Category Archives: design

Tipping the Scales Toward Child Friendly Cities

Editor’s note – Thanks to Ian Smith (no relation) for this guest post on Child Friendly Edmonton. Smith is passionate about including children in city life. As Coordinator of Edmonton’s Child Friendly Cities initiative, he is in a unique position to experience their meaningful contributions first hand. So much so that he is convinced that municipal planners, policy makers and citizens at large have much to gain from listening to young people’s perspectives and ideas. Ian would like to acknowledge and recognize that parts of this article including some phrasing, ideas and concepts are based on Mara Mintzer’s 2017 TEDx talk How Kids Can Help Design Cities and that the ideas have been adapted to reflect how they apply to Child Friendly Edmonton. 

Nearly 25 years ago, UNICEF and UN – Habitat launched the Child Friendly Cities Initiative. As of 2018, 30 million children in 38 countries were being reached by this growing global movement. Earlier this year, the Mayor of London, UK released Making London Child-Friendly: Designing Places and Streets for Children and Young People, a milestone for the movement as it welcomed a leading world city to its ranks.

Major philanthropic organizations like the Bernard Van Leer Foundation are also lending support to engaging children’s perspectives on city living through their multi-year Urban95 project and other strategies. Just last month, Urban95 hosted an online twitter forum on livable, child friendly cities.

Other helpful and reliable sources of information on making cities more child friendly are: Rethinking Childhood; Cities for Play; Child in the City; and, CityLab. And now for Edmonton….

Sixth Grade Science and the City of Tomorrow

Edmonton, Canada is one of North America’s youngest cities but to 150,000 of its children citizens, it can still feel out of scale, out of reach and out of touch. Since 2006, Child Friendly Edmonton has been cheerfully obsessed with educating Edmontonians about the opportunities of working with children to come up with city-design solutions. We believe that inviting children to be a part of the design process can lead to a happier and more inclusive city.

 

We believe that inviting children to be a part of the design process can lead to a happier and more inclusive city.

 

Common sense suggests we need to include all users and welcome children’s ideas as important sources of information and experience that contribute to the development of our cities? If we’re building a park to be largely used by kids, then shouldn’t kids have a say in the park’s design? Shouldn’t this premise hold for a mental health campaign, or policy on child care, or safety on transit or public washrooms? The list goes on. These are questions child friendly advocates grapple with every day as they prioritize decisions and assess impacts on children.

In Edmonton, we try to think about people of all ages and circumstances before we put another shovel in the ground, or sign off on another strategy. But too often, outside those laughter-filled rooms in our homes and schools, the city feels dismissive of our smallest citizens.

Quintessentially Canadian Street Play

Imagine you are an architect or a contractor constructing a new building in your city. If you do not consider the needs of children, what could some of the implications be? What should a city in 2020 or 2050 look like to be safe, playful, connected and ultimately livable for an urban childhood? Who better to ask about this than children themselves?

Many people wonder how it’s possible for children to actually grasp these big city issues and complex problems such as the affordable housing crisis, the development of a transportation master plan, the role of mass public transportation or, prioritizing density housing solutions? And even if they had ideas, wouldn’t they be childish, or unfeasible to implement? Questions such as these require consideration because excluding children’s participation in civic issues can result in bigger design problems. It’s not just about designing parks, it’s about the values we embrace in our collective city building efforts.

Child friendly advocates like Mara Mintzer and myself aren’t suggesting that all ideas from children should be implemented. It’s about the principle of including children. Some ideas from children – a fully electric transit bus fleet, no fees for recreation and leisure centres, no bullying or adventure playgrounds in every neighborhood – may not be immediately feasible, but they shouldn’t be dismissed. We need to seriously consider and use these ideas as visioning and concepts for the type of city we want to create.

Downtown Fun – Keeping Warm and Toasty

On various occasions I’m reminded of the concepts that Mara Mintzer brings up and reflect on them in our context. Kids think differently than adults, and that’s a huge value we don’t appreciate enough. Adults think about constraints: how much time a project will take, how much money it will cost and what potential risks it presents. In other words, how can we avoid risk and build for safety? This is obviously important, we need experts providing technical feasibility and advice. Kids are experts in their own lives. When kids dream up a space they very often include fun, playfulness and activities in their designs. This is not always what adults prioritize for public spaces. However, research shows that fun, play and movement are exactly what we need – adults and children together – to stay healthy.

 

Overall, children have an inclusive mindset

in their city planning.

 

Overall, children have an inclusive mindset in their city planning. Without even being aware of it, it just happens. They design for everyone, from their elderly friend with a walker, to their multicultural friend who is struggling to learn English, to the marginalized individual they see resting at the transit stop. Children design for people not for cars, politicians, advocacy groups, egos, or corporations. The last and perhaps most compelling discovery I have made is that a city which is friendly to children is a city friendly to all.

That line of thinking reveals something important that has for too long been a blind spot. If we aren’t including children in our planning, who else are we excluding from the process? We can’t possibly know the needs and wants of other people without asking. That goes for kids as well.

