A playground renaissance arrives at Seattle parks

Seattle's park playgrounds offer much more than before, but are we going too far with privatized zip lines?
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Children at a Seattle playground.

Seattle's park playgrounds offer much more than before, but are we going too far with privatized zip lines?

One of the many things on Seattle Center's to-do list is the children's playground promised as part of the Chihuly Garden and Glass deal. Funded by $1 million from the Wright family, the play area is slated for the zone north of the Needle. It will be a kind of artist-themed play area (presumably not made of glass), but details are still to be worked out. Picasso said that it took him a lifetime to paint like a child. Let's hope the kids tell the artists what to do rather than the other way around.

The playground will fill a long-time gap in what the Center offers the public — a free play space for kids. The Children's Museum in the Armory basement is great, but it's more than a playground. There is no rope-line to the make-believe sushi shop in "downtown" Kobe. It will give families more to do, and there's a place for both and more.

To the extent that the Center is a park, parks do well with playgrounds. Evidence abounds in places that I frequent, often with little ones in tow.

A few years ago, Madison Park was refurbished with a new playground, including a rope line and various cool things to climb on and spin you around. The park is more heavily used now than it was before the makeover, a gathering spot for yoga moms and nannies. Previously, it seemed mostly known for its tennis courts, available to those poor folk in the neighborhood who cannot afford their own, or a Tennis Club membership.

Seward Park's new playground is also a revelation: It's bigger and has more attractions (climbing rocks, a kid-powered merry-go-round, rope-line, spring rides, sandbox, etc.) for almost every taste. It's also frequently swarmed with happy kids, much better used than the old playground. It seems to have become a destination playground, if there is such a thing.

Such a destination, in fact, that I feel a pinch of envy when I visit it with my grandkids. There's a lot to complain about in these modern times, but one thing that is way, way better than the old days is the playground. Less concrete, more permeable, soft surfaces, exciting things to play on, like higher slides and a variety of objects that spin. The old monkey bars seem positively antique, yet classics like teeter-totters and swings still hold strong appeal. They're safer, greener, accessible to the disabled, more fun. And they have places for adults to sit and watch.

I think a park is enhanced when you don't take a child to the park, but the child specifically asks, begs, or demands to be taken because of its playground. These new playgrounds have made the family request list.

Inversely, Seattle has fewer amusement parks than it used to: the Fun Forest is dead, Woodland Park's miniature train is a thing of the past, the old Skyride went to Puyallup. We've gained a waterfront Ferris wheel, but lost the Flight to Mars, the Wild Mouse, even the waterfront trollies, which were more Disney than mass transit.

But if you're a toddler, there's a playground renaissance going on, and I'm pleased to say some of the new climbing equipment and rides are not overly safe. Sawdust might have replaced cement to cushion a fall, but there is still plenty of danger and adventure to be had. They haven't been overly sanitized into blandness, and new materials are less problematic than old ones. The aging playgrounds of the '70s turned into aging stump farms that offered up too many splinters.

Seattle often fights about parks. Even playgrounds were once controversial, setting up a famous early 20th century battle between the Olmsteds and R.H. Thomson, who was happy to add playgrounds to parks over the objections of park designers who wanted a purer, more contemplative experience of nature in the city. The public sided with Thomson and, much as I treasure the Olmsted legacy of parks and boulevards, he was right.

These days such controversies are back in the news. Neighbors of West Seattle's Lincoln Park are upset over the proposal to build a commercial rope course and zip line attraction for adults there. It would be run by a company called Go Ape. Previously, the neighbors of Lincoln were faced with mountain bike races.

Despite our love of parks, they are also sources of sore controversy, as I discovered this year in the battle over a fence in a park on 43rd Ave. E. in Madison Park. One of the fears was that removal of the fence would have endangered children who use the park, but some also worried that this low-use park would actually be used by more people, as if that were a bad thing. For folks who live next to park, it often can be. They can be a nuisance, a magnet for knot-heads.

There's also a fear that budget cuts reduce the city's ability to care for parks, and that they will lead to a commercialization of the parks. If a zip line doesn't make sense in Lincoln Park as a free, public amenity, why consider it as a private paid one? Because we desperately need money for basic park upkeep and staffing. That is a sorry state to be in. There's nothing wrong, and often much to be gained, by finding good commercial uses in parks (rentals, food concessions, etc.).

I'm agnostic on adult zip lines in general, but if you're going to put one up, pick the right park. Lincoln is one of a relative few in the city with old growth trees. Maybe some place less sensitive would be better?

Parks should be fun, offering repose and adventure for young and old. If we can make kids' playgrounds better, we surely can figure out ways to add some spice for bigger kids. But good ideas work if they're in the right places.

A zip line at Seattle Center?


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.