The Play Test

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Public art design that attempts double-duty as play space in Hammerby-Sjostad

Creating extraordinary quality public space is seen as key to creating ecourban neighbourhoods that are attractive and inviting enough to entice city residents out of their habits and patterns of uses of city space to try something news. The public spaces of neighbourhoods are where the tests of diversity are most obviously passed and failed, where a stance toward equity shows up in the types of spaces and activities provided for, and where the liveability offering to compensate for the lack of traditional small town or suburban privacy must be evident. This is not to say that excellent public spaces can be designed and crafted with the same recipe; but a lot rides on the local public’s perception of these spaces, and a lot can be read from the qualities of these spaces about the intentions of the designers in creating particular kinds of neighbourhoods for particular kinds of publics.

While early joiners of the contemporary ecourban neighbourhood trend tended to envision older empty nester couples, singles, and younger couples without children, more recent projects have learned that families with young children can be a natural fit for the qualities that they offer. The difference between projects designed for adults and those designed with children in mind can be starkly reflected in the public spaces. Take the design of this boulevard in Hammarby-Sjostad: an attempt to create public art that would be attractive for middle and upper class adults, for sure, but does it have a double life as a jungle gym? My daughters were unconvinced and steered clear.

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Above: Two pictures of Western Harbour’s interior playground in Malmo, Sweden.

In Malmö’s Western Harbour, by contrast, the interior playground serves as much as a landmark for families as the nearby Turning Torso building serves for architecture buffs. Not only did this park offer the only children’s play equipment I have ever encountered that put me in my place as a non-participant by sheer fear of bodily pain (the toddler-specific playground, a dozen metres distant, I could have handled), but it was also the only place in Sweden we saw a richer mix of hair and skin colours. Many of the assembled at play were from the housing surrounding the public park; but clearly some had come from much farther afield as well.

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Above: Two pictures of HafenCity’s playparks in Hamburg, Germany.

Then there are those districts that take the task even more seriously and insist on engaging children in the creation of the playparks. This is the approach taken in HafenCity, Hamburg, where a major public playpark was one of the first pieces of infrastructure the public development company undertook, seeing this as a key means of building knowledge of the whole HafenCity area in former port lands to the Hamburg public. The strategy worked.

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The sandy beach in Amager, between airport and CBD, in Copenhagen

The playpark includes equipment which would be death-defying for an adult like me, others that still invite me in (and a coffee stand serving up a great espresso to build up my courage), waterplay, and nature awareness components, is a joyous free for all. Literally: whereas a typical playground in Germany is limited to those under the age of 16 with their caregivers, this one is open to all, 24 hours per day.

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The cable water skiing club in Western Harbour, Malmo

Then there are the cities that persist in taking a broader view in opening up the city and the water to the public, including children.  In the last decade, Copenhagen has created a host of inner city, public swimming beaches and piers, all of them offering free, low-key fun, and all clearly well-loved in a heat wave. This sandy beach, in Amager, is easily accessible by subway and only a few stations from the airport.

Malmö’s Western Harbour also makes lemonade out of its locational ‘lemon’ — a ferocious wind — for a particularly unique play opportunity: a cable water skiing club.

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Ecoquartier Plateau de Haye social housing courtyard in Nancy, France, keeping football out.
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Cold water makes a welcome addition to older children’s playspace at Plateau de Haye.

At Plateau de Haye ecodistrict in Nancy, France, we see a different approach to playspace. Here on the left, the effort is to keep the ball play out of the courtyard shared by these social housing residents. The message is a little gruff, but this design actually may respond to a problem noted in other ecodistricts: that while they make ample space for young children, the space needs of teenagers are never part of the equation. Judging by the older kids we saw doing their thing at Plateau de Haye, which has an interior 15 hectares of woods, including older trees, open fields, and 18,500 young trees planted, shooing them away from the greenspaces close to home, and into the wilder spaces beyond, may work for all demographics.

– by Meg Holden


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