Fair 'Grounds

G Cody QJ Goldberg is on a relentless mission to change playgrounds. All of them. What’s driving this passionate Pied Piper of parks and rec?

He radiates intense, almost furious conviction—the sort of electricity that emanates from true artists, both successful and destitute. But, unlike the broke Venice Beach painter he might've been in another life, it seems like he’s learned to temper his ardor. His goal is important enough to him that he’s willing to play the game. And just because he's not chasing profits, doesn't mean the game is any easier to win.

G Cody QJ Goldberg—if you couldn’t tell by the name—was not your average product manager. He abruptly left a cushy position at adidas America to found a Portland nonprofit called Harper’s Playground, purposed with building playgrounds that are accessible for all. And, despite being green, he’s already approaching major success. Harper’s Playground has raised over $1.2 million from major donors of all kinds, from US Bank to Whole Foods to Wieden + Kennedy. It's already built one new park in Portland, and is in the process of building two more.

The goal, however, is to spread across the country—for every park to be as inclusive as his first—and it seems like Goldberg will not rest until that’s achieved. What sparked him to break away from a successful marketing career and dive head first into building better playgrounds? We needed to find out...

(Oh, and if you’re curious about that name, you can ask him about it yourself. He’ll be joining us in Portland.)

Why are you trying to change normal playgrounds?

It began quite literally as a walk in the park with our daughter Harper when she was four years old. She was diagnosed with a very rare disease called Emmanuel’s Syndrome a month after she was born. They told us that she’d never walk nor talk in her life.

On that day, we walked across the park to the colorful structure in a pile of woodchips, and she got stuck trying to cross them. We thought, “This ain’t right.” We contacted our local Parks Bureau, they said there was no money; so, if money was the only obstacle, we were going to raise it. In 2½ years we raised $1.2 million, created an entirely unique design, and got the team together to build it. Truly, it was a flurry of community love those 2½ years, just filled with miracles top-to-bottom.

Was it really just one walk in the park, or was it something you and your wife had been thinking of since the diagnosis?

It was really a walk in the park. The genesis of it probably came earlier when we would take Harper to her different therapies during the first years of her life—sterile, windowless, soul-sucking hospital rooms of sadness. I would sometimes sit there and think, “This should be done in a treehouse, with windows.”

I know that was the beginning of it all. It’s pretty heavy to be told your daughter will never walk or talk in her lifetime—this world can be pretty rough on people in situations like that. I wanted to change the world in order to help my daughter, but also to benefit everyone. It was, y‘know, a “lightning” moment.

What were you doing before that lightning moment?

I hate air quotes, but my accidental “career” was in marketing. I had big dreams of being the best director in the world, went to NYU film school, had my dreams dashed a bit in L.A. I “dropped out” for about a year in 1998 and played the djembe in a traveling percussion band in Mexico called “La Tribu Cosmica”.  Shortly after my return I began that “career” with an entry level job in the mailroom at adidas America.

Cody and Harper

Cody and Harper

When did you realize Harper was different?

Harper had a very traumatic birth. She wasn’t breathing when she was born; they didn’t know why and struggled for hours. That was a big part of this story, watching over her struggling to live. There are no words to describe how that felt. They even came to us to offer the last rites. A different doctor came from a different hospital to save her life—putting the breathing tube in. When she was stabilized, we had to do surgery at a different hospital. We were in the NICU for about a month, which was filled with close calls, learning how to use her heart monitor, etc. About a month after that was when we were called back in with the news of her diagnosis. So basically, we knew immediately.

It’s really reinforced the power of being present, keeping your full energy in that present moment. The more I recognize my present, things are cool. Worrying about the future only causes strife, so for me—Harper is a gift because she helped draw me back into the present moment.

Did she give your life purpose in a weird way?

Not even in a weird way. She completely revealed to me what my purpose is—building these playgrounds truly is my purpose in life.

Did you ever think you’d dedicate your life to a cause like this?

