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Designing the Future of Play

Over the next several months, 50 innovative recreation spaces will spring up in cities across the U.S.

An early concept design for the Play Parklet in West Philadelphia. (Roofmeadow and Studio Ludo)

On their way to Pecan Park Elementary School, the kids of west Jackson, Mississippi, avoided the sidewalks.

“They were overgrown and cracked; it was scary to walk on them,” says Nia Umoja, the lead organizer of the Cooperative Community of New West Jackson, a local, resident-driven collective using creative placemaking to revitalize the area. Umoja, who helped to establish the CCNWJ three years ago, remembers seeing elementary school kids filing through the neighborhood down the middle of the streets, or trying to catch a ride in a car. No buses service the local school.

Last year, the CCNWJ brought west Jackson residents together to clean up the sidewalks. Neighbors and organizers planted trees and built a little bridge over a part in the sidewalk where the concrete cracked over a root. Slowly, the kids started to walk on the paths again.

This fall, they’ll have even more reason to do so. CCNWJ was one of 50 organizations across the United States to receive a grant to implement an innovative play space in their city through the KaBOOM! Play Everywhere Challenge. KaBOOM!, a nonprofit dedicated to supporting play in underserved communities, opened the competition to cities, local organizations, and individuals at the beginning of the summer; the winners will develop and install their designs throughout the fall and spring.

This vacant lot, located behind low-income apartments, will become the “Cooperation PlayStation” equipped with a low ropes challenge course. The sidewalk will be painted with games, riddles, and seek-and-find fun. (Cooperative Community of New West Jackson)

These play spaces are not of the typical swing-set and slide variety. CCNWJ’s design for west Jackson will transform five blocks of sidewalks into a walk-and-play maze network branching out into vacant lots, which the Cooperative has already bought up from the city to repurpose as gardens and community spaces. Prompts for scavenger hunts and chalk play will guide kids along the connected routes. Sidewalks, Umoja says, should act as the arteries that connect a neighborhood; in west Jackson, while they sat in disrepair, the sidewalks had symbolized the area’s plight.

The Cooperative had already been turning over an idea to build out an abandoned house as a youth center when KaBOOM! announced the Play Everywhere Challenge. CCNWJ secured permission from the city to redevelop the sidewalks and the lots, but until the winners were announced, nobody really believed the Cooperative would secure the grant.

“We’re in Jackson, Mississippi,” Umoja says, “and we were asking for a lot of money to do this big, creative thing.”

A map of the planned sidewalk innovations in west Jackson, submitted to the KaBOOM! Play Everywhere Challenge. (Cooperative Community of New West Jackson)

Why play matters

West Jackson is the kind of place that KaBOOM! intended to reach through the Play Everywhere Challenge. In neighborhoods affected by generational poverty and high unemployment, public play spaces are limited, sometimes nonexistent. In a survey of 20,000 adolescents and nearly 43,000 census-block groups, researchers found that kids in low-income neighborhoods across the U.S. were only half as likely as those in more affluent districts to report living close to a recreational facility.

For the over 500 kids in the area around Pecan Park Elementary, “it’s a bad situation,” Umoja says. There are no basketball courts, there are no parks; the nearby Boys and Girls club is too costly for most residents to contemplate. Around 89 percent of the population lives below the poverty line. The kids, Umoja says, play in the street or in what they call trap houses—the abandoned or blighted houses that make up around 41 percent of the area’s properties. “It’s dangerous—the kids get hurt, they skip school, they do drugs,” Umoja says.

Play seems like a small thing. Amid pressing issues like hunger and housing, access to recreation often tumbles down the list of priorities, says James Siegal, the president of KaBOOM! But play is linked to positive social and health outcomes for children. Data from the National Survey of Children’s health shows that kids without neighborhood access to parks face a 26 percent higher probability of becoming obese than those who live near a space to play.

But unlike the need to eat, “there’s no natural trigger moment throughout the day where adults are forced to say ‘Wait, how are my kids going to play right now?’” Siegal says.

The Play Everywhere Challenge, Siegal says, aimed to get cities and organizations thinking about how to create an influx of play opportunities in everyday spaces. “We see kids spending the bulk of their time on sidewalks, or at bus stops, but it’s usually time filled with frustration,” he says. In selecting the play spaces to be implemented this year, Siegal says KaBOOM! sought out concepts that would convert these sites into joyful spaces, and alter the cityscape through low-cost, high-impact design.

Small scale, big impact

All of the winning Play Everywhere Challenge designs, Siegal says, build off of existing municipal resources. Over half of the projects, like west Jackson’s, innovate around sidewalks. Colorful paint and chalk designs, Siegal says, are both cost effective and highly replicable. “You can see how these ideas would spread like wildfire,” he adds.

Bronx Steps 2 Health, a project proposed by the Fund for Public Health in New York (FPHNYC), will re-imagine the borough’s iconic “step streets” as a colorful play maze through the neighborhood’s hilly terrain. The steep pedestrian pathways are necessary for accessing transit stops and local amenities, but they’re often gray; for kids, climbing these steps can be arduous. FPHNYC organizers hope that coating the steps with colorful murals designed by local artists will encourage kids to play their way up the stairs, and that site-specific programming, like large-scale games of Jenga, will bring them together.

Steps like these in the Bronx will be coated with fresh designs by local artists and nonprofits, and woven into a colorful play network through the borough. (New York City Department of Transportation/Flickr)

Other projects build around bus stops and transportation hubs. More than 800 people per hour filter through the waiting area in the Transit Center in Lexington, Kentucky, despite the almost completely amenity-free space being, as described by a 2015 Gehl Studio report, “a harsh environment for people.” The Lexington Downtown Development Authority’s plan for the space will plaster the walls with interactive games and activities, and build out mazes and areas in which kids can run around and expel excess energy before continuing along their routes with their caregivers. Similarly, the proposed Metro McAllen Swing-and-Ride in McAllen, Texas, will expand an existing bus stop outside the public library to include a colorful swing set surrounded by painted hopscotch courses and mazes.

A playable future

A handful of the Play Everywhere Challenge projects will merge sustainable innovation with the development of much-needed play spaces. Along the Woodland Avenue corridor in West Philadelphia’s University City District, a team made up of Meghan Talarowski, the founder of the play nonprofit Studio Ludo, and Kate Farquhar, a landscape designer for the green design firm Roofmeadow, will install a sustainable Play Parklet across two empty parking spaces.

While the parklet’s final design will reflect community input—Farquhar and Talarowski are soliciting suggestions from local businesses and residents—the project will also play a role in the greater landscape of the city. A planted, permeable surface will form the base of the Play Parklet, aiding in stormwater remediation by intercepting rainfall and minimizing its flow into the overtaxed sewer system. “We’re trying to show that stormwater remediation can and should be part of nature play, and supporting an active street life,” Farquhar says.

As the 50 winning projects are implemented over the next several months, organizers will track their effects on the surrounding neighborhoods, submitting before-and-after snapshots to KaBOOM! Seigal says they’re looking to measure two things: whether kids are playing more, and if the play spaces are helping to shift thinking about what role play should hold in everyday life.

Siegel says there’s no need to repeat research into the benefits of play—it’s already been demonstrated. Instead of studying improved health and or cognitive development, he says, communities just need to start building. “We’re taking a page out of the tactical urbanist playbook and making that change happen as quickly as possible,” he adds.

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