GROWING up on a farm near Dublin, a young John O’Driscoll was desperate to leave the land and run away for a lifetime of adventures at sea. So, it’s ironic that a decade later, after travelling in Central and South America and working in Turkey, he found his true calling closely aligned to the countryside: designing sustainable adventure playgrounds to lure children away from their computers and back to nature.
John, founder and director of groundbreaking Adventure Playground Engineers (APES), built the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park’s Tumbling Bay Playground — a joint project with Erect Architecture — and is currently working on a new play space at the Eden Project in Cornwall.
But his most recently completed playground — a 2.7-acre play space at Berkeley’s Kidbrooke Village, a £1billion regeneration project at the Royal Borough of Greenwich — has arguably been his most rewarding.
‘When we started work here three months ago it was just a sea of mud,’ John says. ‘We had a footprint from HTA, the main architects, who had given us the shape.
‘It was a challenge to get it all done on time, particularly as it’s all in sustainable and environmentally friendly materials. It’s designed to challenge and entertain kids, and one of the most gratifying projects I’ve done.’
The result is a fabulous kaleidoscope of natural wood: spruce in telegraph poles, green hart (recovered from the pilings of Woolwich pier) in seats and benches, and lofty, hexagonal-shaped towers, with enclosed rope walkways, topped with a jumble of stag horn oak that’s hand-collected from an Oxfordshire forest before being polished and oiled.
The bespoke, stainless steel slides were made by Massey Harris and the climbing wall was created from old Jarrah wood railway sleepers. Local children designed the cast-iron stepping stones across the site, while the stone slabs used to create stairs of seating weigh up to five tonnes each.
‘The idea is that the kids feel they’re climbing real trees, not wood, plastic or steel,’ John says. ‘The whole site is made from totally renewable or reclaimed materials. We wanted to put the adventure back into a play space and it’s been a huge success.’
The playground sits perfectly within an extraordinary site — the result of a unique partnership between Berkeley and the London Wildlife Trust (LWT), which is ‘wilding’ dozens of acres of the former brownfield site with ponds, wetlands, trees and wildflowers. The area was an RAF base during World War Two, and barrage balloons to protect the city against low-flying aeroplanes were made here. During the Cold War, it was at the heart of counter-intelligence.
The site later became the Ferrier Estate but, by the 1980s, it had become so dilapidated that residents branded it ‘a prison in the sky.’
In 2009, it was taken on by Berkeley, who are providing 4,800 new homes, shops and leisure facilities on 136 acres of land, including the newly designed Cator Park and Sutcliffe Park.
More than 1,700 homes have already been built and the ‘wilding’ of the site — to encourage birds, bees, beetles and a huge array of flora — is continuing.
Berkeley reviewed its masterplan to enhance biodiversity and create a green legacy at Kidbrooke after working with LWT on the Woodberry Down wetlands in Hackney. When David Attenborough opened that site in 2016, he praised its foresight and commented: ‘I wish all new housing developments could be like this.’
Berkeley picked up the challenge and has run with it, creating bio-friendly Urban Houses [a new phase will be released for sale soon], apartments and wild spaces on a scale that’s unique in modern housing developments. When they saw John’s work at the Olympic Park, they knew he was the designer they wanted.
‘Berkeley and London Wildlife Trust have taken a real journey together to create an ecologically rich landscape,’ says David Mooney, director of development at LWT.
‘We’re creating a wild tapestry, a story to tell generations to come. If more developers work like this, we can recover and rescue nature in an urban environment. And that would be a lesson for the countryside.’
John laughs when you point out that his early ambition was to escape the land and that now, once again, he is wedded to nature.
‘My values and love of nature were established growing up on the farm,’ he says. ‘But one of the problems back then was that I had chronic hay fever. It turned out I was allergic to wheat, barley and oats — all the things we grew on the farm.’
A playground for Gentle Giants
PLAYGROUND designer John O’Driscoll is moving onto bigger things — creating a play space for ZSL Whipsnade Zoo’s herd of Asian elephants.
The elephants, including a year-old infant, already enjoy 30 acres of rolling paddocks, as well as a custom-designed Centre for Elephant Care.
‘Building a play area for elephants has its challenges,’ John says. ‘What they like best is to charge through the bush and break trees. So we’re creating three groups of trees within a paddock — about seven to eight trees in each cluster — topped with camouflage nets to provide shade and protection from pecking birds.
‘The trees are dead, chopped down and brought from Oxford, but reasonably intact, so they’ll also have fun stripping the bark.’
APES is also building a playground of ropes and swings for the resident Colobus monkeys, lower-level ropes for the sloth bear, and installing feeding posts for the giraffes.
‘The elephants are the most fun,’ John says. ‘They’re very keen to interact with each other, nature and people.’
■ Read more about John’s projects at apesatplay.com; the final homes at Birch House, Kidbrooke Village’s landmark building, are available through Help to Buy from £592,500. The next phase of Urban House will launch later this summer, kidbrookevillage.co.uk