So, adults, let’s stop thinking of our children as future citizens, and instead start valuing them for the citizens and leaders they are right now. Go and read the Sixth Grade Science and the City of Tomorrow the result of a consultation on Edmonton’s draft City Plan that included feedback from over 1600 children. Our children are designing more sustainable cities that will make us happier and healthier. Children are designing the cities we all want to live in.

Meeting of the Minds on the Steps of City Hall

Our goal is to enable Edmonton’s children to feel like they have a role in the city and do not have to wait until they’re 18, voting age, for their opinions to be heard and considered. We want to help create the environment and circumstances where they’ll feel connected, invested and engaged in a community that feels joyful and optimistic – a place designed for them that incorporates their needs and perspectives.

We would like to thank all those who are long standing champions as well as new and future child friendly city advocates who embrace this approach. To learn more about what municipalities and other regions across the world are doing, visit UNICEF Child Friendly Cities. A thank you and recognition go out to Mara Mintzer and the team at Growing Up Boulder. You can learn more about the Growing Up Boulder (GUB) experience here.

Play is an important component of every child friendly city.

“For kids, play is not an outcome based pursuit. It is spontaneous and without any specific purpose beyond play itself. As adults we all have a responsibility to help children experience the joy of play. Let’s embrace risk and resilience and support the renaissance of play.” – Open Letter to Mayors and Councillors – PlayGroundology

Click through for additional information on Child Friendly Edmonton.

What strategies are being developed and implemented in your town or city to make it more child friendly?

Philadelphia Freedom – Shine the Light on Play

In Philadelphia, the Smith Memorial Playground is a beacon. The space reverberates with tumultuous noise as kids high kick it into discovery mode. After more than a century, this place remains a play haven. However, the Smith oasis is not representative of play opportunities in public spaces throughout the city.

Art of Active Play_process3One of the many activities taking place during Philadelphia’s Play Space

Play Space, a partnership between the Community Design Collaborative and The Delaware Valley Association for the Education of Young Children (DVAEYC), is pumping up the volume on the play dialogue. The kidcentric project is active with local and international communities exploring modalities of play that go beyond standardized spaces. This is no off the shelf, prefab play solutions operation.

Play Space‘s 18-month horizon got underway this summer with architect Alexa Bosse leading the project. She’s a program associate with Community Design Collaborative as well as a landscape architectural designer, longtime community volunteer and mother of 3 1/2 year old twins. Alexa has no shortage of reasons to get active and up the ante for play in Philadelphia.

Play Space logo with tagline

We’re helping to bring the value of play to the forefront and underline how much it’s really needed especially in a city where many people don’t have access to a lot of outdoor space.

Alexa Bosse – Manager, Play Space

Play Space is part of Infill Philadelphia which engages innovative design in the revitalization of neighbourhoods. Over the course of the program there is a lecture series, a youth build with playable structures as well as work with educators and home-based child care centres.

Accessible play makes for better communities and stronger families.

Alexa Bosse

Alexa is most enthusiastic about the design competition that will benefit three public agencies – a library, a school and the city’s parks and recreation branch. Although the USA has significant design restrictions, many associated with safety concerns, the dialogue that Play Space is leading is making inroads. With special friends like author Susan Solomon and filmmaker Erin Davis, who screened her documentary The Land, helping to spur the conversation, alternative visions of play spaces are gaining more currency.

Art of Active Play - Balancing Act - Smith PlaygroundBalancing Act, Art of Active Play – Smith Playground

In fact, decision makers from the public agencies were initially very prescriptive in their directions. They have now relaxed the prescriptive directions in the interest of encouraging creativity and attracting a wide range of design teams to the competition. Alexa hopes that the result of this opening up will be finding a balance that emphasizes creativity and innovation while challenging people’s thinking about what a play space can be in an urban landscape. The best case scenario is that the design competition attracts models that can be replicated or adapted for other sites.

My hope is that we’ll attract some international interest in the design competition. We’re so ready for it.

Alexa Bosse

Competition open until November 30

All the information required to enter is here.

Nota: one member of the team must be a licensed professional – architect, landscape architect, or engineer – in the country in which they are practicing. Although not a requirement, Play Space is encouraging multi-disciplinary teams that draw on the knowledge and experience of educators, parents, psychologists and others with a close connection to children.

For Alexa, the Play Space objectives present a winning scenario for a city that is welcoming back millennials with young families.

  1. Encourage innovative design
  2. Improve access
  3. Promote dialogue and collaboration
  4. Build Awareness
  5. Provide prototypical design solutions

While we wait in anticipation for the results of the design competition, let’s turn the clock back to some images of Philadelphia play spaces from the 1950s and 60s. Click on the image below, or its cutline for a selection of vintage play sourced at the Philly History photo archives.

Philly 10Youngsters frolic on the igloo climbers at the Pennypack Playground, Philadelphia – 1958

Underpasses Overlooked

An underutilized urban wasteland, a drive by blight for sore eyes has been transformed into parkland with a playground in downtown Toronto. This component of WATERFRONToronto’s West Don Lands project is the largest repurposing of underpasses in Canada and the first of its kind in Ontario’s capital. The total cost for the 1.05 hectares (2.7 acres) park is budgeted at $4.7 million.

