Suncheon, Korea: Great Collaborations Lead to Great Playgrounds

Suyoung playground overview

Policy, activism, design. I think that those three elements are often key to successful playgrounds.   When I recently visited Korea, I saw how effective these could be when they are in sync. Suncheon city hosted me and asked me to speak at their International Play Symposium.   I was delighted to participate and to see what has been accomplished there in terms of outdoor public space that invests in children.

Miracle culvert

Let me introduce you to Miracle Playground # 1 (not related in anyway to the manufacturer with the same name) which opened in May. It is heartening that Miracle #1 is the first of nine other Miracle playgrounds, each unique and site specific, that Suncheon will build by 2020. The three other symposium speakers and I have been asked to be long-term consultants for the future facilities.

Seoul photographer So Young Shin took these admirable and telling photographs of Miracle #1 on opening day. The images reveal a varied landscape without standard equipment. In addition to the sculpted earth, the expansive sand area, and the large engaging “river bed,” there are wide tunnels made from huge sewer culverts, a clatter bridge, hand operated water pumps, an enclosed slide that is partially buried into the earth, and no fencing. Along the perimeter, there are ample areas where caregivers can relax. The photos also show that there are densely packed apartment buildings nearby. Families who live there have limited green space and are already flocking to the new playground.

There is, not surprisingly, a compelling story about the genesis of such a well-orchestrated play model.  Suncheon is a city in transition. It is a midsize community (population is 280,000; it is over 250 miles from Seoul) ) on the south coast of Korea. A national university with more than 12, 000 students is located there.  The urban and surrounding area was previously based on an economy of both agriculture and industry. The mayor, Choonghoon Cho, has been instrumental in refocusing the local economy so that is it cleaner and more adept at attracting tourism. He has succeeded in attracting new businesses that focus on “green technology.” At the same time, he has found ways to increase tourism without endangering the nearby Suncheon Bay preserved wetlands. These wetlands (Suncheon Bay Ecological Park was established in 2004) are the 5th largest in the world.

Given the mayor’s emphasis on promoting ecology (Suncheon is often referred to as the “eco-capital of Korea”) and reducing pollution, he is perceived as dynamic and wiling to break old molds. In a previous stint as mayor, he played a major role in establishing Miracle Library #1. Korea’s first children’s library, Miracle Library #1 opened in 2003.   It set a new paradigm: a place where children could come to borrow books as well as congregate and enjoy non-school activities. Kids were free to sit on the floor and even make a little bit of noise. There are now several children’s libraries throughout the country that have adapted the same concept.

It was logical that Phyen Haemoon, Korea’s influential play advocate, should approach the Suncheon mayor and his team (including the enthusiastic and responsive head of parks, Chen-sik Lee) about creating an innovative playground. Phyen Haemoon recognized that the “green policies” of the city blended well with his dream of a nature-centered playground that could emphasize variety of children’s experiences. Miracle #1 was his opportunity to put into place the kind of play he has been vigorously, passionately advocating for over a decade.

Phyen Haemoon wanted to depart from the limitations of the typical model (full disclosure: he is the person who contacted my my publisher, University Press of New England, in order to initiate a Korean edition of my book The Science of Play, which has just been published).   Most Korean playgrounds are similar to their counterparts in the United States. A single piece of dull manufactured equipment dominates the space. Phyen Haemoon wanted an outdoor space that activates children by offering them multiple opportunities to have open ended and non-directional play; he wanted to introduce beneficial risk to show that it can be benign and enticing to kids and their families.

Phyen Haemoon was not only well versed in the types of playgrounds available in Scandinavia and the Netherlands but also a seasoned facilitator of workshops for children and adults. He was well equipped to work with the community and understand their desires. He also respected the work of the Seoul firm Chung Gu-yon Associates. This firm designed the first Miracle Library in Suncheon and has designed several successive children’s libraries.   Phyen Haemoon knew that they would be able to translate his explicit notions into physical plans.

Gu-yon Associates has done an excellent job in providing a harmonious design and beautifully executed features ( the awkward rest room with a “castle” theme that is on one side of the playground is clearly not their design).  This firm is carrying on the legacy of their well-regarded founder Chung Gu-yon (1943-2011) who stressed the importance of nature in architecture and the ability of modern architecture to better the lives of clients. The current director of the firm, Kim Byung-Ok, was in charge of Miracle #1.

While I believe powerful leadership can improve playground designs – whether it comes from political, play, or design arenas- it was gratifying to see how much can be achieved (and for less than half the cost in America of stock equipment with poured in place rubber surfacing) when these three components work together. The repercussions have been local and national. I met one mother who told me she has already left her young children there and gone off the library; she knew that they were so busy they would not stray off the site. I also saw the amazing turnout at the International Play Symposium. The organizers were expecting 300 people and 600 came. Many were parks administrators and mayors from other municipalities. Miracle #1 appears to be having a significant impact, one I look forward to following during the next few years.

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