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Sunday, November 24, 2013

Nobody to Play With

Parks in suburbs and small towns, particularly the playgrounds, have often been among the most disappointing places I have visited.  On several occasions, I have had the unsatisfactory experience of taking my nephew or my son to a desolate set of play equipment.  More often than not, these playgrounds have been wonderfully designed and well funded, perfectly graced with attractive, colorful structures that would challenge the skills of any playful child.  The problem is the lack of children at play.  Not even the most amazing play equipment is the match for other running children.

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I had a very different sort of experience several years ago in the Northern Liberties in Philadelphia.  The neighborhood was in transition, with young professionals starting to move in among older industrial buildings and second-hand stores.  I have never seen so many pregnant women walking dogs.  What really caught my attention was the joy of the playground at Liberty Lands Park.  There was nothing particularly remarkable about the layout or the play equipment.  Instead, it was the mere sound of children playing that made the playground such a memorable place.

If you think back to your childhood, I doubt it is the details of the playground that stand out in your memory, but rather the other children you chased and who chased after you.  This is not to say that the design of the playground is unimportant, it is simply secondary to the actual play created by the children themselves.  While good design can attract some additional use, capturing activity is fundamentally a matter of urban planning.

Playgrounds in the suburbs often don't work because two factors undermine their usage.  First, there just are not that many children who live within a short walk.  Second, the private yards at each house compete with the playgrounds, further diluting the limited activity they can attract. Ultimately the kids are scheduled and driven around to play dates while the neighborhood playground just sits there looking pretty.

Don't conclude that we should get rid of some of those disappointing, underutilized suburban parks, though. They still provide visual amenities that are well-loved by their neighbors, who are homeowners naturally concerned about the value of their houses they maintain. Moreover, even with light usage, I would bet that every park has a few parents whose children benefit from the playground. The question is: What can be done to make these parks more joyful locations.

The answer in this case, as it is in many other instances regarding the future of suburbia, is densification. While many planners believe densifying the suburbs will be necessary for their long-term sustainability, we need to be thoughtful about how we approach it to avoid threatening established communities. Focusing on the areas around parks for new apartment construction really makes a lot of sense.

A park site is clearly the best location for adding taller and bulkier buildings. The expansive green space keeps the larger buildings from shattering the scale of the existing community. Any modest impacts of shadows can be easily absorbed by these open spaces, whereas it is more of a threat to a neighbor's small backyard. Most importantly, putting adding a significant number of young families on the edge of the park enhances the park by providing the activity it lacks, and provides the maximum convenience and safety for the kids getting to the park. Ideally, many of the apartments could offer windows where parents could look out into the park to see what is going on.

I don't mean to oversimplify. Almost any proposal to add apartments in a suburban area is likely to be contentious. Putting it next to a playground will often raise fears about single creeps hanging around. These old stereotypes need to be confronted, and some legitimate issues will surely need to be addressed. Nonetheless, the basic demographic facts that many young families will be living in apartments, and the increased recognition that we can design the buildings and neighborhoods to meet their needs, will make this an increasingly attractive way to provide affordable homes for our young families, improve the places their children play, and manage the level of disruption for the established communities where change is bound to occur. After a few successful cases, I have little doubt that the new model could become the preferred direction for suburban communities in just a few years.

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