Two Ways Philadelphia is Encouraging Public Play Space

Paige’s Note:  In this month’s ‘After the Deadline’  column play historian and author Susan Solomon continues her investigation of ‘playground patronage’…the all important financial support and the will-to-build that drives great play spaces.   Financial support from philanthropic organizations–rather than typical municipal tax funding–is enabling more innovative playgrounds across the country.  Susan highlights two great examples from Philadelphia; be inspired to consider what organizations in your own community would be supportive of innovative play!

After the Deadline: Two Ways Philadelphia is Encouraging Public Play Space

by Susan G. Solomon

Patronage of play spaces continues to expand.  Once the province of municipalities, public playscapes are now supported by percent –for-art programs; housing authorities; even the Olympic redevelopment corporation in London.  At the same time, charitable foundations are showing a keen interest in playgrounds as public venues and as centers of kid based learning.  It is lovely to see that foundation support, which was essential for modern playgrounds in the 1960s ( e.g. M.Paul Friedberg’s Jacob Riis Houses; Richard Dattner’s Adventure Playground), is continuing a legacy.

Two organizations, both in Philadelphia but with very different constituencies, recently came to my attention.  One is based in community design and the other is an advocate for local business. While these seem disparate organizations, each has produced a model for improving city neighborhoods through innovative play areas funded largely by local philanthropic resources.

The remarkable Community Design Collaborative  (CDC) has been defying the myth that good design is expensive or privileged. They have been doing that for almost a quarter century.  Launched (and still housed) by the AIA, the CDC is an independent 501 (C)(3) organization that has demonstrated that thoughtful design can be an essential tool in revitalizing neighborhoods.  CDC is certainly not the only community design group in America but it may be the one with deepest range of programs, greatest variety of activities, and strongest number of volunteers from the design world.

One of the CDC’s major activities, in existence since 1991, is to provide grants to local communities.  These have been purposely structured to address a common conundrum: how do people with a specific need conceive and pay for a preliminary design so that they will have something to show funders in order to secure a larger grant.  CDC fills that void; volunteers, who come from the architecture and landscape architecture fields as well as other building disciplines, are at the center of this important program.

Since 2007, the CDC has tried to capitalize on the skills their volunteers have acquired by examining underlying challenges that all urban areas face.  Some, such as affordable housing, are visible and universal.  Others, like access to quality food or management of storm water, are pervasive but not as obvious as community issues.  CDC began a new program, Infill Philadelphia, to concentrate on these. Each Infill Philadelphia covers a two-year span.

This year, Infill Philadelphia is investigating “ Play Space “.  Partnering with the Delaware Valley Association for the Education of Young Children (DVAEYC), CDC will host a “kick-off” exhibition, “How we Play”  (August 3- September 11). It will highlight innovative outdoor play designs throughout the world. Like the other Infill Philadelphia projects, the centerpiece of the activities will be a design competition. Three public sites (park, school, library) will be the venues for which the competitors will provide plans. There is a strong possibility that the winning proposals, with their emphasis on using good design to enhance educational outcomes, will be erected.  Supportive programming includes design/build days; nature play design charrette or children as well as adults and civic leaders; public lectures that will include educators and child development experts.  The William Penn Foundation is supporting these initiatives.

Philadelphia’s outstanding business improvement district, Center City District (CCD, and my apologies for confounding readers with these similar abbreviations), is equally committed to using design to enhance public space.  One of their projects has been to enliven the dead zones that exist along Benjamin Franklin Parkway. Their goal has been to stich these back into the urban fabric as a way of aiding businesses and residents.  They have been particularly interested in Logan Square. One of the original squares on William Penn’s plan for the city, Logan Square has effectively been a circle with fountain for decades; a patch of land east of the fountain, dubbed Sister Cities Park for the alliance between Philadelphia and ten cities throughout the world and created in 1976, had become forlorn and a haven for the homeless.  It was also a crossroads, between an area that has been attracting young families and one where older residents have lived for decades.  It was ideal for an intergenerational space that could broaden its user base without disrupting the homeless.  The notion attracted funding from the Pew Charitable Trusts, the William Penn Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, and several Pennsylvania government programs.

CCD hired Studio Bryan Hanes.  Hanes envisioned three components to the new Sisters Cities Park: an on grade fountain with computer jets and graphic representation of the distance between Philadelphia and its sisters; a glass enclosed café (Digsau Architects); and a children’s garden.  The garden is the primary play area. It is a hill crossed by paths, rushing artificial streams filled with local river stones, a few fallen trees, and huge boulders. These enormous stones, Wissahickon schist, were retrieved from excavation for the parking garage at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.  Kids (and/or adults) can stick to a winding path or climb and balance on the towering boulders or wade in the narrow streams. The low fencing is only to restrain kids from nearby traffic; everything else is open to all adults.

The CCD has been appropriately flexible in letting the play area evolve. There is a small pond in the area closest to the café. The CCD envisioned a quiet water feature, one in which children would sail small boats.  The first day, the young visitors proved that wrong when they appropriated the water for wading.  The CCD pulled out the filtration system and replaced it with one that could accommodate swimmers. They also did not replace the shrubs that the kids had destroyed in their rush to the top of the rocks; kids can continue to make their own paths.  The total cost, which is not inexpensive at over $ 5 million, incorporates many amenities and draws enormous crowds of multiple ages. The cost is not excessive when compared to what some cities spend for standard issue purpose-built play areas.

The CDC and CCD offer examples of possibilities. There is a great interest at this moment in play and play spaces.  Each of these entities has shown not only that they feel passionately about using creative design to build better public play spaces but also that local philanthropic support is already on board to lend a strong financial hand.

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