A fresh approach – In 2015, The Royal Parks set an aspirational brief for an exemplary playground with innovative ideas that will push the boundaries of play for children of all ages, cultures and abilities. It was to provide opportunities for social, creative and imaginative play, as well as physical activities, all within a rich setting. The project was made possible thanks to a donation from the London Marathon Charitable Trust and a mix of public and private donations.
Looking back to move forwards – The playground appears on aerial photos of the Park taken in 1935 and coincides with the introduction of a children’s ward in St Katharine’s Lodge, which was a hospital built within the park in 1825 and destroyed by a V1 flying bomb during WWII. The site was cleared and the rubble used to form the mounds that characterise the area today.
Sensitive neighbours – The area near to the playground is home to a pair of Little Owls, a species in decline within the UK and rare within Central London. The Park is also now the only central London Royal Park with a breeding population of hedgehogs, which use the playground hedgerows for foraging. Other nesting birds and roosting bats live in some of the mature trees nearby.
Embedding play – The approach to the design took its thread from the site setting and was heavily inspired by its heritage and ecological context. The former site of St Katharine’s Lodge, known as the ‘Glades’, has become a valued habitat, starting as bomb-damage which over time has been seeded and colonised by several mature trees, forming an undulating terrain in which informal play and ecological habitats thrive. This character has been stretched across to the playground, to thread, weave and embed it into the landscape using the texture of natural materials. It takes its influence from regeneration cycles; from dereliction through to natural reclamation, and the myriad of informal play spaces that were created within WWII bomb craters or woodlands by children themselves. Play can range from prescriptive and supervised to inventive and unbounded. The layout was informed by these levels of control; beginning with something tight and ordered within its centre that unravels, becoming fragmented and loose as it blends into the wider park.
Designing play through experiences – The starting point was to consider the emotional, mental and physical developmental needs of children and how that translates into play experiences. A series of zones offer different challenges to suit different ages and abilities, with intimate spaces offering a sense of discovery and exploration, and larger spaces facilitating social and competitive play. A variety of ornamental and tree planting has been woven through to soften the appearance and provide sensorial experiences through scent, colour and texture. It has an ecological benefit that integrates the enlarged playground more sympathetically into the wider historic Registered Park and Garden of Regent’s Park.
Defining individual character – The zones were named after old English words that had association with trees. The Dell – a small, deep wooded valley, usually among trees – incorporates swings and playful routes through the planting up the banks of the mounds that define its shape. The Wootton – an English place name meaning ‘Place by the Wood’ – features a generous crescent-shaped sand and water play area, enfolded by a timber decked walkway in a perfect semi-circle. The Revetment – a sloping structure that cuts through the mound and retains its banks – is accessible via a bridge spanning the two sides with grilles in the walkway providing a glimpse of the route underneath. The Wode – a grove of trees in a wilderness area – extends out of the perimeter fence and into the wider park, with a wooden climbing structure and a 50m zip wire.
Play for all – The main spinal path over the mound and across the Revetment is a shallow enough gradient to allow wheelchair users to access unassisted. Secondary routes up the sides of the mound provide more challenging cut-throughs for clambering or balancing. Selected play equipment enables several children, regardless of their ability, to be able to play together, such as roundabouts flush with the ground, cradle swings, raised tables at the water play area and wide slides.
Looking forward – This project makes a very positive contribution to the play facilities within Regent’s Park, providing an important local resource in a natural setting, attuned to the changing seasons and the wildlife thriving within it. The project seeks to maximise opportunities for community engagement by building on established relationships with local community groups and users through a series of outreach programmes, in order to create a ‘local’ play facility. To measure its impact, the scheme aims to encompass a series of observational and user studies focusing on its health and wellbeing benefits.
Other landscape architecture offices involved in the design of landscape: The Royal Parks
Project location: Gloucester Gate Playground, The Regent’s Park, London, NW1 4HG
Design year: 2016-2019
Year Built: 2019-2020