James Spengler remembers when a good playground needed only a metal swing set and some monkey bars over a patch of asphalt. But as director of Alexandria parks and recreation, he knows that just doesn’t cut it anymore.
Soft surfaces are a must. Adventure areas and accessible equipment, too. Even separate areas for younger and older children are expected by some discerning families.
Playgrounds in and around Washington are more popular than ever, Spengler and other local parks officials say. But with increased use comes increased expectations of what children, parents and caregivers will find at the neighborhood park.
“The sophistication of the user has increased,” Spengler said. “Now there are safety concerns and standards. Playgrounds are also a little bit more of a destination now, and you want it more comfortable for parents. But all those higher expectations have a cost.”
At the two-acre Clemyjontri Park in McLean, children revel in the four outdoor “rooms” built around an old-fashioned carousel. Young athletes at Wheaton Regional Park in Maryland love the swinging bridge and climbing wall. Arlington’s two-year-old Tuckahoe Park playground attracts daredevils to its 25-foot rope structure, set above a soft surface.
And with all of these new bells and whistles come exorbitantly high prices.
The cost of a single playground in Arlington County has passed the $1 million mark, with the coming $1.3 million construction of a small playground at the south end of Long Bridge Park. The playground, to be built in three separate plots adjacent to the existing soccer fields and directly under the flight path for Reagan National Airport, will feature sculpted play forms, a tunnel, a bridge and a cooling “fog” system for a sun-blasted site.
It won’t be the most expensive one, by any means. The District’s most recently built playgrounds cost between $1.4 million and $1.9 million, for everything from design to construction, said Ella Faulkner, the city’s manager of planning and capital construction for parks. The cost of Fairfax County’s Clemyjontri was an outlier at $6.5 million, but Judy Petersen, the public information officer, noted that’s for a whole park and that much of the money was privately raised. Chessie’s Big Backyard playground in Fairfax County, at $1 million, is more typical of a destination park, she said, while neighborhood parks cost between $80,000 and $120,000.
Arlington’s Quincy Park playground, now in the final design stage, has a construction budget of $1.18 million.
“I feel blessed because Arlington has so many fabulous playgrounds,” said Kendra Riggs, who started reviewing area playgrounds at her “Meanest Momma” blog when her now elementary-aged children were in preschool. “The parks [department] list was good, but it didn’t have things that mothers need to know: Are there bathrooms? Do they have swings for my baby?”
Riggs says that what attracts her kids now are playgrounds with variety.
“The old playgrounds from the ’80s just don’t make it,” she said. “They like the opportunity to jump, something visually stimulating and lots of opportunities for creative play.”
The District spends $346 per resident on parks, with Arlington at $249 per resident, according to the Trust for Public Land’s 2015 report. Both are near the top of per-capita park spending nationwide, but not all of that spending is on playgrounds.
The playground costs are not that unusual, said Caroline Smith, of the Ashburn-based National Park and Recreation Association. Playgrounds, she said, have become central gathering spots for more than just children and their parents, and having one nearby boosts the value of homes. Increased accessibility improves the playground experience for people who use walkers or wheelchairs, she noted; grandparents often appreciate and need the ramps, improved sight lines and other accommodations built into play equipment.
It’s not the equipment itself that is driving price increases, which is about 20 to 30 percent of the cost in Arlington, said Lisa Grandle, parks development division chief. Replacing once-ubiquitous mulch with synthetic grass or rubber surfaces triples the per-square-foot cost. A trash can costs $1,000, and a park bench is about $2,000. Permeable paving, which helps control rainwater runoff, is more expensive than asphalt. Along with their more creative duties, designers often make sure that playgrounds comply with or exceed the American with Disabilities Act requirements.
Construction costs also have risen sharply as contractors have recovered from the economic slowdown of the past seven years.
“Twenty years ago, we used to build [playgrounds] for less than $20,000,” Grandle said, as she pointed out features at Tuckahoe. “Those were one-size-fits-all playgrounds” in a landscape less congested and urbanized, where metal slides were still acceptable. The county now factors in higher federal and community standards, including bike racks, toilets, drinking fountains, parking and shaded areas for caregivers.
The Arlington parks department turned to kids as they designed the Long Bridge playground a year ago.
“The kids have really creative ideas,” Grandle said. “They like to slide and to tell you, ‘I’m going to jump off this thing.’ They liked the idea of crawling through things. One little boy wanted a corner [set back], and when we asked why, he said he liked this one girl and he planned to go there with her.”
The region’s playgrounds are so popular that frantic caregivers can scroll through Yelp and “The Meanest Momma” blog to find reviews of which playgrounds offer the best features. Playgrounds remain inordinately popular as one of the free municipal services enjoyed by both liberals and conservatives.
“The sentiment in the community is that we may overbuild or build too lavishly,” said Arlington County Board member John Vihstadt (I), who last year led a movement to curb spending on projects such as the canceled Columbia Pike streetcar and the postponed aquatics center at the same park where the Long Bridge playground will be built. “But playgrounds are a huge community asset.”
Amount spent per resident on all parks, some of the highest spending nationwide.
Source: Trust for Public Land