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04-12-22 | Feature

Park Design Prioritizes Play, Sustainability, and Accessibility

Nestled into the foothills of Albuquerque, New Mexico
by Greg Miller, MRWM

Juan Tabo Hills Park encompasses a 1.5-acre space in the middle of a residential neighborhood in the foothills of Albuquerque, New Mexico. The design by MRWM Landscape Architects, a firm based in Albuquerque, prioritized blending the natural and built environment and creating opportunities for children of all ages and abilities. Colors of blue, green, and orange were specifically chosen to reflect the natural geology and plants of the area. Rich earth tones were also included as highlights.
The park features three lower play pockets and an upper plaza with two other adjacent play pockets. The play pockets are divided by drainage swales creating shapes that are organic and also related to the topography. The play structures are from Landscape Structures. Of the three lower play pockets, one has a larger composite structure with several climbing elements. The second has spinning play elements, and the third has swings. The top right picture shows the manufacturer's Omni Spin.
The park features three lower play pockets and an upper plaza with two other adjacent play pockets. The play pockets are divided by drainage swales creating shapes that are organic and also related to the topography. The play structures are from Landscape Structures. Of the three lower play pockets, one has a larger composite structure with several climbing elements. The second has spinning play elements, and the third has swings. The top right picture shows the manufacturer's Omni Spin.
The park features three lower play pockets and an upper plaza with two other adjacent play pockets. The play pockets are divided by drainage swales creating shapes that are organic and also related to the topography. The play structures are from Landscape Structures. Of the three lower play pockets, one has a larger composite structure with several climbing elements. The second has spinning play elements, and the third has swings. The top right picture shows the manufacturer's Omni Spin.
Steppers made of petrified wood, hand picked from a supplier in Arizona, were added as a play feature to the play pocket north east of the plaza because of their sensory rich appeal with several colors and textures.
The slide is composed of a molded plastic and leads to surfacing made of engineered wood fiber playground surfacing (EWF). That's the standard material MRWM uses in parks and schools in Albuquerque. It meets the safety guidelines for impact attenuation while also allowing lateral displacement if a child falls on it at an angle. It's also considered an accessible surfacing material.
Standing over the plaza, the shade structure features tensile fabric panels from Superior Recreational Products that come together like the oculus of a camera lens. The attachment points are at three different heights and are designed to give a real sense of airiness and movement throughout the structure. The planting area in this photo is in the middle of the oculus and reflects the shape of the opening. The tables are arranged to be in shade at various times of the day.
Standing over the plaza, the shade structure features tensile fabric panels from Superior Recreational Products that come together like the oculus of a camera lens. The attachment points are at three different heights and are designed to give a real sense of airiness and movement throughout the structure. The planting area in this photo is in the middle of the oculus and reflects the shape of the opening. The tables are arranged to be in shade at various times of the day.
A poured-in-place concrete path wraps around the outside of the play pockets. The plants in the foreground are "Nearly-wild" roses. The trees around the play equipment are Chinese Pistache. The Landscape Architect used a special detail in the play area that allows trees to be planted "within" the play pocket. This detail requires the engineered wood fiber play area surfacing to be a minimum 12" depth within the use zone of the equipment to provide adequate fall protection. Outside of the equipment use zone, it can be shallower. So the Landscape Architect kept the top of the surfacing level, but made the depth less to incorporate the tree plantings. Trees wouldn't survive if planted in the full 12" depth, so the "bottom comes up" to allow the tree planting.
A poured-in-place concrete path wraps around the outside of the play pockets. The plants in the foreground are "Nearly-wild" roses. The trees around the play equipment are Chinese Pistache. The Landscape Architect used a special detail in the play area that allows trees to be planted "within" the play pocket. This detail requires the engineered wood fiber play area surfacing to be a minimum 12" depth within the use zone of the equipment to provide adequate fall protection. Outside of the equipment use zone, it can be shallower. So the Landscape Architect kept the top of the surfacing level, but made the depth less to incorporate the tree plantings. Trees wouldn't survive if planted in the full 12" depth, so the "bottom comes up" to allow the tree planting.

Juan Tabo Hills Park is a stunning example of a park that provides a truly unique user experience. Nestled into the foothills of Albuquerque, New Mexico it takes advantage of the natural topography and native vegetation to create a dynamic setting. Led by landscape architecture firm MRWM, the design immerses visitors into a space that blends a wide range of gathering and play spaces.

The site posed several design challenges that became opportunities and inspiration for new strategies and solutions. The land had been designated as open space, but grading operations related to adjacent development scraped away its redeeming natural qualities. Its adjacency to a remaining large open space tract suggested that the design could blend traditional and natural park features.

