Redesigning the playground to free children and adults

Here is an interesting example of architecture and design at work: putting together a playground in New York City that will free children and adults rather than burden them.

In Pamela Druckerman’s “Bringing Up Bébé,” the playground forms a fertile backdrop for her pop-sociological observations about child-rearing, French vs. American style. The upper-middle-class Manhattan moms (she can tell by the price of their handbags) follow their kids around the gated toddler playground narrating their activities. The French moms sit on the edge of the sandbox and chat with other adults. The Brooklyn dads follow their children down the slide. The French moms sit on a bench and chat with other adults. Her theory, a bestselling one, is that French parenting consists of more non, more équilibre, and thus more time for adults to be adults.

It never occurs to her that maybe it is the playgrounds that encourage parents to act this way. Most New York playgrounds are designed for the protection of children: padded surfaces, equipment labelled by age appropriateness, and a ban on unaccompanied adults. Frankly, it is hard to see why an adult without a child would want to enter. There’s often little seating, minimal shade, and no place to set down a coffee except in a stroller cup holder. As for those parents who don’t want to helicopter, the perimeter benches can be far from where children play, sight lines blocked by the bulky climbing structures. Standard New York playgrounds are made for a single activity—child’s play—not family socializing or even adult enjoyment.

The planners of New York City’s Governors Island, an ice-cream-cone-shaped piece of land a half mile from the end of Manhattan, see play somewhat differently, and are designing their first thirty acres of park and public space accordingly. “People spend several hours here” on the weekends, says Leslie Koch, president of the Trust for Governors Island. Free ferries from Manhattan and Brooklyn bring visitors in for extended afternoons. “You wander through the island, you have an idea or you may not, the kids run around. There aren’t precedents for that kind of place. It’s different than a beach or an urban park, or even a state park, where you go to barbecue.” She adds, “Early on we said we didn’t want to have playgrounds, but we didn’t say what that meant.”…

“If you create a park-like environment and people feel really free, adults hang out and participate like children do,” Geuze says. Contrast the concept for Liggett Terrace with the experience at Pier 6 at Brooklyn Bridge Park, an access point for the ferry to Governors Island. To date, Pier 6 consists of four landscaped, gated playgrounds, one with swings, one with water, one with sand, and one for climbing. There’s a separate beach-volleyball court, and a separate park building with food. If you aren’t pushing your kid on the swing, narrating every to and fro, the only place to sit is the springy rubber ground.

It would be interesting to hear more about how this new kind of park would change people’s behaviors. The article seems to suggest that certain park designs necessarily lead to certain behaviors; is this always the case? Does it require a critical mass of people

This reminds me of some arguments about parks from earlier days. Take Central Park in New York City as an example. Olmstead and Vaux designed the park to be more natural and take advantage of the natural topography and features. This was contrasted with more formal European parks which often had carefully cultivated gardens and water features. Central Park became beloved even as it is still fairly unusual in big cities as it can be difficult to find that much land and leave it relatively unencumbered.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s