The $13 million Margaret Mahy Family Playground is expected to open in December. Christchurch Central Development Unit

Earthquakes in 2010 and 2011 took a heavy toll on Christchurch, New Zealand. Now the city center is being rebuilt with a large new playground—one that local kids helped design.

The winning concept, from Compton-Moen’s team, was inspired by local children’s writer Margaret Mahy. Now much evolved, the original design featured a dragon-tongue slide, rainbow-colored mulch, witch-in-the-cherry-tree swings, and a giant castle of creamy yellow brick.

When two devastating earthquakes hit Christchurch, New Zealand, in 2010 and 2011, they leveled the central city and beyond, killing 185 people and triggering aftershocks that lasted for months.

Four years later, much of the central city still looks barren, with blocks and blocks of razed gravel lots. The rebuild has been estimated at $26 billion (in U.S. dollars) and the 2011 quake alone was the world’s third most expensive insured disaster.

But the rebuild is slowly gaining momentum, and the plans involve a broad slice of the population. Even 12-year-old Harriet Compton-Moen has played an important role. In 2013, along with three other students at Selwyn House School, Compton-Moen devised the concept behind what will be one of the largest outdoor play areas in the world.

Left to right, students Zelle Logan, Harriet Compton-Moen, and Enya O'Malley discuss their playground design. (Christchurch Central Development Unit)

After the earthquakes, the city council consulted the community about rebuilding and found there was a strong desire for new playgrounds and family-friendly spaces. In 2013, The Amazing Place competition—run by the government and sponsored by the Bank of New Zealand—challenged children to design “the world’s best playground.” The competition drew 300 entries from around 6,000 local children from preschool to Year 6 (5th grade).

The $13 million* Margaret Mahy Family Playground is due to be finished by Christmas. Its design was led by the planning consultants Opus, with the design firm Boffa Miskell, Christchurch City Council, Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu (the Māori tribal council), and the playground equipment supplier PlayRope. Officials hope it will draw children and families back into the central city, which was closed for more than two years following the second quake. Overall, the rebuild has been painfully slow; some have criticized the government’s approach, and symptoms of post-traumatic stress have been widespread among both adults and children in Christchurch.

Rescue crews in central Christchurch, Feb. 22, 2011 (Simon Baker / Reuters)

In planning the project, the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority (CERA) engaged playground experts from around the world and considered global research on contemporary play. The authority held workshops with local kids throughout the playground’s development. Remediation work removed any hazardous materials before construction began.

“You get to see behind everything—what actually goes on,” says Compton-Moen of the process. And the children’s involvement had a big impact on the playground’s design, according to Rob Kerr, CERA’s development director of anchor projects.

“They looked at, for example, samples of rope, the color palette, [and] the design of the play equipment, and gave us their feedback on what they loved and what would make the playground even better,” Kerr says. They were encouraged to think about their ideas in the context of site conditions like scale, shade, and noise.

The final, 2.5-acre playground is designed around local stories—those of Mahy and another children’s writer, Elsie Locke, and from the Māori tribe Ngāi Tahu. It is divided into four areas reflecting Canterbury’s varied landscape: a forest zone, coastal zone, plains zone, and wetland zone.

A rendering of the trampoline area in the coastal zone (Christchurch Central Development Unit)

The stylized forest, Kerr says, “provides a setting for high-energy play” on elements such as climbing towers and nets, and will appeal to older children, while the coastal zone, with sandy play areas and a discovery garden, is intended for younger kids.

The playground will also include a slide 13 feet wide, a fitness trail, picnic areas, and a café, as well as an interactive lighting design to make it a social space in the evenings.

As part of The Amazing Place initiative, another competition was held for older children to help rebuild Christchurch’s central business district. Local middle- and high-school students were asked to devise a major development or anchor project.

Winning projects include a seismograph sculpture which shows the amplitude of the 2011 earthquake; a retail precinct featuring a basketball court and ice rink; and a “social center” in the main city square. The Christchurch Central Development Unit made a series of videos displaying the students’ projects.

Prioritizing children’s role in the rebuild encourages young people to strengthen their bond with the city. This kind of connection between kids and the urban landscape could be fostered anywhere. But the need is particularly strong in Christchurch, where the population declined by 2 percent following the earthquakes.

In one of the videos about the competition, a student stands in one of Christchurch’s vast gravel lots. “You know, we lost a lot of buildings,” he says. “And it kind of gives us the space to build cooler ones.”

*Clarification: $13 million is the overall site budget; of that, the installation of playground equipment will cost around $2 million, according to CERA.

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