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This $18 million playground doubles as an unusual barrier against rising sea levels

Perched at the southern tip of Manhattan, the Battery Playscape proves that resilient landscapes can work hard but can look fun, too.

This $18 million playground doubles as an unusual barrier against rising sea levels
[Photo: Inessa Binenbaum/courtesy BKSK]

Perched at the southern tip of Manhattan, Battery Park is particularly vulnerable to flooding. In 2012, the low-lying region was pummeled by Hurricane Sandy, which flooded local tunnels, basements, and the nearby construction site at Ground Zero. But now, the area is protected by a growing network of sea walls, flip-up gates that can be deployed for a storm—and a playground.

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[Photo: Inessa Binenbaum/courtesy BKSK]
At first glance, the $18 million Battery Playscape looks like a regular, albeit expensive, playground, with contemporary tree houses, granite slides, and a climbing wall. But the 1.5-acre playground also doubles as a resilient park and a line of defense against rising sea levels. Here, attractions include a bioswale that snakes under a series of wooden bridges and collects stormwater, four-ton boulders from upstate New York, and an 18-foot bluff that holds a series of slides and acts as an informal flood wall.

[Photo: Inessa Binenbaum/courtesy BKSK]
The playground sits on top of three subway lines and comes with an underground tank that can hold over 30,000 gallons of water. It’s a complex project that called for large cash infusions from various entities like the MTA and the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation. But at its core, it promotes a simple idea: Resilient landscapes should work hard, but they can look fun, too.

[Photo: Inessa Binenbaum/courtesy BKSK]
The Playscape was spearheaded by the Battery Conservancy and designed by local firms BKSK Architects and Starr Whitehouse. It has five distinct zones, each designed around a native landscape typology from the Hudson River Valley. For instance, both rivers flanking Manhattan inspired the “Riverbed,” which features water sprays that flow into a sand basin reminiscent of a tidal pool. (Kids can even dig for a 4-foot octopus hidden beneath the surface.)

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[Photo: Inessa Binenbaum/courtesy BKSK]
Meanwhile, the city’s shoreline and beaches gave shape to the “Dune” — a geometric climbing structure that rises up from the ground like a windswept dune and doubles as stadium seating for live puppet shows. The structure is made from glass-reinforced concrete, which the architects chose for its durability. “We know this site will flood again, so part of it is managing the water, and part of it is protecting the resources that are there,” says Joan Krevlin, a partner at BKSK.

[Photo: Inessa Binenbaum/courtesy BKSK]
Typically, resilient landscapes like sponge parks and rain gardens rely on permeable surfaces that collect the rainwater and allow it to soak into the ground. But the Battery Playscape sits so close to the river that the water table can be very high, so the architects couldn’t create too many porous surfaces. Instead, they opted for some planted surfaces and a bioswale, a kind of ditch that works a bit like a gutter but looks like a vegetated canal. “It’s better to channel the water in specific areas and capture it in more deliberate ways,” says Laura Starr, a founding partner of Starr Whitehouse.

[Photo: Inessa Binenbaum/courtesy BKSK]
In the process, the architects created one of many educational tools for the kids. In the Riverbed, for example, runoff water seeps through the sand and into the bioswale. Children can trace the water’s course until it disappears into the detention tank below, where the water can be stored for 24 hours before it is slowly released into the city’s sewer system.

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Small plaques describe the intention behind every playground feature, but Krevlin believes that kids will understand it intuitively anyway. “Kids have fun playing wherever they are,” she says, “but there was an opportunity to do something that really connected [them] to nature, to natural forces, and the history and the context of the Battery.”

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