH leadership didn't push back as much
on the playground budgets because their success at the ribbon cutting ceremonies with a lot of "movers and shakers" present led to more people and private donors wanting to be a part of the next PSHH project and the success of an attractive hardscape-landscape and community amenities helped create a pride of ownership for the people that lived there and those that lived nearby"


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