Well the south side of Gan SacherIt's the central park of townAnd if you go down thereYou will soon be awareOf the park’s brand new playground
If American songwriter Jim Croce had come to Jerusalem’s “Central Park” 38 years later, he might started his 1973 hit song like that.
Long and narrow like New York City’s Central Park (although only about a 20th the size), Gan Sacher is the capital’s one, especially on holidays when more Jerusalemites are free to come and experience its green, open space.
And now that space has a truly amazing new playground.
“Kol hakavod (congratulations) to Mayor Moshe Lion and the municipality for making an exceptional, open and safe playground like this – that’s not like any other in Jerusalem,” Shay Zur said jubilantly on his second visit since its official inauguration on November 23. He was with his four grandchildren Refael (10), Elima (8), Yona (5) and Zohara (2). “They all love to come to the playground,” he said.
And which kids wouldn’t? Packed onto its 3,000 sq.m. (three dunams, about three-quarters of an acre) is an enjoyable variety of colorful mitkanim – playground features – that look like they were designed by a video game programmer gone mildly wild.
There are of course the swings – a traditional one as well as a meter-wide round shallow basket one that several kids can swing on together.
Next to them is one made of rope – the seat part. Not just any rope though, but a close to two-meter-long, 25-cm.-thick piece that looks like it was salvaged from an old pirate ship. Called the Horse Swing, it can also hold a bunch of kids – sitting or standing. The horse’s reach is long because it’s attached high up, so it swings more like a pendulum. There were kids waiting on line for that one.
There’s another tall swing on the other side of the playground, that swings like a majestic tree swaying gently in the wind. It also had a waiting line on the days of and around Hanukkah when In Jerusalem went to see what all the recently inaugurated action was about.
THEN THERE is the Omega: a 10-m.-long elevated metal track with a small, round seat-for-one hanging down from it on a pole, attached to the track like one side of a bedroom closet sliding door. The track dips slightly in the middle, looking from afar like someone slightly smiling, so that when riders start from one end, they will automatically stop at the other end and come right back – like a real pendulum.
Shay’s granddaughter Elima got a loving push from her Saba, and was on her way – and then back.
There are also a couple of “Sky Walks.” One goes from a three-meter-high wooden tower with windows and an entrance to the natural-rope bridge that is about a meter-and-a-half above the ground, for kids (and adults) who don’t want to go up too high. It ends with a descent to the ground.
The other one is more challenging, for kids (and adults) who are ready to brave a much higher crossing. This nine-meter-high rope bridge is suspended between two towers that trekkers climb up through to reach a system of bridges. People always seemed to be crossing in one direction – from the left, narrow, netted tower to the right – although there didn’t seem to be an official one-direction policy.
One direction maybe not, but one-way yes – the bridge is too narrow for people to pass each other. There are cabins where you can stop along the way and look at the view, some of which have high slides.
THE MAIN attraction of the playground, however, is probably its tallest tower. Rising to a height of 16 m., it is the tallest such playground tower in Israel. Not less than three slides come out of it: The highest one (11 m.) is the longest at 22 m.; another at a height of 5.6 m. winds down for 19 m. and the shortest is 2.8 m. up, spewing sliders onto an actual hill, making the tower look shorter than it really is.
All of the rope bridges are totally enclosed, but in an open way for seeing out and in, one aspect of the safety built in to the complex’s design.
Another main feature of the playground is one that you see right away upon arrival: the Lion. At 5.4 m. high, it has many elements that kids can play in and around. Shaped like Jerusalem’s mascot, it was designed especially for this project and is even accessible for children with disabilities. It is made from planks of robinia wood – from the tree also known as Black Locust or False Acadia – and looks like a boardwalk from a New York City beach that has been morphed into the king of beasts.
A huge net contraption, made of green, 2-3 cm.-thick rope-cable and periodically placed platforms for different types of climbing and resting, connects the levels and the nearby “hill.” The set-up, which looks like it was made by a spider webbing in overdrive, also gives a sense of play above ground – and there’s a two-meter-high yellow ball in the middle that can be climbed.
There are also a couple of spinning thingies: one that has five differently colored dish-shaped seats, another that looks like a thick trampoline ring or bicycle tire, set on an angle to test the balance of kids who stand on it.
An integrated, accessible facility adapted for use by smaller children, including those with disabilities, contains a wide variety of game panels, slides and bridges. And there’s even a DJ kiosk where you can connect your phone and hear music from it.
Covering the whole operation, at a height of up to nine meters, is a layout of multiple triangular tarps, supported by dozens of gray metal poles, some of them 30-cm. thick. But since they are gray, you barely see them against the bright green and orange themed playground equipment - another example of the project’s thoughtful design. The shading tarps look like a plate of three-pointed white corn chips suspended in the sky.
SO WHO is responsible for this potpourri of play?
For such a big and complicated project – with a pretty NIS 10 million ($3.1m.) price tag, many people, organizations and companies were of course involved.
Several municipal departments and their staff chipped in – from the standards and planning department to the parks department, all working together with the Mayor’s Office to plan this play project and bring it to its fun fruition.
ERAN SHOHAM is the CEO of N.E. Laba, the amusement equipment supplier and playground planner based in Kochav Yair that won the tender to design the new playground.
“I’m really proud of this project, because Jerusalem is important to me and my family,” he exults. “My father was one of the paratroopers who helped liberate the Old City of Jerusalem in 1967 during the Six Day War. He said ‘do it – make the playground unusual and amazing – it’s important for our family.’”