Yes. I will say that I have always been very inspired by my dad. He was the very first father to demand to be in the delivery room at the particular hospital I was born at. In ’69, San Francisco, he was a full-fledged Haight-Ashbury hippie. And I grew up always hearing that story, which is why I’ve always wanted to make a model that would go up against a current model that needs to be broken. All because of the old guy. He was a definitely a “Breaker.”

"Building these playgrounds truly is my purpose in life."

What’s the thesis of the playgrounds themselves?

It’s the perfect blend of a playground, a natural landscape, and a public space designed to make people feel welcome. The real magic of the space and the real reason it’s better than the traditional model is that it doesn’t dictate how you engage with it. It’s essentially un-structured play versus structured play.

Visualize a hill covered by astro-turf with a spiral ramp where kids roll and slide and jump. A one-year-old learning to walk can engage with it. An 18 –year-old kid can do parkour on it if they want. It’s a mound surrounded by growing trees, an elevated sand table so you can play with wet sand (which is a huge thing for development), a somewhat normal swing set, a spinner, all with smooth surfaces.

A mockup of a Harper's Playground, Courtesy of Todd Girvin / Girvin Associates, Inc.

A mockup of a Harper's Playground, Courtesy of Todd Girvin / Girvin Associates, Inc.

"There’s also a lot of people invested in the current model; they’re not interested in some young guy who was selling skate shoes telling them that they’re doing everything wrong."

What’s been the biggest challenge so far?

It has been an extremely tumultuous road, actually. There are a lot of people interested in their power or control of things and who are not interested in giving that up. There’s also a lot of people invested in the current model; they’re not interested in some young guy who was selling skate shoes telling them that they’re doing everything wrong. There’s resistance for sure, but there’s so many good people around the world wanting to build them that we focus on that.  It’s about finding the right partners, which is a nuanced process.

Can you share any specific stories?

Here’s what I’ll say: a lot of the resistance comes from the designers. We’re trying to demystify the design process. I believe that this design philosophy is so simple and easy to give away, I could show anyone how to design one of our parks in a day or two. And I think that there are a lot of high-paid designers out there who want to keep it this mysterious process, which it’s not. This is simple stuff, and that’s a big part of it. I think it’s harder to give away than it would be to sell it!

What does that mean exactly?

I think that there’s a lot of people who don’t want to accept how simple this process can be. I’ve been around the country to symposiums, and it’s amazing how many are unwilling to accept building a natural environment that’s easily accessible. They’re almost invested in the idea “You can’t do it.” I mean, it’s not something that should even have to be put to a vote. Segregation is wrong, so there’s no reason to have to bring it up. Parks that don’t have no access for kids with disabilities is wrong. People should be 100% on board all the way. Our model proves that there is no sacrifice.

Are there places in the park that are inaccessible by wheelchair?

Nope.  100% universal access. 

I could imagine some crazy entitled parents getting angry at you, saying like “don’t put rules on my playground!” or making the old slippery slope argument, that if you take away one kind of playground equipment to be accommodating, then eventually you’ll have to take away everything. What’s your response to that kind of extreme thinking?

I would say that is thinking about it in the wrong way. Our playgrounds aren’t more restrictive, they’re much less restrictive. Open for everyone to do more. We’re not trying to change the rules or force our ideas on anyone, either. We'll let others argue about policy change.  We want to continue to build what we know is right and continue to see people ask for it, rather than dictate it. 

Rules on playgrounds honestly make them worse. It’s those rigid rules that we’re trying to get rid of.  We have found that the typical playground model is completely wrong for two very important reasons. One, it segregates kids who use wheels out of the fun.  Two, its overly-prescriptive design is ultimately boring for all kids. The typical playground is discriminatory and based on false science about how kids play.  By combining universal design principles with natural materials we can both knock down a barrier to inclusion and make a space that truly works better for everyone. Everyone wins!

Would you like every playground in the country to be like this?

Yes.  Every kid deserves to be included in the playground and every playground should be a beautiful place with lots of art and nature. 

The Goldberg Family: April, Cody, Harper & Lennon

The Goldberg Family: April, Cody, Harper & Lennon

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