by Roger Grant, ASLA, PLA
Last week, we explored San Francisco’s Koret Children’s Quarter and playground, the Tot Lot at Portsmouth Square Park, Willie “Woo-Woo” Wong Playground, and Presidio Tunnel Tops in Part 1. Today in Part 2, we are moving slightly further afield to Dennis the Menace Park, located on California’s Central Coast.
Dennis the Menace Park
El Estero Park, 777 Pearl Street
Monterey, CA 93940
A couple of hours south of San Francisco, a small town on Monterey Bay is home to a park that represented the forefront of creative children’s outdoor play when it was opened 65 years ago and is still going strong today. Its namesake is the famous cartoon character Dennis the Menace, and the creator of this mischievous comic character helped make this project a reality. A quick Google search shows that the park was originally built before any notion of children’s safety standards existed. It had numerous fabricated steel pieces that were engineering marvels that kids could climb on, slide down, and even spin, elevated approximately 15’ above the ground, on. There have been various park renovations, but the essence of the park is intact and it still feels like a wild and unique play space.
The single biggest feature that visually and experientially anchors the play space is the approximately 75’ suspension bridge that is fun for both adults and for smaller children. It has a short climb on both sides, and the embankments retain some of the authentic, non-standard original components, like bent rails, concrete pipe crawl throughs, various timber and stone walls, steep concrete inclines, gnarled trees, and ornamental grasses.
The character of the space is defined by two large hills that allow movement over, around, and between them. At the far end of the park, the grade rises again for a large “roller slide,” which is about 30’ in length and has a unique feel that most children enjoy. Its novelty draws almost everyone to try it at least once. While it doesn’t offer the full range of experience as the concrete slides of San Francisco, there appears to be some skill level necessary in getting down quickly.
There’s a carousel feature behind the roller slide that accommodates about 20 people. It is powder-coated steel, and each place on the carousel is actually some sort of rope or plastic hold. It’s a unique prefabricated play feature that creates some synergy and shared experience among friends or strangers of all ages.
There is more conventional playground equipment worked in, but custom steel and wood legacy pieces are touchstones to prior generations of play and preserve the authenticity of the site. A boat with Dennis the Menace references and some climbers sits in the large, mulched field. A chain link and planted maze is off to one side, and plenty of mature trees bring patches of shade to large areas on the playscape. A steam engine was part of the original playscape for children to climb on. It is now fenced off, but adds visual interest.
For parents, the perimeter is fenced and access is only at the front of the park. There are bathrooms near the front and a fun lion-themed water fountain that is still operational and part of the original vision. Large planters with seat walls and mature shade trees sit near the front for parents.
Objectively, I believe the features of this playground make it iconic. Personally, I have a deep connection to this space, having played here numerous times with my cousins over 25 years ago as our parents and grandparents sat under the shade of the seat wall planters. The playground equipment has changed periodically for various reasons, but the physical terrain and the essence of this playscape are the same. My children, my wife, and I enjoyed every minute here.
For more San Francisco playspaces, see Roger’s post from last week, and we hope many of you are planning to join us San Francisco next month, November 11-14, for the ASLA Conference on Landscape Architecture!
Roger Grant ASLA, PLA, is a landscape architect and consulting arborist in the sprawling North Atlanta suburbs. He has been practicing for 16 years, working on a wide variety of public and private developments. A father of four, he is passionate about the design and function of children’s outdoor spaces and cognizant of the need for creative and engaging playscapes that can compete with modern devices for children’s attention and entertainment. Roger is co-chair of ASLA’s Children’s Outdoor Environments Professional Practice Network (PPN).
Children are delighted to play outside their homes in a new setting during these post-pandemic days. This is a fantastic opportunity for kids to socialize and have fun after isolation.
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