On a recent summer afternoon, Marshall Park was full of kids climbing ladders, rocking on swings, hurtling down slides and traversing jungle gyms.
Like nearly all parks, Marshall Park was made with able-bodied children in mind when it was built and dedicated more than 20 years ago. For many kids with disabilities, traditional playgrounds leave them out of the fun.
But there’s a plan in the works to remodel Marshall Park, and it’s being guided by a simple philosophy: That parks should be for everybody.
“There’s a real need for it in the city, in terms of making sure there’s places where people can play together regardless of abilities,” said Melody Burton, marketing manager at Vancouver Parks and Recreation.
“It really is about the city leaning into its values as parks being a place for all people.”
In partnership with Harper’s Playground, a Portland-based nonprofit that helps communities build inclusive play spaces, Vancouver Parks and Recreation is soliciting feedback from residents and developing a plan to remake the 14-acre space.
At a June 26 community event, more than 150 people came to learn more about the vision for Marshall and Project Play, the philosophy guiding the remodel.
The play structure at Marshall Park is nearing the end of its life cycle. It’s time for an upgrade, Burton said.
The idea for an inclusive remodel was sparked by a $500,000 anonymous donation to the project. Executing the plan will cost $2 million, privately funded by donations.
Preliminary plans would maintain the park’s firefighter motif. The redesigned space would also include a memorial to Chelsea Anderson — the daughter of a Vancouver firefighter — whose death rallied the community to build the original Marshall Park.
The city looked at a few different sites for an all-abilities park before settling on Marshall. The park was selected because it checks all the right boxes — the size, its central location in the city, and its proximity to other facilities like the Marshall Center, Burton said.
“This was just a great chance to think about creating a new all-inclusive site in a place that is already really well-loved in the community,” Burton said.
About Project Play
Project Play looks for ways to make playgrounds that are both inclusive for kids with disabilities and engaging for everyone, able-bodied or otherwise. It’s the guiding philosophy for Harper’s Playground, who worked with Vancouver on the Marshall Park project.
The nonprofit started “quite literally with a walk in the park with our daughter, Harper. It was her first time taking a walk with her little yellow walker,” said Harper’s Playground founder Cody Goldberg.
At the time, Harper was 5 years old. She attempted to make her way toward a play structure but got stuck in the wood chips, Goldberg said. Harper couldn’t play in the park like the other kids.
“We thought, ‘We should do something about that,’ ” Goldberg said.
The family founded Harper’s Playground and over the next three years raised $1.3 million to build Arbor Lodge Park in north Portland, a park designed with kids with disabilities in mind. Visitors to the park won’t find a traditional play structure — instead, the park incorporates elements of the surrounding natural area, with hills, pathways, rocks and swings adaptable to different bodies.
“There really are two separate movements in the playground world,” Goldberg said.
The first, he said, is incorporating more wheel-accessible ramps into traditional playground structures.
“We’re not really fond of that model, because it’s devoid of nature and doesn’t tend to work well for kids without disabilities,” Goldberg said. “The second movement is the move toward nature play, where it’s much more of a natural environment.”
Harper’s Playground focuses more on the latter type of accessible playground, Goldberg said, because it lets all kids play together — not just able-bodied children, or just children with disabilities.
“It’s universally acceptable to kids of all abilities, and more interesting to kids without disabilities,” he said. “It’s really not inclusive if it doesn’t work for all types.”
It’s folly to assume that making a play space fully accessible to children with disabilities makes it less fun for everyone else, he added.
“We believe wholeheartedly that you can have your cake and eat it, too. You must,” Goldberg said,
Anyone interested in viewing initial plans for the Marshall Park remodel or providing feedback on the proposals visit cityofvancouver.us/parksrec/page/project-play. To fill out a survey, click on the link labeled “Go to the community feedback form.”
Anyone interested in donating to the project can visit harpersplayground.org/projects/marshall-park.