Playable Streets

The New York Times has a story today about efforts underway to develop a creative new playground near the South Street Seaport. The city has been working with David
Rockwell interior designer for Nobu and the Mohegan Sun Casino, on a playground that eschews traditional playground aparati in favor of foam blocks,
water, cardboard tubes, burlap bags, ramps, climbing nets and, most interesting, "play workers" to attend to the facility and guide kids through it. Gothamist, as always, provides a nice synposis. 

The story will certainly spark all kinds of discussion and it reminded me of an innovative "playground concept" that I stumbled upon during my recent German Marshall Fellowship trip to Copenhagen. There, in the the busy city center, is a playground built right in the middle of a city street. Instead of parked cars and slow-moving, honking, exhaust-spewing traffic, this city street offers sandbox, slide, play house and benches. Forget "livable streets," this street is "playable."

  • Steve

    The playground design discussed in the Times article is a welcome step up from the usual fare in NYC playgrounds. Over the last ten years or so, I have noticed a steadily dwindling repertoire of playground features as older and more interesting features deemed unsafe are phased out through attrition, and replaced by boring generic climbing structures. The last see-saws in Manhattan (I think) were removed when Hecksher was renovated a year or two ago, and most of the “roller slides,” like the ones in John Jay and West 100 playgrounds, are broken and unusable (there is still one working in Carl Schurz).

    One thing that concerns me is all the private fundraising for playgrounds, which is referenced in the Times article. I’m not against it per se, but it opens the door to at least part-time privatization. I recall that last year we visited Hecksher (the oldest and largest playground in Central Park) around Mother’s Day and were greeted by signs warning that the playground would close early to host a cocktail party for donors that had funded the reconstruction. In fact, the playground would make a highly lucrative venue for cocktail parties–it is steps from the midtown business district; it has great climbing features that are fun for adults as well as kids (extremely serious rock climbers gather at the foot of one of the granite outcroppings in the playground each weekend to practice); it has an historic and beautiful structure housing modern restrooms; and it has a unique view by virtue of the extremely old, large trees ringing the park over which can be seen the giant video displays and “starchitechtural” glass and metal towers that now crowd the southwestern perimeter of Central Park. If I was an investment bank, I would consider myself to be pretty clever and cutting-edge if I could book Hecksher for a private cocktail party. This new playground described in the Times article, right by the financial district, sounds like an even more likely candidate.

    This is of course the trend in NYC, with venues such as the Central Park Zoo, the Museum of Natural History, and many others transforming themselves into catering halls as a new development strategy. Often the members lose as a result, as they are evicted well before the usual closing time with little notice to make way as the caterers and musicians set up. In theory the funds raised through the catering business is used to enhance and upgrade the institution generally, but I have always wondered how much of that money gets eaten up administering the catering business, enhancing perks to management, etc. There is not a lot of watchdogging that I can see for many of the organizations that operate these attractions.

    I would be interested to know if anyone else has observed a NYC playground closed to the public for purposes of a private party.

  • Steve

    More news on the new playground concept in today’s Times, including public reactions from around the city, here:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2007/01/11/nyregion/11play.html?ref=nyregion

    The idea of having “carefully screened and trained” city employees available to protect portable and vandalize-able new playground features, and even assist kids and parents in playing with them, is very exciting. However fielding such “play facilitators” would be a challenge. Based on personal observation, the Parks Department employees that historically have been assigned to “playground duty” strike me as being from the lowest order of sinecure beneficiaries. I recall watching a group of such playground monitors playing cards for hours at a table under the shed in Carl Schurz last summer.

    What one learns from spending time in playgrounds in the Upper East Side and in many other NYC neighborhoods is that there is a huge class of kids that are enduring hours of empty experience receiving little or no attention their parents or paid caretakers, who are spending their time talking on the cell phone or to each other. (And those may be the lucky kids–it is not uncommon to find kids being openly brutalized by their caretakers. There is a blog devoted to such interactions that is a bit analogous to MyBikeLane.com, in that it contains reports on childcare misconduct as opposed to traffic misconduct: http://isawyournannyindex.blogspot.com/2006/10/new-york.html ). “Play facilitators” could really raise the level of things.

    Apart from the roadways themselves, playgrounds appear to account for the greatest acreage of paved “open spaces” in New York City. Playgrounds are distributed throughout the city relatively evenly, making them a logical focus for stimulating a “Streets Renaissance.” Several of the meager specifics provided in the Mayor’s “2030 PlaNYC sustainability” speech concerned playgrounds, suggesting that the city intends to devote considerable resources to them. (playgrounds technically are considered parks and I interpret the Mayor’s pledge that the city will “ensure[] that . . every New Yorker lives within a 10-minute walk of a park, so that every child has the chance to play and be active” to indicate primarily that more playgrounds will be constructed). For kids, caretakers and parents, playgrounds probably represent the single most important point of potentially intimate contact with the broader public. Transforming the playground experience by fielding facilitators of collaborative, creative play among kids would have a huge impact on the hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers whose daily experience of public spaces centers on playgrounds. We’ll see if the Parks Department is up to it.

  • Steve

    There is a great deal more detail today on the proposed new playgrounds. Also some interesting commentary oon the history of NY playgrounds. See the audio slide show/interview with Adrian Benape on the times local news page.

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