What does “$20M in playground injuries” really mean?

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Paige’s Note:  One of the problems in discussions of playground safety and risk is the poor quality of playground injury statistics.  The word “injury” can cover many things, from minor cuts and scrapes to broken limbs.  This makes the number *appear* high, an easy shrill headline for media outlets who have little interest in actually understanding the statistics.  There is a similar problem with liability and insurance discussions.  What does the headline “City shells out $20M over kids’ playground injuries” actually mean?  Should we be alarmed?  Is is high or low, good or bad?  Fortunately, we have Susan Solomon to explain!

Good News: A Report on a Report: Susan G. Solomon

Is the glass half empty or half full?  I was struck by that eternal question when I read the ClaimStat Alert report that the New York City Comptroller Office issued in March. The subtitle, “Protecting Kids on NYC Playgrounds,” does not immediately explain that this is a compilation of personal injury claims brought against the city during the period 2005 to 2014. It covers all of NYC’s almost 1000 playgrounds.The New York Post immediately made a half empty assessment in its coverage of the release of the report. Their headline screamed “City shells out $20M over kids’ playground injuries.”

I suggest that there can be a totally different conclusion from the same data, effectively the half full approach.  I believe that this is a remarkable document, one that dispels many concerns about liability held by those who commission or design playgrounds. It also shows the shallowness of arguments that urge tort reform as a prerequisite for flourishing of innovative playground design.

Before we look at the information in the report it is critical to note that it comes from the city comptroller. It seems obvious that that office would know where injuries occur and how much is paid for settlement or a   judgment.  For those of us who have long sought this evidence from parks departments  (and have often felt that we were being stonewalled), this report makes clear that some of us were looking in the wrong place. We now have a new focus of where to locate data (hiding in plain sight?), something I intend to pursue from other major (and even smaller) American cities although New York appears to be the first to collect and disseminate this information so systematically.

It is heartening that the claims were spread throughout the city. No playground had more than 7 claims in the almost decade long period under review. Fifteen playgrounds had between 4 and 7 claims.  The rest had only 1 or 2 actions.   We might anticipate, for instance, that two newer and “risky” parks might have quickly popped up on the claims list.  We might expect Tear Drop Park with its high slide and craggy boulders to be cited; or we might think the slippery rocks at WaterLab in Brooklyn Bridge Park’s Pier 6 would have resulted in quite a few suits.  Neither of these venues is even on the list.  Their respective surrounding parks, Battery Park and Brooklyn Bridge respectively, have a single claim each.

A closer look reveals there were 577 claims for the entire nine years span.  Compare that to possible number of users: If only 20 kids came to each playground each day that would be over 7 million kid visits per year!!  The report does make a significant point in indicating there has been a 7 percent drop in NYC residents under 18 years old (2005 to 2013) at the same time that the annual number of claims has gone from a low point of 45 (2005) to a higher figure of 69 in 2014.  This is a 50% increase and  statistically there are more claims and less children. But given the number of users, this is a tiny per capita shift.  On one hand, we can say that the number of claims has “skyrocketed” but, on the other hand, we have to recognize that the real number is still extremely small.

The number $20 million seems like- and certainly is- a large amount of cash.  It, too, needs a context.  In one year alone (2012), the city paid out $485.9 million for all of the  “personal injury and property damage tort settlement and judgments” against it.  When it comes to the specifics in the playground ClaimStat information, it appears that the city (which is self-insured, like many large municipalities) settled almost all (530) of the claims.  Some of these were holdovers from the 1990s and some that were not settled between 2005 and 2014 will show up in later reviews.  For the settled cases, the overall average settlement was $38,952, a number that was skewed by a single settlement of $3.5 million; that settlement pertained to a 1999 claim by a 19 year old who was swinging and hit her head on a fence. The fall zone would have been sufficient for a younger child but did not account for young adults. Without that settlement, the average payout would have been about $30,000.  That is not a small sum but it is also not an insurance busting one.  Individual practitioners can take comfort that their own insurance would have covered similar claims and that tort “caps” or other reforms would not be necessary for them to be fully covered.

Overwhelmingly, most of the playground injuries resulted from gaps in maintenance, not from the design or implementation of equipment. Almost 40% of all claims were for “missing/defective matting” surfaces under equipment; “cracked or broken surfaces”; and “improper maintenance”.  The ClaimStat Alert report does not detail specific injuries but it seems likely that most were broken arms and legs when we look how the Comptroller arrived at several recommendations.  Taking their lead from the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons, the Comptroller’s Office suggests that “we can reduce the likelihood of injuries and reduce liability to the taxpayer” if we use “softer surfaces- such as mulch, shredded tires, or sand.”  These recommendations appear to validate Prof. David Ball’s extensive research that points to rubber safety surfacing as the likely culprit in broken limbs of the upper body.

