‘Gwendolyn’s Playground’ Will Be First of Its Kind in Santa Barbara

Dwight Murphy Field — the 10-acre space across the street from the Santa Barbara Zoo, known for being host to youth sports and Sunday soccer leagues — is receiving an innovative renovation with a brand-new, regulation-size soccer field and a first-of-its-kind, universally accessible, all-inclusive playground.

Beebe Longstreet, who serves on the Parks and Recreation planning commission, said that this easily accessible playground is not only great for children with physical disabilities and those who would benefit from its engaging sensory features, but for all children.

“All-accessible is great for kids with disabilities,” said Longstreet, “but it’s accessible to all kids as well.”

The idea for the project began in 2016 when the Gwendolyn Strong Foundation, an area nonprofit dedicated to increasing global awareness of spinal muscular atrophy, approached the Parks and Recreation Department to explore a plan to develop a universally accessible playground in a Santa Barbara park.

“The inclusive playground is designed to remove physical barriers to allow children of all abilities to play side-by-side,” according to the Parks and Recreation website.

The playground will be named Gwendolyn’s Playground after Gwendolyn Strong, who died in 2015 at the age of 7 after succumbing to spinal muscular atrophy. The Gwendolyn Strong Foundation agreed to fund the project with the City of Santa Barbara and matched $250,000 toward the preliminary designs and technical studies. The renderings show a colorful, eye-catching design located near the corner of the park where Niños Drive meets Por la Playa Drive.

Dwight Murphy Field was chosen as the prime location to premiere the accessible park due its dedicated parking and on-site restroom facilities, something the commission and planners considered heavily when drafting the designs.

“There’s a lot of thought given into where to park, where the bathrooms are,” said Longstreet.

Preliminary plans include features dedicated to neurodivergent children who benefit from a more sensory experience; there is a “sensory tunnel” and “sensory spinners,” and even the colors are meant to be engaging.

“The playground itself is engaging in a number of ways, especially the sensory aspects,” Longstreet said.

In addition to the innovative playground, the Dwight Murphy Master Plan includes an outdoor fitness area, youth baseball field, and a regulation-size soccer field with new lighting and water- and maintenance-saving artificial turf.

The Parks and Recreation Commission will review the plans on Wednesday, July 28. If plans meet all requirements, it will most likely be scheduled to go before the Planning Commission on Thursday, August 19. With further approval, it will proceed with completing final plans and construction specifications. The foundation is actively fundraising, and the parks department will be applying for a state parks grant in November.

The public is encouraged to attend an update meeting hosted by the city at 6 p.m. on Thursday, July 29, at the park, meant to gather ideas and feedback from the community for future designs.