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Raccoon River Park's New Inclusive Sensory Wall

Inclusive Sensory Wall in West Des Moines, Iowa

May 7, 2024

Header image: The new inclusive playground at Raccoon River Park.

The Raccoon River Park Playground Sensory Wall unveiling on Tuesday, April 23, 2024 was a momentous and joyous occasion for the West Des Moines community. As one of the city's most cherished parks, Raccoon River Park (2500 Grand Ave.) has been a hub of activity and connection for locals since its establishment in the late 1990s. Spanning 631 scenic acres, this sprawling green space contains Blue Heron Lake, a beach, an archery range, nature trails, athletic fields, a dog park, a boathouse, a fishing dock and more — providing visitors with endless opportunities for exploration, recreation and wonder. The original playground was replaced in 2023 with an inclusive new structure designed to welcome children of all abilities. The sensory wall serves as the dazzling centerpiece of this innovative playground, crafted carefully to envelop its viewers in an immersive, interactive experience.

Public Arts Program Vision: wdm.iowa.gov/government/parks-recreation/public-art

When the West Des Moines Public Arts Advisory Commission formed over a decade ago in 2011, they envisioned much more than simply placing art around the community. Their ambitious mission was to enrich public spaces throughout West Des Moines with meaningful, thought-provoking public artworks that would spark moments of insight, imagination and reflection for residents and visitors. By integrating exceptional art into the very fabric of the city, from parks and buildings to streetscapes and infrastructure, they aimed to champion excellence in creative fields like art, design, architecture and landscape architecture. Their goal was for the Public Arts Program collection to become the most visible symbol of West Des Moines’ commitment to creativity, culture and community.

Project Background and Description: wdm.iowa.gov/government/parks- recreation/public-art/public-art-collection/raccoon-river-park-playground-sensory-wall#ad-image-0

With this vision in mind, three years ago the Commission had the foresight to allocate money specifically for a significant public artwork to be installed on city property. Around this same time, an inclusive playground was being developed at Raccoon River Park, complete with innovative sensory elements designed to engage children with special needs. Recognizing the synergy this presented, the Commission decided that commissioning a colorful, interactive public art sensory wall to complement the new inclusive playground could add an artistic flair while also serving the practical purpose of stimulating and delighting children of all abilities.

This exciting project started taking shape in the fall of 2022 when the Public Art Sensory Wall Work Group was established to define the core elements the piece should feature. After a nationwide Call for Artists, the talented artist Hilde DeBruyne of Cumming, Iowa, was selected for the commission. Hilde diligently spent many months designing and fabricating the 14’ wide by 8’ tall sensory wall. Her creative vision aligned with the goal of completing the installation in spring 2024.

Brought to life in collaboration with the passionate individuals of Kunzler Studios' The Least of These Foundation, the artwork contains a brilliant spectrum of handmade tiles in shades of aquatic blue. As described by DeBruyne, the flowing, rippling shapes are intended to evoke the beauty and power of a river, highlighting the interconnectedness of humanity and nature. Just as no two rivers or people are precisely the same, the sensory wall reminds us of the hidden depths within us all.

Autism Acceptance

The new installation at the park provides a welcoming refuge for visitors with autism, allowing them to express themselves and engage their senses in a calming environment. Enclosed within a sturdy metal grid on the upper portion of the wall is a mesmerizing display of smooth, colorful glass marbles that visitors can spin in place. Below, secured rows of natural beach pebbles offer a soothing tactile texture for fingers to trace along. Durable acrylic panels in tranquil shades of blue and green filter the sunlight to create a soothing glow. Touches of coiled rope and weathered driftwood add visual interest with their organic shapes and rough surfaces. The encouraging message "BE YOU" is displayed prominently, emphasizing the importance of embracing one's individuality. With its combination of visual, tactile and textual elements, the installation offers an inclusive space for self-expression where all visitors, including those with autism, can feel comfortable engaging their senses and being themselves. The translucent colors, movable pieces and variety of textures create an oasis of sensory play and creativity for all to enjoy.

Inclusivity Efforts: wdm.iowa.gov/government/diversity-equity-and-inclusion

The installation of the sensory wall in West Des Moines this April marked a meaningful step in the city's ongoing efforts to foster inclusivity and acceptance. The timing of the project coincided fittingly with Autism Acceptance Month, providing a powerful symbol of the community's commitment to embracing neurological diversity. The installation aims to be intuitively accessible and stimulating for autistic individuals and those with sensory processing differences. Yet it has been thoughtfully designed so anyone can enjoy the experience.

The sensory wall reflects West Des Moines' vision for a city where diversity is not just tolerated, but actively celebrated. It shows that creating an inclusive community requires taking concrete action to meet the needs of marginalized groups. By incorporating features specifically for people with disabilities into public spaces, the city is working to ensure all residents, regardless of race, age, background or ability level, can fully participate in civic life. This project is just one component of West Des Moines' broader efforts to break down barriers to accessibility and acceptance. With such initiatives, the city is steadily building an inclusive culture where everyone feels valued, empowered and has a sense of belonging. The sensory wall provides a vibrant public declaration that in West Des Moines, diversity is a strength to be embraced.