Underpass Park Playground. Source: WATERFRONToronto

Underpass Park’s Phase I which includes a children’s play area is now open. The entire project is scheduled for completion in the spring of 2013. Here’s a video of construction at the site last fall that shows some of the already installed playground equipment.

Those who live in the new residential spaces being created as part of the overall redevelopment of the area will appreciate an opportunity to enjoy this small oasis. I wonder though about the noise and pollution levels caused by the steady stream of cars overhead. Toronto Star urban issues and architecture journalist, Christopher Hume, sees some greater significance in the creation of this park as it relates to Toronto’s overall development.

“As much as anything, Underpass Park offers hope that the city might manage to keep up with the future after all.”

Underpass Park Playground. Source: WATERFRONToronto

There is much of the same sentiment in an opinion piece published earlier this week in the Toronto Star.

Kudos to WATERFRONToronto for the innovative spirit in the remodeling of yucky urban blah.

Underpass Park Playground. Source: WATERFRONToronto

In Halifax we have spaces in the urban core that could benefit from this kind of deep makeover. Do you have any examples of similar projects in your city – recreating beauty and useable space from post industrial neglect?

The Sling Swing – 1919

Not all designs are created equal. This 1919 photo (click image to enlarge) from Halifax, Nova Scotia is a good illustration of the maxim. The ‘sling swing’ is an innovative design that didn’t have staying power, never became the standard. It was perhaps the precursor of the baby swing as we know it today. Note that it could be adjusted for sitting or reclining positions.

Thanks to the Nova Scotia Archives for this brief blast from the past.

Photo details – This photograph originally belonged to Jane B. Wisdom. This playground and the Central Playground on the Commons were equipped with money from the Massachusetts – Halifax Relief fund, the Rotary Club and other organizations.

Date: 1919

Reference no.: McQueen Family NSARM accession no. 1992-192

Popular Mechanics on the Playground Beat

I remember Popular Mechanics as a boy growing up in the 1960s. One of the trademarks was a small font size. They also had wondrous plans, superb graphics and fine photos. Until I stumbled across an old issue, I had never considered it as a resource for playground research. At the turn of the last century, Popular Mechanics had started chronicling the playground world in the United States. Who knew?

Nearly 500 cities now have public playgrounds and about half of them receive municipal support. In 257 cities last year over $2,500,000 was spent on 1,543 playgrounds, and 4,132 attendants were hired.

Popular Mechanics – October 1913

“Providing play under intelligent direction,” was a primary motivator in the development of playgrounds as stated in the October 1913 issue of the magazine (see below). At the time, playgrounds were a relatively new phenomenon. The article comments on a governance shift moving responsibility for playgrounds from the oversight of private citizens to municipal governments.

The same article also relates the story of a New Orleans fly swatting contest. Nearly 4.5 million flies were dispatched in a two week period by 32 boys. Had Guinness been around surely they would have had a record on their hands.

Over the ensuing decades, the publication continued to print articles on do-it-yourself playgrounds, innovative playground design, and the latest trends occasionally going beyond America’s shores in search of examples and stories.

The October, 1924 issue featured a drawing of a revolving barrel worthy of inclusion in any lumberjack competition. It looks like a lot of fun but it’s not the type of equipment that would pass muster by today’s playground safety standards.

In the early 1930s, the magazine offered a do-it-yourself article for a backyard playground with a kid-powered mini Ferris wheel, a roller coaster simulation and a treadmill. In spite of what looks to be a lot of fun on paper, none of these apparently had the staying power to become part of the conventional playground canon.

In their September 1953 issue, Popular Mechanics published a one-page item entitled Junk-Yard Playground.

This photo taken in Copenhagen is an early example of an adventure playground. The concept of a space that is forever being tinkered with, a kinetic design and build studio for kids, went on to become popular in selected communities around the world. The build it approach fit right in with Popular Mechanic’s do-it-yourself focus.

Currently, adventure playgrounds are relatively few in number and in some instances under threat but the passion of their supporters is legendary. A recent example of citizen engagement that saved one adventure playground from possible destruction is in Irvine, California.

In 1956, the publication explored playgrounds with ‘imagination’. Primary examples of this new departure in playground design and equipment were drawn from California – specifically Oakland and San Francisco. It’s a time of experimentation, a time when designs embrace aesthetics and functionality.

Rounding out this PM retrospective is the ‘taking the hurt out of play’ piece from the September 1963 issue. It’s all about safety and reducing the risk of injury.

A half century of playground commentary starting nearly 100 years ago and many of the issues remain in play today. Around the world there is still inadequate space and resources being dedicated to playgrounds. Individuals, community groups and international organizations in North America and beyond are advocating to improve this situation. Design is ever evolving and will continue to bring to light new and imaginative structures and spaces. Witness this year’s inaugural Playable10 competition out of Atlanta. And of course there is the perennial debate around safety.

There are a few more gems left from my Popular Mechanics archival searches. There are some other publications that have printed interesting playground articles over the years too. Stay tuned to read more about them in a future post.

All images and all articles – Popular Mechanics.

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