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The City as a Playground

What’s up with the sad playgrounds our cities are filled with?

I took a walk in Amsterdam. It’s one of my favorite cities, and I always discover something new among the small urban blocks in the city center.

I came across the Pentaghon complex. Designed by the Dutch architect Theo Bosch in the 1980s, it is a housing block with a semi-public internal court. It has two entrances for pedestrians, and it is closed to cars by a barrier.

When I entered, I must admit, I had to laugh. Not because of the gloomy, shady entrance, but because of the lone spring rider situated in the middle of the court. These play elements are one of the best examples of mono-functional public space design. And since they are so cheap, they seem to be placed everywhere.

Passing the entrance, more play elements revealed themselves. A climber net – usually a success among children – was used as a bicycle parking. Another spring rider was there. Why not? It’s cheap.

A sad playground. Photo by Lior Steinberg

It was a sad playground, to say the least. No children were out there playing, even though it was a nice Saturday afternoon.

When I left the internal court, parents with their two children entered. The older boy, maybe six years old, was climbing, running and jumping on the elements. What I thought was a shady passage, turned out to be the best playground in the area.

An illustration of the child playing, as I didn’t manage to take a photo.

When I left the internal court, parents with their two children entered. The older boy, maybe six years old, was climbing, running and jumping on the elements. What I thought was a shady passage, turned out to be the best playground in the area.

The father asked the child to come inside the court. I thought to myself: if this boy played in what I saw as an ugly passage, he will surely run to the dedicated and colorful play elements. So I took a look – and a picture – of the family inside the court. It seemed as the boy was not even seeing the spring rider. At his age, he has probably come across thousands of these.

The boy ignores the spring rider. Photo by Lior Steinberg

Children need interesting public spaces. They explore, face new challenges, try and fail. If they are always brought to the same playground, they get bored. In fact, the only reason children would go to the same playground, again and again, are either the presence of more children to play with or the fact that they have such a developed imagination that can overcome the monotonous design.

Instead of keeping building more monotonous playgrounds, let’s create interesting public spaces. Great playgrounds are much needed in our cities, but when I have to choose between a sad, lone spring rider, to multi-functional elements that can be used also for play, I’d always go for the latter.

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