Project Contributors

Behind every great achievement stands a team of unsung heroes who quietly contribute their time, effort, and passion. The sensory wall was no exception. Mayor Russ Trimble and the entire West Des Moines City Council provided invaluable leadership and support to make this project happen. Key city staff also played a critical role as their expertise and diligent work behind the scenes kept everything on track. The members of the volunteer-led Public Arts Advisory Commission and the seven-member Playground Public Art Work Group devoted countless volunteer hours to guide the project to fruition. Their creative vision, passion for community and tireless efforts made the sensory wall a reality.

BRAVO Greater Des Moines Funding: bravogreaterdesmoines.org/investment/public-art- grant

The new $75,000 Public Art Sensory Wall is more than just a visually striking installation — it is also a testament to the power of community partnerships in enriching public spaces. This imaginative project came to life thanks to a $29,000 BRAVO Greater Des Moines Public Art Grant, part of an initiative that funds engaging works across the region by pooling resources from local arts patrons, businesses and government agencies. The grant enabled the West Des Moines Public Arts Advisory Commission to fully realize their vision for an interactive, tactile wall that fosters meaningful interactions in a shared community space.

The sensory wall serves as a model for future civic arts funding, demonstrating how strong partnerships between local arts organizations, municipal governments and private donors can uplift a community. When resources are combined to support artistic innovation, vibrant new works can take shape that reflect and enrich the public. With continued cooperation and dedication to elevating the arts, more imaginative installations like the Sensory Wall can soon enhance public spaces across the region.

Other Public Art at Raccoon River Park

The Public Art Sensory Wall is just one of several impressive public art installations that can be found throughout Raccoon River Park. Another noteworthy piece is the eight-part cycle sculpture artwork called Even Water, which is located near the Biddle Shelter. This evocative series of sculptures depicts the remarkable transformation of Blue Heron Lake from its origins as a gravel quarry to the thriving natural resource it has become today.

Even Water

In addition to Even Water, the Nature Lodge features a delightful community-created sculpture known as Aqua Strata. Local elementary students assisted in designing the vivid graphics of small water creatures that are showcased Local elementary students helped design vivid graphics of small water creatures showcased in the wooden and acrylic layers of Aqua Strata. The involvement of children in the creation of Aqua Strata also underscores the importance of educating future generations on protecting our precious natural resources. Both Aqua Strata and Even Water demonstrate how public art can vividly reflect the unique environmental heritage of a community.

Aqua Strata 

Raccoon River Park Inclusive Playground: wdm.iowa.gov/government/parks- recreation/parks-trails-facilities/construction-updates/raccoon-river-park-playground- replacement#ad-image-3

The Public Art Sensory Wall is located within the sensory zone of the new inclusive playground at Raccoon River Park. The playground is a massive 52,000 square foot wonderland that provides fun and adventure for children of all abilities. The playground's innovative design focuses on Universal Design principles to create a welcoming space where every child can play, learn, and grow together, regardless of their physical or cognitive abilities. The space has five distinct play areas: a motion zone with activities to develop motor skills, a swings zone for classic playground fun, a sensory zone with equipment for tactile exploration, a themed zone for roleplaying adventures and a climb and crawl zone with structures to challenge kids' agility. Each zone has its own theme and equipment tailored to help kids grow in different developmental ways. With thoughtful design features like multiple access points and pathways, the playground enables all visitors to navigate and play freely. Led by the talented designers at Genus Landscape Architects and inclusive playspace specialist Ingrid Kanics, this playground is truly a model for bringing joy and community to children of all abilities.

Sensory Wall

By seamlessly blending aesthetics, function and accessibility, the Playground Public Art Sensory Wall promotes neurodiversity and celebrates the strengths of all individuals. The City of West Des Moines demonstrates forward-thinking leadership through projects like this that make art welcoming to all. With thoughtful design and a message of acceptance, this innovative public art installation gives people of all abilities a chance to experience joy and connection. The City of West Des Moines has created more than just a fun place to play — they have reimagined what an accessible, inclusive space looks like. It's an exciting development well worth experiencing firsthand.

Throughout Greater Des Moines’ (DSM’s) 11-county region, a thriving economic environment is attracting more Investors to do business. Learn more about other recent development projects in the region. Recently completed projects and big ongoing developments include the ICON Central Iowa Water Trails, DART expanded transit options, Ignit Sports & Fitness, MidAmerican Energy Company RecPlex and The Grand Experience.

From Pride to Juneteenth to the Latino Heritage Festival, big, inclusive events are par for the course in Greater Des Moines (DSM). But there are smaller events celebrating diversity here, too. Attend one of the Greater Des Moines Partnership’s Multicultural Receptions, an event celebrating veterans or a sensory-friendly event in the region. Learn more here.

Allison Ullestad

Allison Ullestad brings the arts to life in West Des Moines. As the Arts, Culture and Enrichment Supervisor for the city's Parks and Recreation Department, she manages the Public Arts Program, cultural activities and classes, department communications and the popular Jamie Hurd Amphitheater.