Imagination Playground Opens in NYC

NEW YORK — There’s good news for kids in Lower Manhattan — architect David Rockwell’s Imagination Playground is finally open for play.
The founder and CEO of New York-based Rockwell Group cut the ribbon to the city’s newest hangout for the 12 and under crowd at a ceremony this summer that included Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
Rockwell conceived of the idea to build a better playground more than five years ago after watching the way his own children played. Several years of research and just over a year of construction led to the $7.5 million Imagination Playground at Burling Slip — a place where Rockwell says play is defined by the way children interact with elemental items, like loose blocks, sand and water.
“When I began the project about five years ago, my kids were five and three then — very much in the sweet spot of playground ages,” Rockwell says. “We explored many of the incredible playgrounds in New York, and I watched how they played. I felt like they wanted to play in a less structured way, with less waiting in line, and in a less linear way than was offered by traditional playgrounds.”
Thus set in motion Rockwell’s architecture brain, the same mind that has designed dozens of upscale restaurants, hotels, cultural centers, movie and theater sets and more. After running the idea by the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation, Rockwell set to designing the playground — pro bono.
“My goal was to create a play-space that would help kids do what they do best, better than any grown up does, which is to dream, imagine, build something, and then rip it down and start all over again,” Rockwell says.

The Burling Slip location had two major advantages as an ideal spot to create a playground, Rockwell says. First, it was located in Lower Manhattan, where Rockwell lives and works. Second, because of the location, the project had funding from the Lower Manhattan Development Corp., which pitched in $4.5 million. The New York City Department of Environmental Protection provided the rest of the funding.
The Imagination Playground captures the areas rich maritime and commercial history, with such elements as a cascading water channel, masts and pulleys, and a lookout ramp with telescopes, Rockwell says. The landscaping also incorporates amphitheater seating and a red metal “crow’s nest” that doubles as a storage unit for the playground’s loose toys and tools.
“The basic concept is there are hundreds of loose parts, including about 150 large dense, foam blocks, which essentially takes playing with blocks — something kids understand well — and makes it a social thing,” says Rockwell. “Along with blocks are wheelbarrows and all kinds of other toys that kids can use to rearrange the place, so that everyday they play they create something new.”
The playground also features sand and water play areas. The entire space is monitored by a “play associate” to ensure the pieces are preserved.
“We looked at hundreds of different options to determine how kids play interactively together and then we really simplified it to its most basic component,” Rockwell says. “What’s fantastic is how much the kids do on their own to create these amazing, artful and inspiring structures.”
Rockwell added that a portable version of the Burling Slip site called Imagination Playground in a Box was rolled out in Brooklyn in July 2008 through a partnership the nonprofit playground advocate, Kaboom. About 80 of the portable playgrounds are now rotating throughout the country.
“The project exceeded my expectations — it was certainly harder than I ever would have imagined,” says Rockwell, who describes some of the major challenges as insuring the Burling Slip playground, dealing with parents groups and building at the center of a state landmark.
“One important take-away for me was the power of public-private partnerships,” he added. “It’s never all going to come from the public or private sector, but I think together they are enormously powerful.”
Rockwell is currently discussing with the city the construction of similar parks in other locations. Additionally, in collaboration with the NYC Parks and Recreation, the Rockwell Group is currently raising an endowment fund to ensure that Imagination Playground is properly maintained for decades to come.
Learn more about the Imagination Playground at