The NYC ClaimStat document gives us hope that municipalities are not suffering from excessive litigation or from onerous financial burdens.  Let’s hope that other cities will come forth and present their own data.  Evidence so far has been spotty.  For example, Reporter Steve Lopez of the Los Angeles Times (February 1, 2014) recently asked his city for a listing of all claims against the city since 2007.  He found that “a few of the cases involve potholes or crumbling playgrounds” but the dominant claims were for injuries from broken pavements (and don’t we think no one walks in LA?).   If we begin to see similar investigations of other large cities- or better yet, if cities reveal their data forthrightly- then we will know for sure if the positive implications of the New York ClaimStat report are typical and instructive for other large urban areas.

Woven Play Shelters by OGE Creative Group

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Because I’m thinking about temporary play structures alot at the moment (Boston PlayDay!  Send in your ideas!)  here are two more unique woven structures from the OGE Creative Group.    The “Red Blob”  honors the skill and labor of their knitting grandmothers, and  “Aura” is woven of glow sticks for a uniquely self-lit structure.   The genius of pop-up and temporary inventions of all sorts is that they can make us think differently about how we see and use the space around us.  These both make me think about ways to energize too-static playground spaces with temporary interventions.  What would the playground nearest you look like with some knit bombing, or glow-stick weaving?  How could you use that to draw community to, and build community around, your play space?

BOULEvard Ball, a moving Playground! Studio ON/OFF, 2014

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The BOULEvard ball, developed by studio ON/OFF for last fall’s Kanal Playground Festival in Brussels,  was based on the “tensegrity” principles of Buckminster Fuller.  It uses compression to create a  large 4m tall boulder, made of plumbing pipes, that is tough enough to roll through the city! 

Through a series of workshops with locals, the ball was community-assembled  then dispatched on an urban expedition through the canal area of Brussels.  Its mission was to create play in unexpected places, and it attracted both curiosity and participation as it rolled past resident’s windows.  

I love their mission statement:  “Do-It-Yourself doesn’t have to be small, the city is a playground for
experiments just as much as a shed filled with half-fixed furniture and modified shelves.The BOULEvard ball shows that DIY can also be collective, and its results can be shared in common.”

BOULEvard from Andrew Bateman on Vimeo.

Thanks to those of you who have gotten in touch so far and we look forward to hearing from more of you with proposals for Boston’s Play-Day, June 18 at the The Lawn on D! Requirements are fairly loose so be as creative as you would like with innovative, imaginative structures and games that invite play for kids and adults, easily installed and removed.   There’s no official RFP form, just send your ideas, a few details about pricing (construction budget is $250-$2500) and perhaps a link to other work you’ve done to [email protected] by May 29!

Another lovely from English Heritage…this is a 1970s construct in the courtyard of London flats designed by the architects Andrews Sherlock and Partners.  It’s the Aldo van Eyck’s jumping stones writ large!  

#TBT Modernist Playground, 1960, Brockwell Park, London

Many of the post-war modernist housing developments in the UK installed concrete playgrounds to match their similarly sparse exteriors.  They were rarely successful as spaces, and most are now lost,  but they did provide a new aesthetic and–most importantly–promoted the idea that play was worthy of serious architectural attention, and that playgrounds could be important design elements in their own right.  This image, from Historic England,  was next to Bedford House, near Brockwell Park.  Exact and designer unknown…get in touch if you have it!

DIY Playscapes: How to make a Backyard Zipline!

Zip lines, aka flying foxes, are sadly absent from most US playgrounds due to–you guessed it–overblown liability fears.  So make one in your backyard!   Follow the instructions by I Like to Make Stuff via Instructables.

On July 18 The Lawn on D, Boston’s new creative event space will host PLAY-DAY. Taking it’s cue from the tremendous popularity of the Lawn’s “Swing Time”, this one-day event will feature innovative play installations, games, costumed characters and artworks designed to encourage & invigorate play for kids, adults and everyone in-between.  Submissions for projects from $250 to $2,500 to [email protected] by FRIDAY MAY 29! 

Spaghetti Playgrounds!

