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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Wednesday, August 14, 2002

Line in the sand Line in the sand (August 14, 2002)

City trying to answer father's complaints in other park projects

by Anne Becker

One man's concern over woodchips in some area playgrounds has splintered into big questions about safety and access for the disabled.

Palo Alto resident Charles Bliss said he has taken his twin 9-year-old sons to play in Robles Park for years, and was extremely dismayed when he recently found woodchips in the park where sand used to be. Bliss said his sons hate playing on the chips and he hates the splinters they leave.

"We went to Robles Park one day and went 'Oh gee, look what they've done. They filled what used to be wonderful sand with woodchips,'" Bliss said. "In talking with other people, we've heard really sad stories of kids coming to the parks with buckets and saying, 'Mommy, why is there all that garbage in the sand?"

Robles Park is one of several in which the city installed the chips, a naturally engineered wood-fiber substance called Fibar, as part of its 2-year-old CityWorks park renovation program.

Bliss, an engineer, said city representatives told him they installed the chips to meet American Disability Act guidelines, but Bliss said the real reason the city installed Fibar was because it was cheaper than other wheelchair-accessible materials.

"There's a finite amount of money and so they're citing these ADA laws (to excuse the use of woodchips)," Bliss said. "This is what they were telling people because they didn't have anything better to say. (The city) could've been in compliance with the rules and still used other materials. This was all about money."

Kate Rooney, project manager for the Palo Alto parks, said the city changed surfacing in the renovated play areas to meet national safety standards and voluntary ADA guidelines. Rooney said Fibar is better at absorbing impact from falls and is considered wheelchair-accessible by national testing organizations.

"In general people prefer sand to chips as a pleasant play environment and we try to incorporate it where we can within budget," Rooney said. "Conversely some people don't like sand because you find cat problems with sand. No surface is 100 percent satisfactory. Each type has its drawbacks."

Rooney said the city is doing everything possible to respond to Bliss' concerns. She said the yet-to-be-renovated Johnson, Eleanor, and Hoover play areas will have only pour-in-place rubber material and sand under their play structures. Additionally, the city has redesigned Robles and Seale parks, which currently have Fibar, and will add sand to their tiny-tot areas.

"We are really attempting to meet Charles Bliss' needs as well as those of people in wheelchairs," she said. "We might have to scale back play components, but we are perceiving that people really prefer to play in sand."

When possible, Rooney said, the city uses a combination of sand and a wheelchair-accessible pour-in-place rubber material to make areas of new playgrounds accessible to the disabled. But where play structures already exist, it is difficult to combine materials. This was the case, she said, at Robles Park, where the city installed Fibar under existing play structures.

Bliss said handicapped people with whom he has spoken say the chips are unsafe and lead to dangerous splinters that can go unfelt by disabled children and cause infection.

"I was at Juana Briones Park and a little handicapped girl and her mom traveled from Sunnyvale," Bliss said. "She told me point blank she won't take her child to a park that has woodchips because splinters in the legs of disabled kids are devastating."

Nick Zirpolo, a Palo Alto psychologist who uses a wheelchair, was chief accessibility consultant on San Francisco's parks renovation program. He said that city did not use Fibar in any of its 217 parks because he did not believe it to be safe for many disabled children. In addition to giving off splinters, Zirpolo said the chips provide little traction for wheelchairs and decay over time. He suggested asking construction companies to donate sand if it falls outside the city's budget.

"This woodchip stuff is not friendly to users, it's friendly to management and that's all," he said. "Budgetary restrictions are baloney, that's the administrators' cop-out for anything."

Several years ago, the city of Mountain View changed newly-installed Fibar back to sand in approximately 10 of its parks after residents complained about splinters from the Fibar. Liz Lazuna, a parks supervisor for Mountain View, said most complaints about the Fibar were not about wheelchair access and she understood Palo Alto's decision to use the woodchips.

"As far as accessibility, that's a raging argument and pour-in-place is way better than other materials, but it's extremely costly," she said. "With Fibar you're immediately getting a safe surface. It's just two different ways of doing things."

Zirpolo said Palo Alto should have consulted with members of the disabled community before installing Fibar in the parks.

"(Disabled children) are easily identifiable as a group of users who have preferences, but they were never polled," he said. "In San Francisco, we said 'let's take the community's input and find out what users actually prefer,' which seems to be the most sensible thing entirely."

According to Rooney, Palo Alto did consult extensively with community members before renovating the parks. She said much of Bol Park, which now has areas of Fibar and sand, was designed with input from community meetings and a survey showing a preference for "natural" materials, which exclude the rubber pour-in-place.

At least eight parks are being renovated under the CityWorks program, which is also providing new signage, landscaping, pathways, and irrigation and drainage systems to the parks. Rooney said the renovated parks, some of which had not been changed since they were built 35 to 40 years ago, have been seeing increased use.

Bliss said though he was pleased with the new landscaping and increased overall wheelchair access in the parks, he did not trust that any changes would be made to existing play areas with Fibar. He said he believes the chips account for what he has seen as a marked decrease in park use.

"I'm just a lowly engineer whose kids don't like to go to the parks anymore, but I've gone out at prime play time in Robles Park and it's empty," he said. "That's the saddest part. They've spent millions of dollars on the renovation and we just don't want to go to the Palo Alto parks anymore." E-mail Anne Becker at


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