'The Accidental Playground': Why What We Need in Our Parks Is More Freedom

It was paved in broken concrete, overgrown with weeds, and strewn with broken glass. In other words, it was the perfect urban recreation space.

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Daniel Campo

It was paved in broken concrete, overgrown with weeds, and strewn with broken glass and rusty nails. Located at the edge of a treacherous tidal strait with a long history of industrial pollution, the Brooklyn Eastern District Terminal was dirty and risky, haunted by marginal characters, and ungoverned by any written rules of conduct.

In other words, it was the perfect urban recreation space.

In his forthcoming book, The Accidental Playground, planner and professor Daniel Campo writes about the anarchic fabulousness of BEDT, a seven-acre abandoned rail yard on the East River waterfront in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, which he studied over a 10-year period beginning in 2000.

What he found there was the urban human in its natural habitat: talking, contemplating, getting drunk, having sex, swimming, playing music. There were bagpipers and fire jugglers and fishermen. Local guys hung out and drank beer around barbecues, talking for hours. Skateboarders created a skate park called Shantytown, without any outside money or expertise, which briefly became a mecca for the sport. "No one told us what to do," one of the skaters told Campo. "We knew what we wanted and that’s just what we did."

Much of what was happening was illegal – all of it was, in effect, since the property was never officially open to the public – but there was very little crime or menace. "It was a place without explicit rules," writes Campo. "You did what you wanted, but with the understanding that others would do the same." BEDT was a place outside of the city’s rules and regulations, a place where all kinds of self-invention were possible.

The scene at BEDT was an ephemeral one, as Campo realized even while he documented it. The state and the city both had big plans for the North Brooklyn waterfront, seeing it as ripe for development of various kinds. Locals fought off a waste transfer facility in the late 1990s, but by the beginning of the millennium the area was rezoned for high-end residential complexes, as well as a formal recreational area, East River State Park. Today, the BEDT has been cleaned up, its ever-shifting patterns of human recreation now largely confined to approved channels.

Campo recognizes the drawbacks of the old BEDT, but he also thinks that planners and municipal leaders have a lot to learn from spontaneous, transgressive urban spaces like this one.

In his interviews with the thousands of people who used BEDT in its anarchic glory, he heard a common refrain: it was a place where people could be free.

"People need places within the city to experience, experiment with, and push against risk and apparent danger," he writes. City parks, he argues, should not all be cast in the Olmstedian mold of pastoral perfection to be observed and admired rather than used. Some parks should be places where we can step outside the regimentation of societal norms and expectations.

Campo, who used to work for the New York City Department of Planning, knows the easy answer for why waterfront parks often keep the water behind a fence, and why city officials are hesitant to allow free-form activities: it’s all about the threat of litigation. He questions that assumption as well. "It is beyond the scope of this book to develop policies that treat risk in public spaces sensibly," he writes, "but it is well worth asking if liability or the mere chance of a lawsuit has become a reflexive crutch for saying no to things."

The Accidental Playground is a deeply thoughtful, intensely observed, and challenging book. While it is completely grounded in one specific place, it succeeds in posing questions that are applicable to cities everywhere. What do urban humans really need from their recreational spaces? What deep desires are unmet by well-groomed parks such as the High Line? In an era of tight budgets, what can we learn from the no-cost, instant fun that people had for years at BEDT?

In the book’s concluding chapter, Campo points to the rise of DIY culture and the Occupy movement and urges “urban citizens” to take the lead in a radical rethinking of how public space is used.

"I hope that those who have even the slightest insurgent impulse will be inspired by the narratives I have documented," he writes. "Take to the streets, the sidewalks, the waterfront, the vacant lots, and residual space – even official city parks."

Campo continues, "The undesigned does not take place in the meeting room or in cyberspace; it is firmly rooted in on-the-ground action. And do not wait for permission; seize the moment and savor the moment when you have it."

All photos courtesy of Daniel Campo.

About the Author

  • Sarah Goodyear has written about cities for a variety of publications, including Grist and Streetsblog. She lives in Brooklyn.