2018 Honor Award
The new McKinley Community Play Garden is an engaging and innovative nature play garden located adjacent to the McKinley Park Library, southwest of downtown Chicago. The Play Garden is unique in that it is privately-owned and maintained, but open to the public 365 days a year.
The project was initiated by NeighborSpace, a nonprofit land trust organization that saw potential in an underutilized green space that was previously a neighborhood arboretum, but had fallen into disrepair after years of neglect. By maintaining the existing mature trees and natural topography on the site, creative play elements were incorporated into the landscape in an effort to encourage interaction, play, and exploration with nature. Nature-based play features were accented with reclaimed and repurposed materials acquired by the client and community.
A new park entrance greets visitors with a custom built arbor gateway and park sign. To the north, a repurposed shipping container serves as park storage and gathering. In the mud kitchen and build area, a miniature Windy City Market, mud pit, and loose-parts storage area create opportunities for creativity and imaginative play. Nearby, an old rail line was bent to create a curving track for a repurposed storage container, procured from the Field Museum of Natural History. The rail leads visitors through a prairie maze to the Ship Wreck gravel pit, which features an old wooden boat tipped on its side and surrounded by a log obstacle course, balance beam, log tunnel, and lush plantings. On the south side of the site, a forest climbing zone has nests, bird and bat houses, as well as tree climbers and stump obstacles for adventurers. All of the existing trees were preserved, with minimal pruning done to ensure safety for climbing and play. Encircling the Play Garden is an accessible path with additional play features in the center. A central climbing structure serves as a main gathering point and performance stage and is surrounded by a lawn. Nearby, a working runnel with a water pump is surrounded by outcropping and stump seating, as well as reclaimed building artifacts, organized in a rectangular pattern to create a ruin-like setting. Lastly, a fortress area provides birds-eye views of the Play Garden for those daring enough to climb the repurposed fire escape. A previously nonfunctional flag pole was repaired and outfitted with new flags.
A true community space, the Play Garden was made possible through countless volunteer hours not only in the design phase but throughout construction.
The McKinley Community Play Garden has become a valued community resource for the surrounding area, a community with limited access to nature and open space. The success of the garden can be attributed in large part to the tremendous effort exhibited by the client and community in visioning, execution, and now maintaining the space for all.