The site is an odd shape, has significant grade changes, and highly erosive soils. Of particular concern was potential damage by Albuquerque's intense summer monsoon rains. Several utility easements bisect the park, including an emergency access corridor to the neighboring community. The combination of these factors sparked the concept to locate developed play spaces on "fingers" of land that are divided by naturalized drainage arroyos. This topographic pattern shapes the arid Southwest in a dynamic balance of mature plant communities and fluid washes.

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The program for the project was to create an environment that provides opportunities for users of all ages and abilities to share in the joy of play. The park is based on the idea that play is vital to early childhood development by encouraging movement, creativity, social interaction, exploration, and sensory stimulation. Instead of designating a play area within the greater context of the park, the entire park is the play environment.

The design is the culmination of the evolution of environmental play design that incorporates graduated challenges, connections to nature, unscripted activity, and full sensory activation. "We have a powerful human instinct to overcome obstacles, it's what drives us our entire lives to learn new things, gain physical skills, and develop emotionally," explains Greg Miller, Landscape Architect of the project. "Overcoming challenges leads to a greater sense of pride and accomplishment, which in turn leads to greater socialization as we share our similarities and value each other's differences."

Neurological studies have proven that engaging large and fine motor movements and balance stimulates development of our brains. These activities literally create neural connections that last a lifetime. By blending sensory rich environments with play, these neural connections grow to all areas of the brain. Juan Tabo Hills Park gives form and function to all these concepts. The manufactured play equipment has a variety of options for climbing, sliding, spinning, and swinging. The natural stone steps, groundcover materials, and terraced seating have a rich blend of textures and colors. Petrified wood boulders, sand digging areas, and loose materials allow children to manipulate objects. Diverse plantings create different senses of scale and burst with colors, textures, and aromas.

The various "play pockets" are arranged in a way that mixes a variety of passive and active recreation. The naturalized spaces between these pockets are inherently part of the play experience. All these elements work in harmony to create a sense of discovery and adventure. The layout also integrates shaded seating and overlooks that allow adults to be proximally engaged in the play activities.

The circulation design also has a significant role in the function of the park. Accessible curvilinear walkways draw pedestrians through the site, but they also have become an exciting path for children on bicycles and scooters. The concrete header walls around the play equipment double as narrow walkways and seating. Children scramble up stone steps to get from the lower play equipment to the upper seating terrace, then come back down on embankment slides. The area also encourages users to find improvised routes between elements that lead up and along the vegetated slopes. Each of these circulation routes present different challenges, allowing users of all abilities to increase their level of immersion in the space as their self-confidence increases.
The concept of a park that had a distinct natural character provided the impetus to try several, very different design approaches. The plantings and stone materials not only create a unique park aesthetic, they also play a primary role in the design's environmental resiliency. One of the most successful solutions has been the treatment of revegetation seeding on slopes. A custom native seeding and wildflower blend that would thrive without supplemental irrigation was hand sown onto the slopes. Large cobble was then placed at a density that allowed significant gaps between the aggregate. This solution replicates natural conditions that promote seed germination. The stones act as moisture condensers while the gaps allow sunlight and oxygen to reach the seed bed. The result has been the establishment of a biodiverse plant mass that has filled in between the stones and now provides exceptional soil stabilization. The plants were also carefully selected to create habitat for pollinators, birds, and small mammals. This solution has been so successful that it has influenced the subsequent creation of new standards and guidelines for slope stabilization for the City of Albuquerque.

Infiltration basins slow the flow of stormwater addressing water quantity and quality concerns. Open-bottom micro-ponds with interim check dams reduce stormwater flow, allowing infiltration and spurring biotic processes that remove dissolved chemicals from runoff. A permeable parking lot helps reduce and mitigate runoff. A highly efficient irrigation system waters the limited turfgrass, balancing the needs of the site users with the precious use of water in the arid landscape.

Juan Tabo Hills Park has quickly become a prized neighborhood amenity that brings people together. The details are subtle but effective, creating a place that just feels right. Future phases of construction will include a pair of stunning hillside slides that span the 50-foot change in elevation from the top of the ridge to the upper play area. Additional paths will connect the developed park to the adjacent open space tract, reinforcing the value of this unique amenity. A dog park and additional turf recreation field will provide other opportunities for the community to interact in an engaging, natural environment.

The success of this design has influenced the city's approach to park design with an emphasis on dynamic play environments that allow immersive experiences, graduated challenges, and multi-generational interaction. It has also shaped city policy toward integrated environmental design of flood-control infrastructure, low-impact development, and loss of urban habitat.

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