Reflections: Visiting the Presidio Tunnel Tops Outpost Playground

Collaboration with the Presidio Trust (and Friends of the Presidio) and James Corner Field Operations created an incredibly rich design experience.

After visiting San Francisco for the ASLA conference and EXPO in November, Alex Waffle, Nathan Schleicher, Nat Grant, Laura Hilliard, and Melissa Quinn share their reflections and special moments from their first-time visit to the Presidio Tunnel Tops.


Nat Grant (Project Manager): “The best log climber we’ve ever created!”


“The breathtaking scenery and integration of vegetation into the landscape was incredible to see and experience. I will always remember walking over the hill and being presented with the spectacular view of the Golden Gate Bridge, the ocean, the mountains, and the playground we helped to create. It was amazing to see the play equipment in its home after seeing, firsthand, the hours upon hours spent on fabrication.

My favorite part about our visit was having parents approach us to express their love for the park. In my opinion, the Forest Den is one of the best log jam climbers we’ve ever created.”


Nathan Schleicher (Concept Designer): “Beautiful, thoughtful, challenging, evolving, complex, and inclusive”


“I’m cursed with a touch of perfectionism… I’m not very good at saying, ‘ok this design is done’. My mind just keeps finding more things I’d like to try out or tweak. I’ve never visited a playground that I have worked on and thought, ‘there’s nothing I would change about this,’ but the Presidio might come close.

That said, the irony of what I witnessed was that it is in fact, not done. There are little acts of ongoing guerilla design happening all over the place. To the consternation of landscape architects, a ‘goat path’ between two play areas is forming, leading to a rethinking of the planting scheme. To the dismay of the volunteers who reset the space, kids have rolled stumps around and are adding cozy impromptu hangout spaces in the midst of active structures. To the chagrin of the maintenance department, someone snuck in a handful of little plastic tree frogs and created an easter egg hunt by screwing them to the underside of logs or at the tippy top of the nest. It was wonderful to see a play space so rebelliously alive and organic.

When we were there, I met some Landscape Architects who were fairly unfamiliar with Earthscape. It was interesting to see their reactions. Some of them saw the design itself as a bit rebellious. They told me with envy that they loved what we’d done but couldn’t see how we ‘got away with it. Their city was just too strict and conservative with their park designs. This gave me a great opportunity to unpack what they were seeing in the Presidio step-by-step. In real-time, I could point to a “crazy” detail and walk through the process of how each decision around that detail is directly grounded in a safety or engineering guideline. Just because something is unusual, it doesn’t mean shortcuts were taken. In fact, quite the opposite. Every time we have an idea that isn’t addressed explicitly in the standards there is a rigorous research and development step taken to properly assess and review the risks and benefits.

At the climbing wall, I pointed out the shapes of the notches and grooves carved into the logs. The shapes had been modeled in clay first and tested by kids for feedback and ergonomics. The best ones for feet and hands, and the best for hands only, were sorted out and given to our carpenters as templates. The whole wall was pre-built at our shop and kids came and tested the hand and foot holds again, teaching us where we should add more or where we should add internal groves for better grip, etc.

As the Landscape Architect and I were talking, a mother introduced herself, having overheard my story about the process. She points at her son working his way across the climber and says “Do you know how hard it is to find a playground that a 12-year-old likes? This is the only park in the city that he asks for anymore. He has been trying to get across this climbing wall for thirty minutes. Thirty minutes on just this one thing! Oh, here’s the part that always tricks him up…” We went silent and watched as the boy, just three logs from the platform, froze to calculate where he was going to put his hand next. He contorted and then made a lunge for a hold at the very limit of his reach. He made it! We got to witness him pull his body up onto the ledge, pause to look out at the bay, and then turn to us with the biggest smile on his face. He, of course, received hearty applause from the group that had gathered to watch this great accomplishment. I’ve never even been to a sporting event with such an emotional release from the crowd.

The Tunnel Tops are exactly as they should be: beautiful, thoughtful, challenging, evolving, complex, and inclusive for all ages.”


Laura Hilliard (Marketing): “Spectacular play in a gorgeous location”


“The Outpost playground is this incredible combination of a spectacular play space in an absolutely gorgeous location. It’s literally the best of everything in one space. The landscape, the ocean, and the views all capture your attention as an adult. The variety of play experiences captures the kids’ imagination. Inside the Outpost playground, my favourite part was hearing the conversations, the cheers, the encouraging words between kids, and new friendships forming as kids who didn’t know each other talked through their play – it was this amazing community of players. It felt like a really joyful place.

I love how the playground is designed in a linear plan and moves from lower challenge to high challenge. The Forest Den is just a really fun, dynamic, pile of energy. It feels like it’s constantly in motion as kids and adults of all ages move over, under, through, and around the structure.

I noticed hands – small hands touching natural materials everywhere. The playscape is so tactile – it feels warm and smooth and grounded. It feels like a space of exploration and creativity.

I met a small group of kids at the top of the Forest Den. They were just hanging out up on top of the structure like this was their living room. It turns out it sort of is. The kids live in the neighbourhood next door and told me that they come and play at the Outpost almost every day. They love it. They never get bored, and they meet new kids every day. They’re experts at navigating all of the structures and said this is the best playground they’ve ever been to and that they never want to play anywhere else. That really brought warmth to my heart – warmth that I want to transfer to every Earthscaper who worked on this project!”


Melissa Quinn (Design Team): “Something for everyone!”


“What I really appreciate is that there is something for everyone at this playground. The giant tree is visually stunning, but the nest truly is AWESOME. I also love all of the educational components: the signage made by kids about different plants, the stick library, and the Outpost station. The whole space feels so thoughtful. There are so many places for parents to sit, many garbage cans, recycling stations, and washrooms – all of these parts keep families and children here longer to play. Parents and children are key in all of our designs, and you can really see that their experience is not an afterthought here.

The scale and location are much more than I had envisioned from the photos on the website. I love visiting our playgrounds, and this one is up there with the very best! The playground is full of challenges, and we don’t need to rely on colour to create beautiful structures. I will always remember how the playground features looked at this visit and I look forward to visiting again when the plantings are really established – it’s going to be even more amazing!”


Alex Waffle (Co-President): “The best views in the entire city!”


“The views from the Tunnel Tops are even more spectacular than I expected. I suspect they truly are the best views in the entire city! I was very grateful to attend the official ASLA Field Session tour with colleagues we worked alongside during the design process. It was also really interesting to hear first-hand feedback from the Presidio Trust employees – it was overwhelmingly positive. Every aspect of the Presido project has exceeded my expectations.

Michael Boler of the Presidio Trust with Kerry Huang of James Corner Field Operations at the ASLA Field Session tour

Michael Boler of the Presidio Trust with Kerry Huang of James Corner Field Operations at the ASLA Field Session tour

I enjoyed learning from the project team about how they engaged San Francisco residents who had previously never been to the Presidio. They really tried to understand why they’d never been and what was needed to make it a more appealing place to visit. This attempt to reach a diverse group of visitors is appreciated, and you can see the benefits. One project theme that emerged to me as we were working through design and engineering of the playground was managing the demanding requirements of the site with elegance. The tour gave me the chance to appreciate how successfully the project team achieved this; many areas that appear simple conceal great complexity, within the Outpost and in other areas of the Tunnel Tops.”  


The whole Earthscape team – from designers and project managers to engineers, to our amazing fabrication team to our incredible install crews – feel really proud and blessed to be a part of this iconic project. We hope that people from San Franciso, California, the United States, and around the world have the opportunity to visit the Presidio National Park and experience the magic of the Outpost Playground.