G Cody QJ Goldberg photographed by Shannon Korta

In Conversation with: G Cody QJ Goldberg

2019-10-03 | 5 min. read

On October 4th and 5th, Vancouver Wash. will host Design Vancouver, a conference that celebrates design in all of its forms. In support of Vancouver’s first design conference, The Section Magazine will feature “In Conversation with…” (a series of interviews with Design Vancouver speakers). 

G Cody QJ Goldberg is the executive director and founder of Portland-based Harper’s Playground. G Cody QJ Goldberg was inspired to create Harper’s Playground when his daughter, Harper, couldn’t access their local park because her walker got stuck in the park’s woodchips. In 2010, Goldberg founded Harper’s Playground, a non-profit organization dedicated to making inclusive playgrounds around the world. 

The Section Magazine spoke with G Cody QJ Goldberg about the power of intention setting and  designing well for children’s play. 

The Section Magazine: What inspired you to found Harper’s Playground?

G Cody QJ Goldberg: The best way to start is to go back to Harper’s birth because it was so traumatic. It was harrowing. She almost didn't survive the first day of her life. She had surgery and was in the intensive care unit for more than a month and then shortly after we took our sweet girl home we were called back and informed that she had this very rare genetic abnormality called Emanuel Syndrome. The reason this all ties to this story is because for essentially that entire first four years from her birth, to the walk in the park, I think there was an overwhelming sense of feeling powerless. In that early time I put it out to the universe that I didn’t want to focus on changing my daughter but that if I figured out a way to change the world I would dedicate the rest of my life to doing so. And so it was four years later when we walked in the park and saw that the park doesn’t work for kids like Harper who have a disability. My wife suggested that I do something about it. 

It was a three-year process of building our first park and that process really revealed to me that this was most certainly the thing that I can dedicate the rest of my life to.

What did the journey from idea to the park being built look like?

I describe it often as being the co-pilot in a hurricane of love. You are not really in control and yet you have copilot status. I was setting daily, weekly and monthly intentions to see this beautiful thing come to light. 

We met with the Parks and Recreation department to let them know about these intentions, which really were to help them do something about it. We had hoped they would say “yes, we should build a better park and we will.” But when they said they had no money in the budget for projects like that, we said “well, if money is really the only obstacle, then we will figure it out.” And so it started as a fundraising effort. I thought I would create a little brand and host fundraisers. I thought how hard is to fundraise? I often wonder if I knew what I was getting myself into, would I have done all of this?

Harper's Playground

You probably would have. 

There is a big chance I would. But naivety is a pretty big asset when you are going into something. I want to share that I think there were so many little moments that got us there. The very first task that the Parks and Recreation gave us was to pitch our concept to our neighborhood association and that was good advice. At the very first meeting, there were two miracles that aligned in that hurricane of love. First, there was someone there associated with the Oregonian newspaper and they ended up writing a story about us on the front page of the metro section. That forced me to create a website overnight so that people would have somewhere to go. We created this website and that was an amazing fortunate thing that spring-boarded us forward. Second, there was someone at that meeting who told us about physical sponsorship where you can be adopted by another nonprofit and you can start fundraising and providing people with tax receipts through these endeavors. So those two things were critical and they both happened at that first meetings and from then it has taken on a life of its own. For the past three years I have never worked as hard or gotten as lucky. 

When you follow your heart the universe conspires to help out. 

How do you design well for play?

Quite simply you do less harm. If you overstructure or overfill it is harmful because kids really need empty spaces more than lots of stuff. It is why kids play with the box and not the toy. They are hardwired to do their own play. So, for us it is about creating a simple and natural landscape and we let the kids do the rest. It is hard to convince people to step aside and not get in the way of naturescapes, plant materials, boulders, sand and water. We put hillsides in our park and the hill is a joyful playmaker because kids can roll, run up and down and slid on the hill. So I have learned to let nature be your guide. 

What was Harper's reaction to the first park?

Harper is non-verbal so we are still not 100% sure what she thinks about everything. She certainly lets us know when she is happy or when she’s not and she tends to be happy in the playground. One of the many benefits of the park is that when we are there it lets us feel like we are part of things in ways we don’t get too often but it is also teachable moments. Kids come up to us and ask “what’s wrong with her?” and their parents will wince but we would much prefer an honest question than a dishonest look. It is better to have an honest connection and conversation and that is what a public space allows for. 

What else would you like people to know about the Harper's Playground?

We are always open for more help. There are days of the week where we feel we could never respond to all of the offers of help and then there are days of the week where we wonder where everyone is. I think that is the beautiful challenge of a lot of nonprofits. I am putting it out there and setting that intention for those who want to help because all nonprofits thrive off of volunteers. So keep volunteering because there are lots of us out there who really need it. 

I also want people to know that there is absolutely every reason to be optimistic about the future. I don’t have my head in the sand and I am aware of the horrible things out there but the way to make the world a better place is just to start doing it. You can’t do the good work if you are inundated with negative thoughts and feelings. I am all for being aware of what is happening but instead of wallowing in negativity we should get busy and find a way to make things better. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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