A Place for Petanque in Ann Arbor?

Couple proposes donation to fund Burns Park petanque

“Oooh, shiny!” exclaimed Howard Ando and Jane Wilkinson when we unveiled our set of six petanque boules, scarcely used over a decade since they were purchased.


Petanque boules (shiny metal) bracket the cochonnet, or jack, on Howard Ando and Jane Wilkinson's court.

The couple’s own set of metal boules were dull with the wear of frequent play on the gravel surface typical for petanque. Over the last two years, much of that play has come on the rectangle of gravel in the side yard of the couple’s Ypsilanti home, just west of the Eastern Michigan University campus.

After seeing the game played during their visits to France, they developed a passion for it that led them to have their own court constructed. And now they’d like to invest in petanque for the public – they’ve offered to pony up the cash for a facility in Burns Park. A public meeting to discuss the potential facility will be held on Monday, Nov. 17 starting at 7:30 p.m. at the Ann Arbor Senior Center at Burns Park.

The wintry slop falling out of the sky on Saturday led us to opt for a pleasant living-room conversation instead of chasing a little pig across the piste (court) – the jack, or cochonnet, also translates as “piglet.” In petanque, the jack plays a role similar to that in bocce, which might be more familiar to some readers.


Petanque does not require a huge investment in equipment. But there are some optional gadgets. The magnet on the left end of this telecoping wand can be used for boule retrieval. The flexible claw on the opposite end can be used to pick snatch the cochonnet (green ball).

After throwing the jack, the game continues with teams alternating throws of the metal boules, with the object being to conclude a round with one or more boules closer to the jack than the opposing team’s boules. Strategy is not unlike curling, where decisions must be made about whether to try to place a boule close to the jack (pointing), or rather to send one’s metal sphere crashing into an opposing boule that is already closely placed (shooting).

Petanque differs from curling in that the target is not permanently marked on the playing surface, but rather varies as the jack is thrown. And of course, petanque is also played on a gravel surface, not ice as in curling.

Assuming that any concerns that could arise at Monday’s meeting are adequately addressed, construction of the facility at Burns Park would likely entail something similar to the simple process used to build Ando and Wilkinson’s court: excavate to a certain depth; fill with coarse gravel; throw in a layer of landscape fabric; top off with a finer gravel. What the lousy wet weather on Saturday demonstrated was that any concerns (already raised at a Park Advisory Commission meeting in August) about petanque facilities adding to the impervious surface of the city are unfounded. No puddling or pooling was visible on the surface.

At that August PAC meeting Ando estimated the cost of construction at around $20,000. But at the October PAC meeting, the cost estimate provided by city staff was substantially greater. Colin Smith of the city’s parks and recreation staff told commissioners that the cost to build a petanque facility is estimated between $50,000 and $75,000, depending on amenities. The key to the difference in estimates likely lies in the nature of those amenities.

The offer of financial support from the couple comes with the added bonus of a 1-1 match from Pfizer if the money is donated this year. Ando is a retired employee of the pharmaceutical company.

So what exactly do Ando and Wilkinson find so attractive about petanque? Part of the appeal lies in the egalitarian nature of the game. The name of the game itself reflects a heritage of accessibility (it’s not onomatopoetic, reflecting how the balls land, as in “kerplunk”). The name petanque derives from “Les Ped Tanco” in a Provençal dialect, which means “feet together” – contrasting this game with others that allow a running start. The inventor of petanque suffered from rheumatism, which prevented him from executing the athletically powerful maneuver of a throw with a running start. This led him in 1907 to create a game disallowing such throws.

Another point for accessibility of the game is that the metal boules can be picked by using a magnet tied to a string or attached to a telescoping wand. That means people who can’t easily bend over or people who get around using wheelchairs can participate fully in the game without relying on others. The business card that Ando uses for this project reads, “Petanque Ann Arbor, a sport for everyone.”

Petanque court in the east side yard of Howard Ando and Jane Wilkinson's home in Ypsilanti.

