Bringing Inclusive Play to Vancouver, WA

Why accessible play matters – AKS Engineering and Landscape Architects design plans for inclusive parks in Vancouver, WA

Play should be easy and accessible for people of all ages and abilities. Whether it’s replacing woodchips and rough terrain with surfaces that are more accessible for all modes of travel, trading aging playground equipment for new experiences and unstructured imaginative play opportunities, or including more seating and communal areas and engaging all the senses by incorporating beautiful, natural elements, AKS’ landscape architecture team strives to make play possible for everyone in the park and recreation spaces we work on. 

Two recent playground updates with the City of Vancouver’s Parks, Recreation, and Cultural Services and nonprofit Harper’s Playground reflect our commitment to inclusive play. New playgrounds at Esther Short Park and at the Chelsea Anderson Memorial Play Station (CHAMPS) at Marshall Park are fully accessible and welcoming to visitors of all abilities and include pedestrian paths, ADA-compliant surfacing, wheel play areas, turf-covered play hills, and play equipment designed to bring out the child in all of us. 

An aerial view of Esther Short Park in Vancouver, Washington, featuring a playground, vendor tents, walking paths, and landscaping

Esther Short Park Playground – Downtown Vancouver, WA

Located in the heart of downtown Vancouver, the 5-acre Esther Short Park is the oldest public square in the state of Washington. In late 2019, AKS partnered with the City to begin designing a new playground layout to replace the aging equipment and surrounding infrastructure as part of the City’s Project Play Initiative, dedicated to providing accessible and inclusive playgrounds within the City’s park system. To help bring the City’s vision to fruition, and to address safety and maintenance concerns, AKS provided conceptual master planning and final design of the playground and immediate surrounding area, and assisted the City of Vancouver and consultant Harper’s Playground with their public outreach to the community. 

The new playground, reopened in early 2023, includes adaptive play equipment, wheel-friendly synthetic play turf, and unstructured natural elements to encourage creativity and free-play. Decorative elements reference the historical significance of the park to honor its Victorian design and history. Other features include a variety of seating options and social gathering areas; new public restrooms; a drinking fountain; decorative trellis structures and mature fir trees; natural boulders and integrated plantings; wide, easy-to-navigate concrete paths; and accessible play surfaces, as well as swings, a zero-entry merry-go-round, central play hill featuring an embankment slide, boulder scramble, and rope climb, group see-saw, and climbing dome.  

In May 2024, AKS and the Washington Recreation & Park Association (WRPA) hosted an Inclusive Play Tour of the park, presented by Terry Snyder from the City of Vancouver and AKS’ lead landscape architect, Kirsti Hauswald. The goal of the walkthrough was to demonstrate design basics for inclusive playgrounds, show the challenges and issues that designing inclusive parks can present, and compare and contrast layouts of various inclusive parks. 

A green swingset with two swings facing a park with trees, walking paths, and play equipment.

CHAMPS at Marshall Park – Vancouver, WA

Due to its proximity to Clark College, major transit routes, Randall Children’s Pediatric Development and Rehabilitation Center, the Marshall Community Center, and the Luepke Senior Center, Marshall Park is a vital social, cultural, and recreational hub for Vancouver’s central city. The 1.5-acre CHAMPS playground was built in 1999 by the Vancouver Fire Department to honor the memory of Fire Services Captain Curt Anderson’s daughter Chelsea Anderson, who tragically drowned in 1996. Because the aging playground equipment had reached the end of its useful life, the park was due for a refresh in 2022. Even though the park needed major upgrades to meet safety and accessibility requirements, preserving the park’s heritage was a priority. 

The new park design carefully relocated the original CHAMPS memorial and donor wall and incorporated the firefighting theme throughout the park. An interactive art piece made from a retired fire truck is a highlight of the park. Repurposed fire hydrants donated by the City of Vancouver that are located throughout the park to call out key features in English and Braille also pay tribute to the original firefighter theme. AKS worked with Harper’s Playground again to ensure the playground equipment and play areas were radically inclusive for users of all abilities. Features include an 8-foot-high play hill, embankment slide, and inclusive merry-go-round; wheelchair swing; natural sand play area and water wheel; sensory garden; Mobius climber; zero-entry teeter-totter; mosaic murals made of natural materials; and a picnic area. 

In May 2024, CHAMPS at Marshall Park received the WRPA Spotlight Award for Facilities, Parks, and Trails. The Spotlight Awards recognize exceptional achievements of agencies and design firms in the field of parks and recreation. The award was based on the park’s benefits to the community, design aspects, and creative use of resources, materials, or partnerships to support the project.

Learn more about our landscape architecture services.
 Learn more about our work on Esther Short Park.