by Jincy IypeAug 28, 2020
The Paul Revere Williams-designed 1954 public housing, Nickerson Gardens in Watts, southern Los Angeles, has got a renovated playground for both children and adults. American architecture firm NBBJ, together with its experience design studio ESI Design collaborated with musician Michael Peter Balzary (popularly known as Flea) to realise the new Nickerson Gardens Playground within the 55-acre-development. The pro-bono project involved the transformation of an abandoned piece of land within the 1110-unit complex into a recreational outdoor space dotted by inventive play equipment and shaded play spaces. It is Flea’s vision that paved the way to fundraising and partnering with NBBJ along with many other organisations “which committed pro-bono and low-bono time, effort, and materials to create a new amenity for the Watts community,” the project team at NBBJ tells STIR.
The new 17,000 sqm project comprises a playground, exercise area, basketball court, picnic tables, and seating. The project brings a small step in enlivening the neighbourhood that had its share of hardships: Nickerson Gardens was one of the sites exposed to the 1965 Watts riots that ensued a series of violent confrontations between the LA police and the residents of Watts. It was the arrest of an African-American resident named Marquette Frye that caused disturbance in the region which is largely populated by many African-American neighbourhoods. Revere Williams’ design which was originally lauded for prioritising community living through intimate groupings of barracks-style buildings in stucco and concrete block construction and immense green space received heavy criticism after the riots, citing the housing as isolated and self-contained.
Flea, who is the founder of the Watts Conservatory of Music and bassist of the rock band Red Hot Chilli Pepper, is invested in community building in Watts. The genesis of this project goes back to the COVID-19 days when Flea cultivated his relationship with the residents of the neighbourhood. While supporting the community on the ground through his participation in the weekly community food distribution, Flea felt that there was no space for people (especially children) to come together and open up. The Nickerson Gardens Playground was born from the need to blur this gap and realising a space that serves more than just a place to play.
A wavy floor profile made of recycled rubber tires has fluid pockets of yellow and orange coloured areas that situate each of the play equipment. Speaking about this feature, NBBJ studio says, “Key requests were to create various zones for different ages including equipment appropriate for children as well as adults, include a water feature, and create areas of shade to keep the playground cool, especially in the hotter months.” Able to cater to 250 people at a time, the playground space reveals seven swings, multiple slides, a carousel, and an adult fitness centre. “An innovative rainwater capture and filtration system was also installed in an open grid beneath the site to water the landscaping during dry seasons, while misting poles provide relief from the summer heat,” the studio adds. The inventive play and fitness equipment were provided by Kompan—a commercial manufacturer dealing in tailor-made play solutions. “Materials (of play equipment) were chosen which can maintain their colour over time and be easily cleaned and repaired,” says the NBBJ team whose pro-bono involvement constitutes of design perspective and direction. Critical design inputs, organising community reviews and approvals, as well as arranging resources for the playground were done by the Watts Community Group and The Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles (HACLA).
The revitalisation of the Nickerson Gardens Playground puts a spotlight on the power of community effort and goodwill in bringing positive change for all. A small step in the future of the largest public housing project west of Mississippi, it treads the way forward in healing the wound-imprinted landscape of the neighbourhood with innocuous cheers and gentle laughter.