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Okay, so the architects who designed this beauty in Hamakita, Japan–the firm Suppose Design Co–call it “Forest Loops”, not spaghetti.  Regardless, I love their addition of nets at the base to make what would in any case be a very ‘play-ful‘ design truly ‘play-able’; a technique that would suit many types of installations.   The looping structure also reminds me of Pablo Reinoso’s beautiful ‘spaghetti benches‘.

Natural Playscape, Suzanne van Ginneken, Leiden, Netherlands,

Start your Monday off happy with this lovely video of the kids at OBS woutertje Pieterse in Leiden, Netherlands using their natural playground, designed by Suzanne van Ginneken!  

Traditional Daishan Swings, Nepal

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As the heart of the world turns toward Nepal, I am reminded of its beautiful tradition of communal swings–constructed to celebrate the festival of Daishan in September-October.  Bent bamboo and coconut ropes make for a uniquely graceful swingset, and the goal of the suspended swing, which sometimes dangles from a height of 20 feet, is to swing as high as possible.   Tradition says that it will make you forget your troubles, and may even take you to heaven.   May there be many Daishan ‘pings’ this year.

#TBT Cable Car on the Playground, San Francisco, c. 1950

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There *once* was a decommissioned cable car for kids to play on at Golden Gate Park.  And I wish there still was!  “Real stuff”–train engines, fighter jets, and fire trucks–once provided imaginative play opportunities as well as local life context to playgrounds.  There’s no reason permanently parked items such as these can’t still be used in play spaces…it’s just fallen out of fashion and the grown-ups have forgotten how much fun it was.   Any ‘real stuff’ in the vintage playgrounds of your memories? [images from the san francisco public library, found via sanfranciscodays.  Unsure of the dates, but judging by the clothes and the Big Wheel you can see in the foreground of the second image, perhaps it was there from the 1950s to the 1970s.  If you know, please get in touch!]

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An artist designed playground and its unique patron by Susan Solomon

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Paige’s Note:  In her latest “After the Deadline” column, play chronicler extraordinaire Susan Solomon talks about one of everyone’s favorite playmakers:  Toshiko Horiuchi MacAdam and the unique patronage that enabled the creation of her recent piece in Rome.   It provides a model that I hope we will see much more of:  significant corporate sponsorship of ambitious, innovative places and pieces for play!

After the Deadline:  An artist designed playground and its unique patron
Susan G. Solomon

Something magical can happen when artists -and here I include painters, sculptors, architects and landscape architects- design public space.  There is a good chance they know how to organize environments and how to make them both comfortable and stimulating for the people who will be using them: they understand the complexity of materials and know how to exploit those for a range of experiences; they frequently can do more with less money.  For public playgrounds, artists may have the insight and interest to listen to clients, especially children, and translate their unarticulated dreams into reality.

A daunting glitch is how to secure funding for these unusual designs or identify donors who seek extraordinary projects.

Recently, a committed institutional patron and a superb textile artist united forces to create an outstanding play piece in Rome.  It’s an interesting marriage that could have long-term ramifications for who designs play pieces; where these are sited; and who pays for them.  In this particular case, Enel is the forward thinking patron.  Their name is not widely recognized in America.  They are Italy’s largest public utility.  An energy company that is publically traded and whose stock is largely held by the government. Enel is effectively a public private venture.

Enel, which has been a long standing patron of the arts and even a primary sponsor of the art world’s Venice Biennale, began in 2007 to commission unique works for public areas.  Most have been in Rome.  These were site-specific pieces, meant to promote conversation about renewable and sustainable energy.  In 2010, Enel altered the donation program by establishing the Enel Contemporanea Award.   The award sponsors a yearly invited international competition and a distinguished jury selects the winner.  The resulting commissioned work is then displayed for at least a year before Enel retains or donates it.  Carsten Höller won in 2011; his Double Carousel with Zöllner Stripes was on display at the Museum of Contemporary Art of Rome (MACRO).  This dynamic piece- where visitors could hop on and off carousels that rotated in opposite directions- resided in an entry floor gallery where anyone could come without an admission charge. The 2012 winner was Mike and Doug Starn; their Big Bambu, a 75-foot high construction, invited visitors to climb it at MACRO’s auxiliary site in the former abattoir (now art space) of the city.  While Enel wants their prize theme to be the about the intersection of energy and contemporary art, the successful works have been especially whimsical and playful.

Toshiko Horiuchi MacAdam won the Enel honor in 2013 and continued the spirited interactive tradition. The work of this Japanese Canadian fiber artist is well known to readers of this blog. Her wining piece, Harmonic Motion, was displayed at the main MACRO in December 2013. It should have come down a year later but its huge popularity resulted in its stay being extended.  MacAdam’s piece (created with her husband Charles MacAdam and structural engineer Norihide Imagawa) was suspended from the walls of a partially covered courtyard.  It, too, was at street level and without charge.

