Thoughts on Playground Preservation, Central Park, New York City

As some of you know from my other, infrequent, blog about garden history, I am also a historian of landscape (having taken a sabbatical from nanotechnology to get a master’s degree in the subject from the UK.  I highly recommend interdisciplinary studies, btw!).   So I have a preservationist bent, and that is what this post is about, inspired by my visit last weekend to some ten  play areas of Central Park.

Central Park, of course, occupies a unique place in the history of the American landscape, but its place in the history of the playground landscape is just as unique.  Because the park is so big, there has been–is–space to try out all sorts of play constructs, and over the years it has assembled a set of play spaces that seem like a museum-worthy collection of urban play thoughts dating from Olmsted’s day until now, though some are only historic shadows of past use.

And that’s what I was thinking about as I was going around the playgrounds of Central Park: about preserving, learning from, such a long history of play.  An ongoing issue in garden history is that public understanding of the need to preserve landscapes lags far behind feelings about the preservation of buildings, and even farther behind the generally accepted idea that other forms of art–objects like paintings, say–are worth taking care of and hanging onto.

And since the notion that playgrounds are in fact designed landscapes–an idea I try to champion here as much as possible–is also pretty new,  it stands to reason that the preservation of worthy playground sites is really just coming into broader discussion (see Playscapes past coverage of the La Laguna playground and the Edgar Miller Animal Court).  Playgrounds typically are built, allowed to deteriorate for 10-30 years, and then rebuilt according to current fashion.   So what does it mean to ‘preserve’ a playground?  Is it even appropriate?

Central Park is a key space for this conversation, about which playgrounds should be preserved, and how, and by what means we adapt them to changing ideas about risk, safety, child development and social goals while keeping them great places for play.

I won’t have time or space in this post to go all the way back to Olmsted (!), though I’m hoping to do some scholarly writing in that vein.  The main focus of my day out in Central Park was the mid-century playgrounds by Richard Dattner and Paul Friedberg, which I’ve pored over in books.

In person, they’re brilliant, with play value as strong as their forms.  Like a lot of people who love design, I fall hard for how a space looks….but playgrounds are for play, and its possible for the most visually compelling of designs to fail miserably if the child is not kept first and foremost.   So I’m pleased to report that on the play-o-meter (which is my proprietary internal rubric for evaluating how kids are playing!) these were places with both great design appeal and great play appeal.

I can only capture a limited sampling of my thoughts without completely boring you, so I’ll focus on just three of the sites our happy little group of playground geeks visited; the three that scored the best on the play-o-meter.  The  first was Richard Dattner’s ‘Adventure Playground’ at  West 67th.  If you’ve downloaded the Dattner book Design for Play (see the sidebar), then you know this well:  short, curving concrete walls, ‘volcanoes’ with brick scramble walls, a stepped wooden ziggurat, a modernist water rill for wading.  In the 1990s the playground was saved from potential destruction but nevertheless elements of the design (the ziggurat, the climbing frames, the treehouse) were made significantly shorter, and tunnels were blocked, to address safety concerns.  I’d like to think that if it was being renovated now maybe the changes wouldn’t be so severe, because there’s a much more sensible conversation happening about risk/benefit on the playground than there was just five years ago.

These alterations are probably why this playground was pulling a much younger audience than the one for which it was originally intended.  But I was pleasantly surprised to find that for those younger children the best imaginative play–children quietly going about creating their own world–I saw all day was here at the ‘Adventure’ Playground.

The beauty of the shaded site certainly contributes, but it’s key to notice that these imaginative moments, of a child utterly lost in play, were occurring as the child engaged not with the large iconic active pieces, but with very subtle elements of Dattner’s design:  short tunnels, a lowered block that invites a child to clamber over a wall, a stepped boundary that becomes a climber, a round platform that becomes a stage.  Dattner wisely puts these ‘play moments’ out of the main flow of traffic, often protecting them within the short walls, which are perfect for a child to feel ‘hidden’ even though they are still visible to an adult.

And they were mostly happening in the sand.  Dattner’s original design was for the base of all of his playgrounds to be pretty much filled with sand, converting the entire surface into playable space.  There’s nothing like sand for play-per-unit-area.  Though it is the original playground material,  sand is increasingly disappearing from playgrounds because of (1) concern over contamination with animal feces, needles, etc.  and (2)  ADA issues…sand is not wheelchair friendly.  But it’s such a loss for play so I’m interested to hear from my readers how you are addressing these issues… do leave a comment with your thoughts on sand.

