Location, Location, Location

I send you greetings for the best possible 2017!

I want to start the new year by expanding the discussion of playgrounds, going beyond the physical characteristics of where children could gather.  It is no secret that I like a particular type of environment.   As many of you know, my ideal play area would be a loosely configured “playscape” that would be unfenced, intergenerationally inclusive, filled with areas (rather than equipment) for non-directional exploration and imaginative creation.

Now I want to develop the notion of what a play space might look like by considering where we might place them. Critic and dean (Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture) Aaron Betsky spurred me on to think about this. Betsky wrote a wonderful essay for the December issue of Metropolis. Entitled “The High Line Effect,” his piece carried this summary: “This has been a great year for new parks in cities all around America- but is that good news for all citizens?”

Betsky does a remarkable job of showing how many well-funded park projects are destinations, ones that reside in wealthy areas (or places that are quickly becoming unaffordable to most people). These types of projects, he rightly explains, do not enhance poor neighborhoods or provide an outdoor sanctuary where working class people could gather daily near their own homes. They become instead “exclusive” enclaves, “ a new kind of park that isolates itself from the urban fabric.”

Betsky’s remarks are a clear reminder that where we put parks and playscapes is as important as to what is in them. When planning for play, advocates have to consider how close the play space is to nearby housing and how easy it for kids or young families to come frequently. It would be encouraging if we could follow the direction of many cities, especially Tokyo, where it has been routine for decades to have every family within ten minutes walk of a park and where young children are encouraged to come by themselves and meet up with their friends.   Dutch architect Aldo van Eyck was an even earlier proponent of neighborhood oases, starting right after World War II, and contemporary architect Liane Lefaivre has sought to reestablish similar “webs” in her work for immigrant communities of Rotterdam. American cities are now beginning to explore and implement similar strategies.

I was heartened recently to find a good example of innovation and accessibility in Washington Square Park in New York City. It is a model that could be easily and inexpensively replicated in less affluent neighborhoods. Talented designers Jason Schwankert and Akiva Rubin brought it to my attention. It is in the southwest corner of the park, somewhat removed from all of the activity surrounding the square’s arch and its plaza. There is nothing to keep anyone out of this playscape and there are many nearby seats for adults. As you can see from this photo, children can have a variety of experiences, including hanging from and going across, above, below the low cables. These rope cables take on height by being placed over gently carved gullies. Kids can jump down, then run up and down the low hills. Or, they might just play on the hills. Or, they might just hang from the ropes. There is variety in what they can attempt and they decide what will challenge them. The artificial grass is not offensive; it makes sense so that the grass pits are not worn down too quickly. The site, which appears to be the place where Robert Nichols installed short rising mounds in the late 1960s, nicely evokes his prior accomplishments

Let’s hope that the coming year brings out similar well placed and well conceived play areas in many parts of many cities.

P.S.  I am on vacation in Rome. Next Saturday, January 21, I will be at a local rally in support of the Women’s March.  It is at 11:00 AM in front of the Pantheon and I urge other Americans who are here to join in.  Please spread the word to any friends, relatives, colleagues who also may be in the Eternal City.

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