Opinion: Village Matters

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The Best Christmas Gift

ann christoph

The best gifts are the unexpected, and in this case it was unexpected by both giver and receiver—the result of a chance encounter at a friends holiday open house. This fellow guest had no idea of the background, or the importance to me of his casual query.

Young man from New York City, a writer on culture and entertainment for The Atlantic. He asked what I do and then park projects I had done came into the conversation. “Do you know Treehouse Park?” he wondered. No…” Then as he described it more I knew he was talking about South Laguna Village Green which used to have a trio of huge Torrey pines with a treehouse built around one of them. That was my favorite park growing up.” So rustic, not manufactured. I cant believe you designed it!”

Its not often I hear about the results of my work, and never from grown-up children who experienced the play environments we created. That was my best Christmas gift.

In the 1970s when that park was first designed there was a huge emphasis on creative play, natural materials, encouraging children to manipulate their own play environments, and designing with nature. Adventure Playgrounds” were really trying to duplicate the kind of play opportunities kids used to find in vacant lots—wood piles, rocks, dirt mounds, and tree climbing. That was in the days before the fear of liability sterilized design.

A child enjoys the South Laguna Village Green swing. Photo courtesy of Ann Christoph

The Village Green project came from the community, it came from the heart. In the early 1970s before South Laguna was annexed to Laguna Beach, Fred Lang and South Laguna Civic Association members were working on a General Plan for South Laguna. It was concentrating on saving the hills for open space but since it was supposed to be a comprehensive plan it needed to show future parks. So I went around the community looking for promising vacant properties, candidates for local parks. One morning I was driving by one of those park locations, on the corner of Catalina and Monterey Streets and saw construction equipment and workers. I called Fred, Theyre building in the park!” We called an emergency meeting of SLCA, inviting County Parks staff and the builder, Dean Whitaker. He agreed to hold off construction for 30 days to see if we could get the county to buy the property.  This was so generous, a miracle in itself. People for Parks was organized; Jo Ballard was its leader. She and Blair had two young children. They and other young parents saw the need for a childrens play park—even though the Countys attitude was, You have the beach, why do you need a park?”

Park-goers enjoy the South Laguna Village Green rope climber. Photo courtesy of Ann Christoph

We had to build awareness at the basic level, both with the County and our own residents. That took longer than 30 days. That first house was built, but there were still 3 lots left.  We had petition drives, trips to Santa Ana to the Board of Supervisors, many meetings. In the midst of this our supervisor, Ron Caspers, was lost at sea and then was replaced by Tom Riley. Scott Ferguson, still a conservationist and Laguna resident, was an aide who continued through the transition in the Supervisors office and was key in getting the park project approved. $80,000 for the three lots was an outrageous price some said, but the project went forward.

The Committee met to talk about the design. It was to be rustic, informal, with a homespun feel—rope swings from the limbs of the huge pine tree, a tree house, and a macramé rope climber tied to the palm trunks. The enclosure was not to look like a fence, yet it had to be safe for the kids. So we did a mounded landform—its a retaining wall from the inside that is a planted slope from the outside. Blair designed welcoming gates of rebar with an abstract flower design. Todd Stoutenborough designed the tree house. Artist Sherry Talmadge created a model of the rope climber and directed the community in tying it. Our office, Lang and Wood, did the site design, detailing and construction documents under County contract. As project designer, I was on the job most days during construction (1977).   

Grand opening, bands, pot lucks, children playing. The community loved it and felt it was their own.

Landscapes change and so do attitudes. Two of the Torrey pines fell in storms. No more rope swings from the branches. The neighbors were fearful that the last pine would fall too. Most of the tree was removed leaving the dead trunk section where the tree house still stood. The rope climber wore out and it wasnt replaced. A pathetic scene.

Village Green Park with original pine trees, tree house by Todd Stoutenborough and hand built slide. Photo courtesy of Ann Christoph
Rope climber model by Sherry Talmadge. Photo courtesy of Ann Christoph

In 2001, the City hired me to restore the park. What a privilege it was to be allowed to do follow up design on the park that had already meant so much to me and the community. Safety concerns outweighed the desire for hand-made features. New regulations made it hard to recreate the original feel of the park. The list of non-conforming features on the treehouse was long, and it seemed silly to advocate for a treehouse now that there was no tree.  Equipment had to be guaranteed safe by the manufacturer—no specially designed, custom-built items as had been featured before. New criteria for safety distances and accessible surfaces coupled with insistence from some parents that there be no wood their children could touch, changed the materials and design of the equipment. Still, the basic layout and rustic feel of the park prevails.

In the classic holiday movie Its a Wonderful Life” George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) experiences how different his community and family would have been if he hadnt been there. In real life we often just keep doing things, hoping its doing some good. Its not often we hear directly from someone years later about the effect our community efforts have had on them.  The energy and creativity of a community in action is in the DNA of the spaces we create, its palpable and formative for those who live and play within them. We can not only enjoy the creative process and the working together, we can feel confident that our work influences now and for years from now.

Ann is a landscape architect and former Laguna Beach mayor. She is also a long-time board member of Village Laguna, Inc.

South Laguna Village Green gates by Blair Ballard. Photo courtesy of Ann Christoph
Rope Climber being tied by community members. Sherry Talmadge at right. Photo courtesy of Ann Christoph
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