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How Cambridge’s first universal design playground created accessible and artful fun

This wooden tower structure at Louis A. DePasquale Universal Design Playground can be accessed by walking across an elevated bridge, climbing up a ladder, or using sliding bars. The Cambridge Playground is the first playscape in the area to utilize the principles of universal design into every aspect of planning and play.Courtesy of Cambridge Arts

At Cambridge’s first and only playground that follows the concept of universal design a 20-foot-wide wooden tower rises into the air. Children can enter the tower in several ways, including up a ladder, via a climbing wall, or over a bridge wide enough to accommodate a wheelchair. Located within Danehy Park in West Cambridge, the space was conceived to offer diverse play options to kids of all abilities. The equipment and other structures follow universal design principles — a term coined and defined by a team of researchers, designers, and engineers at NC State University — that prioritize equity and accessibility.

The 30,000-square-foot Louis A. DePasquale Universal Design Playground opened in November and sits between Field Street and the Briston Arms residential complex.

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“It has been well-received and heavily utilized every day,” said Paul Ryder, director of the project for the City of Cambridge. He added that further improvements, such as a shade structure with fragrant flowers climbing its supports and additional installations, are still in the works. A splash pad fountain, for children to play with water, will open in the summer.

Pictured on left: “Pipe Dreams" is an art-play sculpture designed by middle and high school students at NuVu Studio in Central Square. It features smooth wooden planks that curve, window features, and handholds for children to climb.Cambridge Arts

The City of Cambridge-funded project, led by the Mass.-based firm Weston & Sampson, began in 2018 and incorporated the feedback of residents. “There was an advisory panel of families, parents, workers, and teachers, who have a lot of experience with people of all abilities. They were able to critique our design proposals and give us valuable feedback,” Cambridge artist Mitch Ryerson, one of the project’s lead designers, said. “It’s been a big part of my life for a couple years, and I’ve learned a lot from the team and the stakeholders and the people who had constructive criticism of the design.”

Ryerson said that his team built the playground’s “sensory hilltop,” a high point overlooking the park, to engage children with physical or cognitive disabilities with what he calls “thoughtful play.” The area includes a wheelchair-accessible labyrinth, a wooden marimba to stimulate auditory senses, and raised copper animals on the benches for kids to touch.

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In the center of the sensory hilltop stands a birdbath made of Roxbury puddingstone, a mineral-rich multicolored stone that, Ryerson said, was selected for its beauty and meaning. “It’s a really interesting local stone that is a conglomerate of different types of stone compressed together by a glacier, and it creates a beautiful matrix when you polish it. It also symbolizes, for me, coming together — materials coming together in a harmonic way,” Ryerson said. At the foot of the hilltop sits a swing set containing a mix of standard swing seats and wheelchair swing seats side by side.

Ryder said that he knew the playground was a success in February, when he saw an 8-year-old boy wheeling his way up to the sensory hilltop. “The playground was packed, even though it snowed that morning, ” Ryder explained. “His mother was behind him, and they both had huge smiles on their faces, and they told me they’d been waiting for this for eight years.”

Cambridge’s new spot joins a short list of universal design playgrounds in the area. Another is the Mayor Thomas M. Menino Park, which opened in 2013 next to the Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital on the Charlestown waterfront. According to Ryerson, the concept of a recreational gathering place for everyone should remain a goal for all future designs. The Department of Education reported more than 174,000 students with disabilities enrolled in Massachusetts public and charter schools in 2020-21.

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“I think that this kind of playground and park is incredibly important,” Ryerson said of the Cambridge project. “It’s all to have a place for the community where everyone can come and play together, and there’s something for everyone that makes them feel welcome and wanted and included.”

Searching for an accessible playground near you? Here are some in Greater Boston.

Louis A. DePasquale Universal Design Playground, 75 Field St., Danehy Park, Cambridge. cambridgema.gov/UDPlayground

Mayor Thomas M. Menino Park, First Avenue, next to Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital, Charlestown. boston.gov/parks-and-playgrounds

Harambee Park Boundless Playground, 930 Blue Hill Ave. boston.gov/departments/parks-and-recreation

Fore River Field and Playground, 16 Nevada Road, Quincy, quincyma.myrec.com/info/facilities/details.aspx?FacilityID=10607

Adventures for Angels, Ross Memorial Park, 36 Johnson St., Peabody.

Rising Star Playground, 48 Putnam St., Beverly.

Ronan McElligott Memorial Playground, 55 Williams Ave., Westford. westford.org/ronansplayground

Dr. Bill Adelson Playground at Haskell Recreation Area, 40 Fairbank Road, Sudbury.

Anthony Cammalleri is a freelance writer who has previously been published in Performer Magazine, Independent Magazine, and Westford Community Access Television News.