Cody Goldberg believes playgrounds should be accessible and inclusive for all.
Take the Chelsea Anderson Memorial Playground at Marshall Park in Vancouver, for example.
Where there are wood chips, he envisions paths that children who use wheelchairs can navigate safely. Where there are monkey bars and ladders, he sees a large artificial turf hill where kids of all ages and abilities can play together. Where there is concrete, he sees room for community gardens, native plants and trees.
“Most playgrounds aren’t designed for everybody, especially kids and families experiencing disability, and that’s a problem,” Goldberg said. “Far too often, they leave these vital members of our communities on the sidelines. They’re inaccessible to caregivers. They lack nature. They don’t spark the imagination. Even kids who can access them become quickly bored. Most of all, they don’t allow everyone to play together.”
Goldberg first envisioned a “radically inclusive” playground in 2009 after his 5-year-old daughter, Harper, who uses a walker, got stuck in the wood chips at a play structure. The experience made him realize that most traditional play structures — think wood chips, slides and monkey bars — were due for an upgrade.
As he began thinking about and researching what an accessible playground might look like, he had another realization: On top of being accessible, playgrounds should also act as gathering places. The way they’re designed should encourage connection and community building, he said.
In 2010, Goldberg took his vision and his experience as a designer to Portland, where he founded the nonprofit Harper’s Playground. In 2012, construction began on the first project, at Arbor Ridge Park in Portland.
A decade later, after constructing playgrounds across Portland, Iowa, Indiana and even Tokyo, Japan, Harper’s Playground is embarking on its largest project to date: Overhauling and revitalizing the large playground at Marshall Park in Vancouver.
Coming to Vancouver
Roughly four years ago, Goldberg was contacted by The Community Foundation for Southwest Washington about bringing a Harper’s Playground to Vancouver. Goldberg, a Vancouver resident, accepted the challenge. He connected with Julie Hannon, the city of Vancouver’s Parks and Recreation director, and she brought him to Marshall Park.
“This site is absolutely perfect for our model,” Goldberg said.
Part of what makes it a great spot are the mature trees that provide shade and nature, plus the nearby amenities like the Marshall Community Center and the picnic shelter.
Now, Harper’s Playground has completed the design for a revamped, accessible playground at Marshall Park. A groundbreaking ceremony will be held June 14, and the playground should be completed in early November, exactly 10 years after Harper’s Playground completed its first project.
The organization has so far raised $1.8 million out of the roughly $3 million needed for construction.
“We’ve got a lot of leads on some very big gifts, and we have no doubt that we’re going to get there,” Goldberg said. “Anyone who makes a small investment toward the project will receive a brick or paver with their name engraved.”
The Marshall Park project is the first of several Clark County projects. Harper’s Playground is set to construct playgrounds at Esther Short Park, Roosevelt Elementary School and the new Ruth Bader Ginsburg Elementary in Hazel Dell in the coming months.
“The welcome that we received in this community, not just as a family, but for the work that we do, feels really special,” Goldberg said.
On Thursday afternoon, Goldberg gave a tour of Marshall Park and laid out his plans for an radically inclusive playground.
Despite a relentless April shower, many community members came to show their support, including Hannon and Vancouver Mayor Anne McEnerny-Ogle.
The Marshall Park playground includes a memorial to Chelsea Anderson, the daughter of a Vancouver firefighter whose untimely death rallied the community to construct the playground in 1999. Goldberg plans to keep the memorial and enhance the playground’s firefighter theme.
Where there is currently a small firetruck-themed play structure, there will soon be an actual decommissioned and modified firetruck.
“That’s what I’m most excited about,” said Hunter Gilson, 9, who attended the tour with his family.
The goal of a Harper’s Playground is to be accessible and engaging for all by using elements of the surrounding natural area, hills, pathways, rocks, musical instruments, sculptures and swings adaptable to different bodies.
Goldberg pointed out where the “Oodle” swing will go, a spinning contraption like a tire swing but easier to use by children with less upper body strength. He pointed to the seesaw and explained how it would be replaced by a “we-saw,” a similar play structure that accommodates children with disabilities. He pointed to the central plaza, soon to be equipped with sculptures and curiosity pieces, where parents, caregivers and children with less mobility can gather.
The goal, Goldberg said, is to provide a play space for all and to foster community.
“A lot of data shows that the more diverse people can gather in a space, the more joyful the whole experience is for everyone,” Goldberg said. “We are hard-wired to appreciate difference. That’s important to remember. Everybody should be invited to play.”
“After I saw one of the playgrounds over in Portland, I was like, ‘There is no question, we have to have one of these in Vancouver,’” she said.
The Gilson family from Camas was present at the tour. The Gilsons began supporting Harper’s Playground after Abby Gilson, 13, launched a fundraising campaign at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. After schools were closed, Abby lamented she couldn’t say goodbye to her kindergarten buddy, who has autism.
Abby began making hot cocoa balls and selling them to friends, family and others. She was able to raise $500 by selling 350 homemade cocoa balls. After researching local organizations that support children with disabilities, she decided to donate to Harper’s Playground.
Just as the tour ended, the sun broke through the clouds, and the rain let up.
“I’m expecting a rainbow to land right here,” Goldberg said, looking across the 14-acre park.