Should councils provide larger, more adventurous, destination play centres or return to old-school unsupervised playbourhoods? Patricia Moore has fun canvassing the options.
The swings and things that once put the ‘play’ into playgrounds have become old hat. Newer, more exciting equipment, daring kids to challenge themselves and test their limits, is finding its way into the best public fun spots. Slides are metres wide and jungle gyms have evolved into structures like the Tree Canopy Climbing Adventure at Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo, where 9144 metres of vinyl-coated steel encases 36 wooden platforms.
Recent trends have also seen a move away from spaces with a narrow focus on play, to more integrated areas which offer multiple benefits for the widest cross-section of the community.
Councils creating new spaces, or updating existing ones, face some serious issues including what Jude Rawcliffe, parks and open spaces project manager with the New Zealand Recreation Association, describes as ‘giant-ism’ – the perception that bigger is better.
“The cost of super-sized play spaces is resulting in the loss of simple, accessible neighbourhood playgrounds,” she says. “There is a place for large destination play spaces but these should be in conjunction with, not in place of, neighbourhood spaces.
“There’s also the potential for less use of playgrounds, plus the pressure of multiple demands on open spaces, particularly in metropolitan areas.”
She adds that with people more aware of international trends in play and recreation, demand will grow for these in local neighbourhoods. “Councils will need to consider play opportunities for children with special needs, beyond providing for wheelchairs, particularly for those on the autism spectrum and their families.”
However, neighbourhood spaces create their own issues. Haylea Muir, associate landscape architect with Isthmus Group, says unprescribed free-play is noisy and messy.
“But we need to encourage and accept that, rather than see moveable parts frozen silent, exciting equipment removed for causing children to squeal too loudly, and maintenance budgets forcing loose and tactile surface materials to be replaced with ones that are smooth and static.”
Playgrounds will provide challenges in various forms for local authorities, she says. “Time, space, location and budgets – for both construction and maintenance – are the obvious and enduring ones.
“Others may be specific to sites or demographics. There’s also the perception of safety or risk which has a huge impact on how much and where children are allowed to play or what a local authority is willing to provide.”
Catherine Hamilton, principal landscape architect with Opus International Consultants, talks about ‘playbourhoods’, a word coined for the move back to old-school neighbourhoods where children were encouraged to play freely without adult supervision (a prospect that may be frightening for many adults).
“Achieving playbourhoods,” she says, “requires a commitment to the vision, meaningful community engagement, and timely contribution from child-centric advocates and professionals, throughout the planning and design of new and regenerating settlements.”
Catherine says the densification of cities provides opportunities for playbourhoods to be integrated into our inner-city networks. “Changing demographics also offer the opportunity to create new types of play experiences relevant to our culturally diversifying communities.”
Gym Guru MD Brett Forsyth sees the level and diversity of use and the changing demographics of those using playground equipment as looming issues for local government.
“People are going to the park specifically for recreation. Because of that the space needs to cater for a wider range of people, age groups, and types of use. Kids are no longer happy to just go back and forward on a swing. Parks have to attract with new and innovative things.”
And there’s the rub. The new and innovative doesn’t come cheap, particularly where safety is a paramount concern. As Brett points out, there’s a huge amount of accountability on local government spending. “People want more but they don’t want to pay more. The challenge is smarter decision making, getting more for less.”
Engagement is key, he says. “Connecting with the people who are going to be using the equipment; if councils don’t get it right, the perception is they’re wasting ratepayers’ money.
“As suppliers of recreational equipment, we often talk about outdoor gyms with people who have never used a piece of gym equipment in their life. And they’re making decisions for their community on the type of equipment they’re going to have.”
Victoria Peet of Playrope NZ says with playgrounds competing with the technology giants of social media and gaming, engaging children directly in community consultation to ensure play spaces are designed to promote activities kids will enjoy will encourage important face-to-face socialising.
“Councils will need to educate teachers, parents and the community on the importance of free play and playgrounds. This will have an impact socially, intellectually and physically.”
So can the playgrounds across the country regain their mojo or do local authorities need to implement different strategies? In order to keep ideas fresh and competitive, Victoria sees councils sending more work out to consultants. “Local government will manage the process and ensure the results match expectations.”
Brett also believes councils should facilitate rather than take the lead. “There are some good decisions – and quite budget-conscious ones – being made by community groups with councils facilitating.”
- Patricia Moore is a freelance writer. firstname.lastname@example.org
This article was first published in the December 2016 issue of NZ Local Government Magazine.