by Roger Grant, ASLA, PLA
A Case Study in Community Orchard-Playground Design
In Suwanee, a small suburb north of Atlanta, Georgia, lies a one-acre public park combining edible fruiting plants with child-friendly play features. Suwanee has a small but popular parks network that includes a seven-acre site with an organically maintained community garden, stream, trails, and a lawn that was a former pasture. In 2012, a local landscape architect met with City staff to discuss the potential to convert the former pasture area into a new kind of park for the City—an “orchard-playground.” The concept was intended to combine the enjoyment of edible fruit with play features rooted in the natural playground movement. After several years of both volunteer- and employer-supported efforts, the City approved a final design, and the Orchard at White Street Park was constructed and officially opened in the fall of 2017.
The notion of a public orchard where fruit is grown for free harvest by the community is a logical extension of the community gardening movement that is increasingly being explored throughout the country. During the design process, there was little information regarding public orchards, but as of now, there are numerous efforts in Georgia and around the US. Some go by the name of “food forest,” which can be a combination of orchard and annual fruit and vegetable growing, and some follow the concept of “permaculture,” which relies on dynamic and symbiotic relationships between edible plants and their allies to develop a long lasting and self-sustaining harvest. While these concepts were explored during the design process, the planting design was simplified for the initial phase based on available budget and anticipated maintenance capacity. Thus, the outcome was creation of a combination of pathways, benches, fences, play features, lawn areas, and mulched fruit tree, shrub, and vine areas.
The Orchard playscape is surrounded by eight-foot fencing. The initial goal was to keep deer from devouring the fruits, but the fencing also serves the purpose of creating a safe and comfortably large enclosure for families with small children. The fence is black polyvinyl chain link except for the entrance areas, which are timber with wire mesh for a more inviting farm feel.
A small pavilion sits at the top of the site with a plaque honoring corporate and individual donors. While the City developed the park infrastructure, they wanted community buy-in to complement their efforts. A volunteer campaign raised funds for all orchard plants and continues to do so for maintenance and new projects. Donors are recognized at various contribution levels and their generosity is acknowledged and is highly visible at the entrance.
The granite cobble-lined pathways are composed of bright red crushed terracotta, which has a unique feel, is easy to traverse over, and adds to the brightness of the space. A Bison-brand hand water pump gives children and adults the opportunity to fill up buckets and water plants or to play with the water there at the station.
The largest play feature is a large earthen mound. Scalable from several sides, children can slide down either of the two embankment slides installed on the mound. One slide is approximately 12’ long and the other approximately 30’ long. The area at the top of the mound is large enough to gather and to see most of the site. Other playful natural features include willow tree tunnels and a willow tree hut. Various native warm season grasses provide places to hide and promote active play and exploration.
Now in its fourth year, the orchard-playground continues to grow thanks to volunteer efforts. There are approximately 150 fruiting plants, which include various cultivars of apples, pears, peaches, figs, muscadines, blackberries, persimmons, loquat, che, feijoa, hardy kiwi, blueberries, and goumi. With periodic maintenance, they are increasingly bearing fruit, and a new children’s play area is currently under construction to enhance the nature play experience for children and families. It will feature balance beams, a new interactive water play feature, a musical instrument, a sand play area, tree stump steps, and a small elevated playhouse with a tunnel underneath.
Generally, new improvements and orchard plant maintenance are undertaken by community garden volunteers, but local boy scout troops have played an active role in shaping the site as well with contributions such as building a chimney swift tower, hammock stands, insect habitats, and a mud kitchen.
The Orchard at White Street Park is an example of a community-initiated park project, where City staff was supportive of a new vision for community improvement on an existing City-owned property. The natural play features are generally less expensive than their conventional counterparts and can be fabricated using raw materials with well-conceived and low risk design and sound construction practices.
While public playscapes are often thought to be dictated by municipalities, an open-minded municipality may provide an opportunity for grassroots community projects such as this. The initial and long-term success is rooted in collaboration and a common goal—to provide a special place for families to enjoy nature together.
Roger Grant, ASLA, PLA, is a Practice Area Leader at Columbia Engineering. He is an officer for ASLA’s Children’s Outdoor Environments Professional Practice Network (PPN).
To learn more about best practices for outdoor play environments and trails that intentionally reconnect children with nature, check out the Children’s Outdoor Environments PPN’s upcoming webinar: Infusing Nature into the Everyday Spaces of Childhood – 1.0 PDH (LA CES/HSW) on August 25, 2021 (now available on-demand as a recording). Log in using your ASLA username and password when registering for member discounts.