Reuven Shoham started the company that eventually became N.E. Laba. He was the first one in Israel to provide the rubberized surface now found in playgrounds all over the country. The durable, rubberized material – now guaranteed for 10 years – cushions and protects kids who fall from the playground equipment onto it, part of the playground’s design with safety in mind.
The playground’s rubberized safety surface is a weaving together of blue, green and orange sections, seamlessly connected at both straight and wavy borders, adding appealing complexity to the playground’s palate of colors.
“We had a very strong ambition to do something amazing, even compared to other similar projects worldwide,” the younger Shoham said. “We designed most of it specially for this playground; there is nothing else like it in Israel.”
Most of the playground parts are made by Kompan, which is “the biggest playground company in the world.” The planning was very focused, he said, down to the details like the cables and their connectors. This is apparent to anyone who takes a closer look at everything in the playground. I mentioned to him its well-designed color coordination. He wanted to particularly thank Jerusalem’s chief architect Ofer Manor for helping with that.
Regarding the Lion’s Black Locust wood, Shoham said that it comes from north Germany, is very strong and can last for 25 years. “My project manager, team and I put special effort into designing the Lion, because of its connection to Jerusalem.”
ORA HACHAM-RAFAEL of Zur Wolf Landscape Architects was the company’s main landscaper along with its owner, landscape architect Lior Wolf – not only for the playground, but for all of the renovations and initiatives in the larger Gan Sacher project.
The company is the third generation of the one that initially planned Gan Sacher in 1965, its founders Dan Zur and Lipa Yahalom winning the first, prestigious Karavan Prize for that effort six years later and the Israel Prize for Architecture in 1998.
“The northern part of the park across Rabin Road has been used poorly since the ’90s,” she explained, “because the road cut the garden in two parts. In order to bring it to life again, we decided to move the sports court areas to the north. This way we could clear the old sports fields that blocked the garden with high walls and fences, and make room for the new and upgraded playground. Another important goal was to increase the perceived spaces of the garden with some new lawns.
“In the north part, we set up tennis, basketball and football courts and also a skate park, ninja and TRX.”
They also made usable much of the area west of the park up to Rothschild Street, creating new picnic areas and making the park more accessible from the direction of Cinema City.
Regarding the playground, it was very important and challenging to design it without fences and high walls, so it would be connected to the trails and accessible to enter from every direction.
Regarding parking, “the decision was to not use park space for parking” she said, acknowledging that parking is still “an issue.”
DAN MIZRAHI is another major player in the playground – he is Gan Sacher’s new caretaker. He took charge of the park and its surroundings about a month-and-a-half ago, at the end of the almost year-long building project. He also proudly told In Jerusalem all about the playground – both over the phone and on site.
I met him there on Friday, the fifth day of Hanukkah, my third time there in two weeks. Each time, there were more people; we estimated 250 or so in the actual playground and another 250 in the surrounding grassy area. With him was personnel manager Yossi Yonah.
It was hard for us to do our interview, because things kept happening as we talked. We suddenly noticed a little girl next to us; a little boy, apparently not her brother, said she was lost. Mizrahi went into action: He called the security hotline and told them to announce on the playground’s loudspeaker system that there was a little lost girl, about two years old. The situation was compounded by the fact that she wouldn’t tell us her name, so Dan just told them to describe her as wearing a leopard-patterned hoodie jacket, and that her family should meet us by the nearby public bathrooms. I went to look for a frantic mother, but didn’t find one; when I got back they said that she had come to take her now-found daughter.
But she wasn’t the only lost kid. A woman was telling a policeman who had just driven in (Mizrahi said that the park is locked to non-official vehicles) about another, older lost girl standing next to her. They all took care of that crisis, too.
Then a man, seeing that Mizrahi looked like the go-to guy to talk to about the playground, told him about something that concerned him: There were too many kids in the tall slide tower, and someone could get hurt – and that kids can get caught in the ropes. The careful and caring caretaker responded that since it’s a public park, they can’t stop anyone from going on any of the equipment – at least not until they have a directive like that from the city, which is responsible for the safety of the equipment. I had to chip in my two agarot, saying that all playground equipment by nature can be dangerous – so kids and those who are with them have to be careful on their own.
Rivka from Ramot, another woman In Jerusalem spoke to on an earlier visit, said she saw the playground advertised on Facebook and in “Yerushalmiyot.” Appreciating the park and the need that it filled, she also said she “understood from people there that the slides can get hot in the sun,” which can make the kids uncomfortable.
Mizrahi said that the project was evaluated and approved by a city playground engineer, and that there’s a guarantee from the company for several years. “If it passed the inspection of the standards institute, then they must have thought of everything.” Even so, he dutifully gave those concerns over to the company’s inspector – “and he will answer that.” I asked Shoham about it: He explained that the shading system was specially designed to prevent overheating of the slides.
ALICE, who was at the playground on one of my earlier visits with her three children Aviv (10), Mia (7) and Liv (4), said that before, the playground was big and sandy, but now it’s huge. This was her second time; they had come the previous day. “My kids love it!” she exclaimed. “And at the DJ stand, you can connect your phone and make music – put on YouTube.” She asked one of her daughters what she likes best at the playground: “Everything!” was her gleeful, bubbly reply.
“We’re glad that residents can come and enjoy, and be happy with what we’ve done,” Mizrahi said proudly. Jerusalem has done something awesomely playful here at Gan Sacher – for kids of all ages to come to and enjoy.