Overton Park Playground Comes With Risk

By Bill Dries

The new playground near Rainbow Lake in Overton Park features something not seen on modern playgrounds in awhile – a metal merry-go-round or roundabout.

A sandbox and a sculpted log for children to go into and out of are among the new features of the Rainbow Lake playground in Overton Park.

(Daily News/Bill Dries)

The playground, parts of which are still being built, got a good test Saturday, June 8, during what the Overton Park Conservancy billed as a “day of merrymaking.” It was a test of the playground, the renovation around Rainbow Lake and the one-year anniversary of the opening of the nearby Overton Bark dog park.

While the playground looks familiar to some parents and grandparents, it is a recent concept on a comeback.

“Most playgrounds now are all kind of pre-manufactured play equipment,” said Bill Ferguson, a founder of Askew Nixon Ferguson architects, which designed the playground. “And there’s a huge movement across the world, and in the United States too, to reintroduce some of the element of risk. This one has that in it with very low levels.”

That includes the metal merry-go-round and a cargo climbing net feature that was sealed off Saturday with mesh fencing and abundant yellow tape as it awaits several more large timbers to complete it.

“If I’m over here with my grandson who is 4 years old, he’ll get up so far,” Ferguson said, as a boy of about that age pondered the taped-up entrance to the climbing net directly from coming down a slide. “He won’t get up to the bridge part. … It’ll be another six months or year before he can get up there. And when he’s able to do that safely, he will have learned a lot down the line when he’s measuring risk and deciding is it a go or a no go.”

The playground also includes a nod to Overton Park culture with its own kid-sized drum circle, “which relates to the fact that we have a real drum circle near the Memphis College of Art frequently. This will be a good complement to that,” Ferguson added.

By a hollowed-out log sculpture big enough for a small child to climb through, Bernhard Meck, an environmental sculptor who designed the log and the nearby sandbox, was watching closely.

“The feature I thought was going to be most appreciated, they are actually using the most,” he said. “They are making even more use out of it than I had anticipated, like a bunch of squirrels.”

He had some concerns about the sandbox.

“I’m thinking how long is that going to stay clean, but that’s another story,” Meck said. “So far, I think I can pat myself on the back.”

Meck and Ferguson and the rest of the playground team had some formidable obstacles to their time schedule.

“I got it done in time, but the weather didn’t work for any of us,” Meck said. “There were some electrical lines that not even Memphis Light, Gas and Water knew existed. That set the contractor back and they had to add some features. Then we had a couple of massive downpours that turned everything into a mud pit – inaccessible for man and machine alike. But it’s moving right along.”

The walkways in the play area are curved because that makes it more interesting for children. But Ferguson said it is also a design element that acknowledges the playground is on the edge of the Old Forest, now a state-protected natural area.

“They are dodging tree roots, going around trees and we’ve eliminated some of these walls to help the lives of the trees. And it’s also organic,” he said. “Construction is pretty disruptive to the top layer of soil and roots of every tree. We’ll be doing things to keep the trees growing and healthy. … We’ll keep looking at them to check on them.”

For most of Saturday afternoon there was no parking on the greensward at Overton Park, which offered a view that is also part of the plan.

The “day of merrymaking” moved storytellers, acrobats, live music and games onto the green area that starting with arrival of spring and the end of the school year has been dominated by overflow parking from the nearby Memphis Zoo.

It is an annual tension between Memphis Zoo visitors and park patrons who at times can be in both camps depending on what they go to the park for.

With the conservancy near completion on the new playground and Rainbow Lake nearly restored, the park plans move closer to fuller use of the greensward.

The conservancy at its founding endorsed the idea of a 500-space parking garage for the zoo although the zoo property is not part of the park area maintained and overseen by the conservancy. The zoo’s own foundation is seeking the garage as an answer to the parking on the greenspace.