Playground photos courtesy of SF Rec & Park
George Christopher Playground in Diamond Heights has reopened after a near two-year, $5.2 million renovation and park improvement project. The 6.8 acre park is tucked between the Diamond Heights Shopping Center and the northeastern rim of Glen Canyon. The park improvements include a new playground, resurfaced pathways, lighting, drainage, and irrigation systems. The clubhouse restrooms have been reconfigured into a new single user accessible restroom and a gender neutral multi-user restroom.
The project, which broke ground in late 2019, was shaped by feedback gathered through neighborhood meetings, community surveys, electronic voting, and outreach at the “Where in the World is Christopher Park? Festival,” a free community event to raise awareness for this park.
With improved accessibility and visual connection between spaces as guiding design goals, the park amphitheater has been transformed into an accessible plaza with views of the playground, and a ramp to connect the playground to the new accessible restroom. Pathways connecting the Little Red Hen Community Garden and Christopher Park have been resurfaced. The tennis court will be resurfaced and new lighting installed as a future project phase.
The renovated playground features play areas for both big and little kids and includes swings, climbing structures, a whirl, and an “Imagination Garden,” a concept developed by landscape architect Jasmine Kaw, who led the SF Public Works design team for this project. Nature-based play enthusiasts from the Noe Valley Nursery School, located in the Christopher Park Clubhouse, asked Rec and Park to draw upon the natural surroundings of Glen Canyon in the new playground design.
This was a fit for Kaw, who is a member of San Francisco Children and Nature, a citywide collaborative working to expand opportunities for nature connection in parks, schools, and neighborhoods. Kaw explains,
“We were excited to integrate a nature exploration area within the playground footprint, with child friendly plants, a dry riverbed, logs, tree stumps and loose natural parts to encourage imaginative play, especially for the younger age set. This is a first for a city park where a large natural play space is directly adjacent to two structured play areas, giving children more play choices.”
Community advocacy created an additional opportunity for creativity in Kaw’s design, when members of Friends of Christopher Park requested the preservation of three beloved play structures. This request came as the SF Planning Department completed design plan review and environmental impact analysis for the project. The Planning Department took an interest in the original playground and amphitheater, in part because its 1961 schematic design was by one of California’s foremost modernist landscape architects, Robert Royston.
Steps from the updated playground, two pieces of mid-century play equipment have been preserved as a climbable modernist sculpture garden. Concrete Saddle Slide by sculptor Jim Miller-Melberg and metal Pleasure Dome by sculptor David Aaron were part of the playground when it opened in 1971 and are examples of the experimental Creative Play Design movement of the 1950s and 60s. A third piece in the garden is a replica of Miller-Melberg’s concrete sculpture Playwall.
The Planning Department completed a thorough review of the architectural significance of the playground, which included the playground structures community members were asking Kaw to save.
Friends of Christopher Park researched these artists and were fascinated to learn that their “play sculptures” were part of the experimental Creative Play Design movement of the 1950s and 60s. This information laid the groundwork for community advocacy to save the historic play sculptures.
Friends of Christopher Park requested a safety inspection for the sculptures and sought support for their preservation from District 8 Supervisor Rafael Mandelman who, together with prior support from former Supervisors Jeff Sheehy and Scott Wiener, ultimately secured an additional $552,000 in funding for salvaging the vintage play sculptures and making pathway improvements, ball field fence replacement, and new tennis court lighting.
Rec and Park Project Manager Lauren Chavez worked diligently to provide remaining funding through Rec and Park deferred Maintenance and Open Space funds.
Thanks to the good work of local contractors Treaty Construction, Kaw’s excellent design team and Rec and Park’s dynamic project management team led by Chavez, two original and one replica of the mid-century play equipment comprise a climbable modernist sculpture garden just steps from the updated playground. Friends of Christopher Park is delighted that current and future generations will enjoy these play sculptures, and is grateful for the experience of working with the project team, the Diamond Heights Community Association, and the Office of District 8 to make the new George Christopher Playground exceptional.
The usual crowds for a ribbon cutting ceremony weren’t in attendance due to Covid-19 concerns. But Mayor London Breed, District 8 Supervisor Rafael Mandelman, and Rec and Park General Manager Phil Ginsburg, were among the city dignitaries who brought spectacular weather to the opening festivities. And excited kids from Noe Valley Nursery School and Eureka Valley Arts eagerly tried out all the new fun stuff.
“George Christopher Park has been called the best kept secret in San Francisco for its views and trails that connect to Glen Canyon. Now its playground is among the most innovative and fun in San Francisco,” said Ginsburg. “This space has been beloved by the neighborhood for decades, which was reflected in the community’s enthusiasm guiding this project.”