MacAdam used brightly colored and hand dyed crocheted nets, which she calls  “air pocket”, in her eye-popping Harmonic Motion. It expands some of the inquiries that are found in the somewhat smaller piece she did at the Hakone Open Air Museum in Japan: how do we “wear” air that has been fashioned by manipulating linear strings into three dimensional volumes?  In order to let visitors fully explore her concerns, she devised small openings that participants can crawl into; they have choices and have to plan how to navigate their bodies through crocheted tubes; eventually they reach a wide flat crocheted plane where they can run, bounce, and decide whether they want to climb higher along the sides.

The Rome piece is set apart from the Hakone one because anybody can enter, climb, and eventually jump on it. In contrast, the piece in Hakone is for children under 12 years old.  The differing ages at the Rome installation means that older folks have to be careful of younger ones and vice versa.  It also gives teens, who are tough to attract to playgrounds, a venue where they can challenge themselves and each other.  Their delight is evident in the amount of shouting and squealing that ensues.  The courtyard actually amplifies the dim so that all visitors are surrounded by the gleeful howling of excited kids.

MacAdam’s creation is an ideal playground. It enhances its context and fits effortlessly with it.  It is accessible to any age; there is nearby seating for adults who want only to enjoy the piece or the beauty of a courtyard where one end reveals an opening to the sky.  Participants have to take cautious risks and plan carefully how to make their way through this art object.  There is a great deal of camaraderie and joy when they succeed.  Even more importantly, it shows that a legitimate patron, a well-respected museum, and a famous artist could work together for a unique piece that encourages everyone to participate in a challenging, variable (and fun) experience.

We, in America, have generous corporations who often support art projects. We have some fantastic foundations that have been kind and creative in how they approach playgrounds.   We lack, however, a consistent patron who sponsors a yearly event that increasingly defines where art and play can cooperate and then makes sure that the best example materializes.  Let’s hope that some entity- a corporate or private one- will not only pick up the slack but also do it in a way that is deferential to the creative processes of artists and the exploring capabilities of young and older children.

 

 

Patrick Dougherty Stick Sculpture, Olympia Children’s Museum, 2014

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Artist Patrick Dougherty’s Stickworks are always play-ful, but the whimsical maze-like construction at the Olympia Hands-on Children’s Museum in Olympia, Washington, described as spiralling up “like whipped cream with towers”  is specifically designed for play with pathways and archways and secret hiding places.  Don’t miss the fascinating video (below) that shows the construction process (who knew that you needed a crew of leaf-strippers?).  And I love his enunciation of a concept that we’ve talked about here before at Playscapes as “feel-risky-play-safe”:  “You don’t want to lose your children, you just want them to feel as though they can be lost”.   Lost in a Stickworks sculpture is a great place to be!

#TBT Mercer Island’s Playground Dragon, Washington, 1965 and 2013

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For #TBT, the story of the dragon of Mercer Island park dragon, a rare happy ending for a mid-century playground sculpture!

Since its installation in 1965 on the island off the coast of Seattle Washington (photos are from a 1966 feature in Sunset magazine), the 50-foot long, six ton polka-dotted dragon by artist Kenton Pies had gradually become more difficult to keep in repair.   And here I want to point out that this is hardly a criticism; few playgrounds of manufactured equipment–though touted for their durability–would last for fifty years!   All play pieces require maintenance, and none last indefinitely.  But many wonderful vintage play sculptures have been unnecesarily ripped out by municipalities as ‘dated’ or even ‘unsafe’ (thank you, ASTM) without consulting either the artists that made them or the communities that loved them.  

Happily the Mercer Island Parks and Recreation Department was more enlightened than that, and they sought out Kenton, now 81 and living in Montana, to inquire about repairing the dragon.  After repair estimates proved to be too costly he proposed building a bigger and better dragon that would be around for many new generations of Mercer Island kids.   For $60,000.  And here I want to point out that this custom artisinal creation is *way cheaper* than most formulaic, boring, manufactured playgrounds, whose average municipal installation cost in the US is now around $175,000.    And the community will never love the play space, never build lifetime memories around it, like Mercer Island has around its dragon.

Still nestled in the trees, with the original dragons head close by in the underbrush as an extra play element and also to satisfy adults nostalgic for the play dragon they remember, the new Mercer Island Dragon should last another fifty years.