The playground at Innovation Hills integrates a natural design with elements like logs, dirt, tree stumps, grassy hills and streams.

The playground at Innovation Hills integrates a natural design with elements like logs, dirt, tree stumps, grassy hills and streams.

Photo by Patricia O’Blenes

New elements open at Innovation Hills

By: Mary Beth Almond | Rochester Post | Published June 21, 2023

 Kids walk the red carpet at a ribbon-cutting for the second phase of the Innovation Hills Park playground June 7.

Kids walk the red carpet at a ribbon-cutting for the second phase of the Innovation Hills Park playground June 7.

Photo by Patricia O’Blenes


ROCHESTER HILLS — The community’s first inclusive and accessible playground has some new play features for all ages and abilities to enjoy this summer at Innovation Hills Park.

Rochester Hills Mayor Bryan Barnett revealed the second phase of the playground development during a June 7 ribbon-cutting ceremony.

“This project has been a pretty cool dream to watch take place over the last number of years,” Barnett said.

Ken Elwert, the city’s director of parks and natural resources, said Barnett was instrumental in the development of the park.

“Mayor Barnett had a vision for this park way before, really, almost anybody else did, and really started to pull it together,” he said.

Innovation Hills — the city’s first new park in 25 years — opened to the public in October 2019 with the first phase of the multiyear project complete. At that time, the park included various lakes, glow-in-the-dark sidewalks, boardwalks and trails.

“The number of people that visited this park in 2018, before anything was here, was 13,000. Last year, close to 400,000 people came to Innovation Hills — that’s two and a half times the population of Reno, Nevada,” Barnett said with a chuckle. “And we think we’ll probably top that this year.”

The city, he said, is “absolutely thrilled” with how the community has embraced the park.

“There are proposals, promposals, wedding pictures, graduation pictures, class field trips, everything you can imagine has been celebrated in this park, and one of the highlights of the park has been the play area,” Barnett said.

The $3.7 million nature-themed, universal design playground opened in June of 2021 with a custom-built multistory bebb oak treehouse with a locally themed bridge as its main focal point. Since then, hundreds of thousands of children have enjoyed the first phase’s 20 unique play elements, two pavilions, a sand play area, and a flowing splash river that mimics the course of the actual Clinton River cutting through the park.

The playground equipment was specifically designed with earth tones to prevent overstimulation of those on the autism spectrum and was intentionally designed with a fenced enclosure to prevent children from wandering. The playground also includes ramps and transfer access on all play components, a universally designed route to the accessible restrooms, and an open quiet area with no playground equipment for those who need to wind down away from larger groups.

The latest portion of the playground includes 12 new play elements and experiences for kids, surrounded by hundreds of shrubs and trees.

The park’s new “We-Go-Round” is fully wheelchair accessible and offers ample room for kids and families to interact and play together while facing each other.

“It’s a fully wheelchair accessible merry-go-round, one of only a couple in the state of Michigan that will allow students and kids of all ages to participate in something that we all grew up with, a good old-fashioned merry-go-round,” Barnett said.

The expanded playground also features many new climbing elements and a number of “cozy cocoons,” providing a cozy space to escape when overstimulated, and a dedicated music area that creates hands-on music-making experiences for children to learn and explore their creativity.

“We are thrilled with how this new park has come together and are excited that it’s getting even more exciting as we move forward,” Barnett added.

Michigan Department of Natural Resources grant coordinator Merrie Carlock and her team donated over $300,000 in a land and water conservation fund grant to see the all-accessible expanded portion of the playground become a reality. Donations from the Modetz and Moceri families, and Rochester Tuesday Musicale, also helped.

“I’ve built some pretty big play lots in my time, but this one is much bigger, kinda on the Disney scale of things,” Carlock said of the park’s playground.

The next stage of park growth, Barnett said, will include an Indiana Jones-style rope bridge that will eventually connect the front 70 acres of the park with the back 40 acres.

“That’s a green space parcel on the other 40, giving us almost 120 acres of crazy fun area to recreate, create family moments and enjoy Rochester Hills. … People are working every day to continue this incredible story,” Barnett said.

Innovation Hills Park is a 110-acre public space located at 2800 W. Hamlin Road, east of Adams Road, in Rochester Hills. The park is free and open to the public 8 a.m.-10 p.m. daily.

To become an Innovation Hills sponsor, contact the Mayor’s Office at (248) 656-4664. For more information, visit