I recently had a chance to visit the newly opened northern parklands in London’s Olympic Park.  My dad was from East London where the park is located, so it was uplifting to hear how this once derelict, 400-acre site is aiming to ecologically and economically redevelop this part of London, which has historically been isolated from the rest of the city by a tangle of canals and railways.

When I visited, much of the massive site was under construction as stadiums are refitted to become permanent venues, the Olympic Village is converted to housing, and more.  But the 45-acre northern parklands (designed by the late landscape architect John C. Hopkins) were newly opened. As the UK’s largest ever urban river and wetland restoration, the parklands feature rare wet woodlands, and 300,000 wetland plants have been established.  All of this will create habitat where none has existed for hundreds of years. Indeed our guide told us that if the park is successful in attracting otters, it would be the first time an otter has inhabited this part of London in over 500 years.

A new nature-based playground and cafe were also open and teeming with visitors despite the cool autumn weather. A water play area features series of pumps and dams that allow children to direct water across a rugged hillside of boulders, where winding rivulets become harder, machine-cut channels, mimicking the Lea Valley’s industrial canalization.

The rest of the parklands, including riverside gardens designed by Field Operations and areas for markets, cafes and events, are scheduled to open in spring 2014. Together, they’ll make Queen Elizabeth Park the largest park created in Europe in more than 150 years.

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  1. I recall encouraging the then Olympic Park Legacy Company back in 2010 to consider not only the traditional steel play equipment products they would be familiar with but also the more natural, bespoke style of companies such as Erect Architecture ( I believe it was an image of their Evelyn Court design that was used as an illustration at the meeting) and others of similar stature when discussing the question of a special play space within the northern park.
    I was working for Play England at the time and we had two or three sessions on play design and risk management with officers from OPLC (the concept of `natural play’ was quite daring for them at the time) but this was well before they brought people like Tim Gill on board and began the tendering process.

    It was a pleasant surprise over a year later, when delivering some risk-benefit assessment workshops on behalf of PLAYLINK, to hear that Bernard Spiegal had been contacted by James Corner Field Operations’ New York office to provide technical advice for the southern park play space bid.
    I haven’t seen the final JCFO scheme, though I did see early images. I suspect the play area is rather more `conservative’ than the north park play design but I’ll wait until it opens before making any judgement.

    What I find really encouraging is that many schools are now looking to the same design principles for their school playgrounds. I’ve just started working for a school in the very centre of London on just such radical scheme at the moment. The support and enthusiasm of the Head and his team is just wonderful. I can’t wait to see it finished and being used by children next September 2014.

    1. Thanks so much for your post. Coming from the US where there are very few nature playgrounds and even fewer that promote risk-taking, this playground was so refreshing. I especially loved the water play area, and I’m sure that will be hugely popular in summer. Looking forward to seeing the southern parklands and playscapes as well.

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