The monumental forms of another Richard Dattner design, the Ancient Playground, reference the Met’s Egyptian temples housed just behind the glass across the street.  I really felt the lack of the concrete finish techniques seen at other Dattner sites:  strong edges, exposed aggregate finish, and visible form marks (see the Adventure Playground photos).   Without them, the renovated site looks more ‘adobe’ than ‘ancient’.  That’s admittedly a playground geek thing, but it’s a serious issue for design preservationists in other fields.  So is it an appropriate question for the playground, too?   Playground preservation uniquely has to balance original design intent with ongoing playability.

Regardless, there was great play going on here…the Ancient Playground tied for the top in in “best active play”.   Dattner is great at the scramble.  Everywhere you looked there were kids pulling themselves up, and lowering themselves down, tilted surfaces.  The key here is TILTED.  It is important for a child to experience and test the limits of their balance, and the Ancient Playground provides plenty of slanted brick abutments for scrambling:  the rough ones you climb on, and the smooth ones you jump and slide on.   An underestimated loveliness of Dattner’s design is the restful area that grown-ups gather in under a grove of golden locusts–that favorite tree of mid-century modernists–that were glowing in the fall sun.  It is one of too few occurrences of planting inside the playground fence that I saw in NYC.  There were beautiful plantings…but generally on the other side of the fence, and this is an issue the Central Park Conservancy is addressing in their ongoing commitment to making great play spaces in the park.

The last playground I want to focus on (though I’ll do at least one other posting on Central Park with some additional thoughts) is the East 110th Street Playground, on the northern boundary of the park, by M. Paul Friedberg, whose Handcrafted Playgrounds book you can also download here. 

His 1979 Timberform playground surprised me by achieving the highest score for the day on the play-o-meter.  Now it’s an admittedly quirky index, but one that has been honed over years of play observation, and I do normalize for number of kids, differences in social context, etc.  The 110th Street playground had the widest range of ages actively engaged with the play space–it was the only playground that reached into the 11-12 year old range–and the play was very active.  It was also the only site where the players talked to me about their playground and how much they loved it.

So I spent quite a bit of time trying to absorb what made this playground space so successful (other than just the tire swings, which they all adored, and told me so).  But there were things they didn’t know to tell me but that I could see:  like how much they liked the feel of the massive timbers, or how far they could scramble along the horizontal beams between the uprights, or how even a small child could climb the timber ‘mountains’ because there are more-challenging and less-challenging routes up and down and there’s always a handhold nearby (so no need for an intrusive safety railing).
The East 110th Street playground is slated for destruction, to be replaced by a new playground design.

Do I wish this playground had some plantings, and some topography and a better connection to the wider landscape?  Sure.  But should this playground be preserved?  I tend to think so, and I’m interested in your thoughts.

I’m generalizing here, but preservation is basically about significance and uniqueness.  There are things that are significant but not unique and things that are unique but not significant, and things that are both.   The massive timbers of the East 110th Street playground do mark a significant design point in play history, and near as I can tell from my research it is one of few Timberform playgrounds left. Central Park has appropriately retained a classic Robert Moses era-type playground–metal jungle gym and all–in its open-air museum of play, and I’d like to think there is room for a Timberform playground too; room for children to experience a unique type of playground that will soon disappear completely from the urban landscape.

That is not to neglect material issues…wood of course has different preservation considerations than metal or plastic.  But they’re not insurmountable.

And this may win an award for my longest post ever on Playscapes!  From time to time I feel bad when well-meaning people advise me that any truly successful blogger posts multiple times a day.  But  I like to think we’re having a conversation here, and conversations don’t happen that fast.  So I’m going to leave this post sit for a few days, and I hope you’ll add your thoughts on playground preservation, and specifically on the East 110th Street Playground; I really want to hear them.

[image of adventure playground (then) via dwell and adventure playground (now) via the Central Park Conservancy]


3 Responses to “Thoughts on Playground Preservation, Central Park, New York City”

  1. Lisa Pannier said:

    Our kids have a great time at the Central Park playground – they enjoy to use the equipment, but also to walk around the footpaths and just enjoy being outside.

    September 14, 2015 at 4:32 pm

  2. Emily Fano said:

    Please leave this post up for as long as possible!

    October 13, 2013 at 9:24 am

  3. Jared said:

    We have spent many hours with our kids at the 110th st playground. Kids are climb and balance themselves nonstop. So from a parent's perspective the playground wins in the “play” category. But I think it could definitely be better. It is run down, feels neglected, closed, tight, dark and generally kinda sad. All those things tend to bring in a loitering element that is not great. Nearby playgrounds that are not nearly as creative, but newer, cleaner, more open and airy and have better places for parents to sit attract bigger crowds because at the end of the day, it is usually a parent that chooses which playground to go to.

    October 30, 2012 at 6:09 pm

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