The Value of Open Space in the Pandemic: Willie ‘Woo Woo’ Wong Park and Playground

Open recreational space offers many community benefits – environmental, aesthetic, economic, physical, mental, and social. Urban parks and playgrounds provide people with a variety of physical activities, opportunities for social interaction, and connection to nature and beauty. The COVID-19 global pandemic has quickly reminded us just how valuable our local neighborhood parks and open spaces are – as people turn to these public places to exercise, hold a protest, get out of their homes, and feel a sense of connection and community.

San Francisco’s Chinatown, one of the “the most densely populated urban areas west of Manhattan”, according to the San Francisco Planning Department, has only 5 major public outdoor spaces. Willie “Woo Woo” Wong Playground is the only space dedicated to active outdoor recreation for all of the residents within the entire neighborhood. The Playground and associated Community Center closed for renovation in 2018, leaving the Chinatown community ever more short of open space and lacking an active outdoor recreation area for the duration of the Corona Virus pandemic. The Playground and Community Center reopened, fully renovated, in February 2021.

Exterior of Willie Woo Woo Wong Park Clubhouse
Climbing tower and embankment slide at Willie Woo Woo Wong Park

“In a year Chinatown suffered so much, this reopening is very uplifting and is a “fresh air” for community! This renovation and reopening have even greater impact at this pandemic moment as space like this can be our recovery and literally a much-needed social distancing space for residents especially those living in single room occupancy (SRO). It also provides us a space to host civic community activities (with safety in mind) and creating the resiliency and cultural fabrics that has been so much of Chinatown.”Committee for Better Parks and Recreation in Chinatown/ Chinatown Community Development Center

Since the park’s opening, the playground continues to be discovered by families and residents every day. In fact the park is animated at all hours. Crisp mornings see seniors strolling, looping through the upper and lower outdoor levels. Active adults and teenagers use the exercise equipment or play a pickup game of basketball.  As the day progresses, pods of school-aged children run through the preserved pagoda and jump from each play structure to the next. Kids are encouraged to explore their adventurous side by climbing over everything–the rope tower, embankment slide, and phoenix and dragon play structures by Earthscape.  Younger children and their parents gather in the sheltered corner where they can safely play in the toddler area. The simultaneous use of the park’s spaces throughout the day by residents of all ages was the direct result of the collaboration and design process with the community.

ACTIVE LISTENING: EFFECTIVE COMMUNITY ENGAGEMENT

CMG was passionate about designing Willie “Woo Woo” Wong Park because it was a vital public space that needed renovation to better serve the Chinese American population in our San Francisco community. Committed to listening to the community, SF Recreation and Parks Department and CMG engaged specific local organizations and community partners, including youth and seniors, in conversation: Committee for Better Parks and Recreation in Chinatown/ Chinatown Community Development Center, Chinatown YMCA, local pre-schools, as well as recent immigrant groups. Through in-language meetings and intercept surveys, the design team had the opportunity to listen to the community and understand their need for basic services—ample seating, shade, clean bathrooms, comfort and safety –as well as appreciate the diversity of ages the open space must serve. The dialogue between our team and the community directly informed the design of Willie “Woo Woo” Wong Park and Playground, including the use of imagery such as Dragon and Phoenix, and the organization of various uses to best serve the vast range in ages of the Chinatown neighborhood.  

Chinatown community members use VR to see what the new Willie Woo Woo Wong Park could look like
Chinatown community members give park design feedback on presentation boards for Willie Woo Woo Wong Park

DESIGN: COMPLEXITY AND CONSTRAINT

The reincarnated park is more than just an outdoor playground, it is a celebration of the Chinatown community. The design restored a Pagoda that was original to the 1926 playground, to now serve as an entrance to the park, incorporated dragon and phoenix play structures, and preserved existing murals. Although a complete transformation of its previous design iterations, Willie “Woo Woo” Wong Playground and Park is fully integrated into the urban fabric of the Chinatown neighborhood.

“the carefully mapped congestion is in sync with Chinatown’s magnetic density. Each nook and cranny within the half-acre space takes on a distinct character, with its own scale and often its own surprising vantage point on the outside world.”John King, The Chronicle.

Physically bound by buildings, Willie “Woo Woo” Wong Playground and Park maximizes its footprint to provide opportunities for play, exercise, and community gathering. To define distinct spaces for its multi-generational users, the park design  choreographs topography, verticality, and compactness across 40’ of grade change. Rising up the 40’, the park features three levels, defined by age and uses: the Community Center, designed by Jensen Architects, for large groups and youth programming, the middle level with play equipment for children and families, and the top level for active sports and exercise for adults.  

Willie “Woo Woo” Wong Park and Playground celebrates its location in the heart of Chinatown while creating its own sense of place. The park offers the community, families and neighbors a space outside of their homes to reconnect, play, and gather—simple goals now more important than ever.