Regenerative design

Rochester joins a global movement to reconnect children—and everyone else—to the natural
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Strolling through the south side of Highland Park, you might come across a jumble of logs on the ground, some sticking straight up, and some lashed together with rope. You might see kids playing on these logs with their parents. You might assume that a tree fell here and it was converted into a playground without a lot of thought put into it.

You would be mistaken.

Highland Park’s new play area is part of a global movement inspired by a growing base of scientific research and a partnership among four organizations that planned the space for more than a year. That global movement is called “biophilic design,” and the partnering groups were the Monroe County Parks Department, the timber-framing pioneers at New Energy Works, Engineering firm Barton & Loguidice, and the local community.

Tom Robinson is lead landscape architect on the project. “I’m just smiling because partnerships are sometimes the best part of the project,” he says when asked about the actors involved. “The outcome really depends on good people coming together from a bunch of different angles.” After a year of master planning and community input, “it all came together like a giant jigsaw puzzle,” he says, “based on established design principles, what we know about gross motor skill development, and trying to keep it to a reasonable level of safety. We did a lot of research into biophilic design.”

The term biophilia refers to the innate joy humans receive from engaging with the natural world. According to a growing body of scientific research, time spent in natural environments improves behavioral disorders like ADHD in children, as well as relieving stress and other illnesses. “I think we’ve all known intuitively for years that it’s good to be outside and be active,” Robinson says, “but now the science—on a number of levels—backs it up, giving us better ammunition to quantify, even on an economic scale, what that means.”

The Highland Park play area wasn’t the first time Robinson’s team had worked with New Energy Works. Eric Fraser, New Energy Works’ project manager, tells me about his first experience on a nonprofit project. “Tom was working on Rochester Childfirst Networks’ capital campaign, and he reached out because the funding wasn’t there,” he says. “We wanted to give back to the community somehow, and that was just the perfect project.” Instead of just providing funding, New Energy donated an entire pavillion to the nonprofit, which is dedicated to early education and childcare. “That was a wonderful project, and we were thrilled to work with both Tom and RCN,” Eric says. The pavillion is part of Rochester Childfirst Network’s plan to outfit four acres of forested land with natural play areas. Surrounding New Energy Works’ pavilion—which has a green roof and rainwater collection system—are small gardens, logs for playing on, and a “trike track” path so kids of all ability levels can easily access every part of the space.

Unlike wooden playgrounds built in the seventies and eighties, Robinson uses all-organic materials. And, while naturally rot-resistant species are preferred, “they’re designed to change over time,” he says. Pieces will be added and replaced over the years based on material availability and community input. So the layout will constantly evolve. “If you go to Highland Park a few times a season, year to year, you will see differences,” he tells me.

But the most amazing part of it all? These areas will literally grow on their own.

“A lot of that wood is black locust, which always tries to regenerate itself,” he says. “Even after just a year, you’ll notice some of the dead pieces stuck in the ground are already starting to sprout. And,” he adds, “we’re just fine with that.” According to Robinson, the regrowth will teach kids—and remind parents—of nature’s reinventive properties and neverending role in our lives.

“It’s just another way to connect people to natural systems.”   


John Ernst is a freelance writer and graphic designer based in Rochester. You can see more of his work at

Categories: Current Issue Features, John Ernst