The phrasing “a sport for everyone” might suggest to some readers it’s not competitive. On the contrary. The sport has conducted a world championship since 1959, with the 2008 edition starting last Thursday in Dakar. Asked if they kept track of their match records in the petanque games they play against each other, Wilkinson and Ando said they didn’t. Asked a second time, Wilkinson reflected a moment on an occasion when she had won recently and laughed, “Howard said, ‘That’s good, because I won the three before,’ so maybe he is keeping score!

So why did Ando and Wilkinson choose Burns Park in Ann Arbor instead of a park in Ypsilanti, where they live, to offer their financial support of a petanque facility? It has to do with the fact that their vision is a bit more ambitious than a single petanque court in a single park. They’d like to see the sport really catch on in the region to the point where the facilities are more commonplace. And Burns Park, they said, seemed like a strategically good choice: it’s proximate to both the Ann Arbor Senior Center and Burns Park Elementary School, which brings a built-in geographic constituency.

That’s also why it makes sense to hold the public meeting there on Monday evening. If there are concerns from neighbors – about exact location, possibilities of increased neighborhood traffic, loss of a favorite path through the park as a cut-through, too much French being spoken – it will be convenient for them to make those concerns heard. The meeting is also for any residents who just want to learn more about the game of petanque, or for those who are excited about the potential for petanque.  For residents who have a scheduling conflict for the meeting, the city of Ann Arbor park planner who is handling the petanque facility is Amy Kuras, who can be reached by email at akuras@a2gov.org


  1. By C Bultman
    November 17, 2008 at 9:18 am | permalink

    How interesting that you compare petanque to curling, which might be called shuffleboard on ice. Petanque is most like bocce which seems to be fairly well known here in the United States, but you did not mention it. Is there some French and Italian rivalry here as there is around the claim of who invented ice cream?

  2. By Dave Askins
    November 17, 2008 at 9:51 am | permalink

    C Bultman writes: “Petanque is most like bocce which seems to be fairly well known here in the United States, but you did not mention it.”

    From the article: “In petanque, the jack plays a role similar to that in bocce, which might be more familiar to some readers.”

  3. By C Bultman
    November 17, 2008 at 11:03 am | permalink

    Whoops, sorry. ‘Reading’ too fast.

  4. November 17, 2008 at 1:40 pm | permalink

    The “how to build a petanque court” page at



    “The simplest way to start is by asking your local building materials supplier, quarry or contractor how they build a crushed stone driveway in your area.”

    I cannot imagine that a crushed stone driveway of the appropriate size would cost anywhere near $75,000, even with “amenities”.

  5. November 17, 2008 at 1:42 pm | permalink

    another “call for natural petanque terrains”


    Most guidelines for building terrains emphasise the basic requirement for a rectangular piste, e.g. 12 or 15 x 4m. Whilst this is obviously the basic requirement for marked-out terrains for competitions, it tends to result in rather dull, featureless terrains being built.

    Remember, in France, terrains are frequently “natural” terrains, typically the village square, areas in parks, etc. The shape will be irregular and the surface is likely to be uneven and irregular, often with a slope, some areas hard and smooth, others rough and stony, with ruts where the rain drains across, etc. Especially in the South, terrains will be tree lined, essential for protection against the fierce sun but also creating additional features and obstacles, with the roots providing more uneveness to the playing surface.

  6. November 18, 2008 at 7:11 am | permalink

    I have a set of boules, I have always just played on a reasonable gravel driveway. Crude I know. I’ll check it out next summer in Burns Park. Great idea!

  7. November 18, 2008 at 4:09 pm | permalink

    I am enthusiastic about there being a petanque court(s) in the Ann Arbor area. There are two petanque clubs in Michigan, one in Royal Oak (since 1978) http://www.michiganpetanque.com run by Joe Zajac; and the other, the Detroit Petanque Club played at Campus Martius Park (since 2005) http://www.detroitpetanque.com run by me, Jeff Widen. We have members that drive in from Windsor, Ontario, and even from Ypsilanti and Ann Arbor to play at our regular club meetings (7 days a week in season (Mon-Sat Detroit; Sun. Royal Oak))

    Please contact me: jeffrey@detroitpetanque.com about any questions you may have regarding courts, playing, equipment, finding playing partners.

    Jeff Widen