This is the second of a three-part series of guest posts is written by Alex Bonham, a member of Women in Urbanism, who has worked as a Porse carer and is now researching “the playful city” for her doctorate. The previous post is here.

In my previous post I looked into the state of play for kids today in New Zealand, with a particular focus on Auckland. In this post I will look into how we could facilitate more playful public spaces, and in the third I will look at what older children and teenagers need as they expand their horizons.

When kids are asked what they want in their neighbourhood, the results are consistent across age, country and culture:

  • Safety and freedom of movement
  • Peer gathering places
  • Varied activity settings
  • Safe green spaces

What they do not like:

  • Traffic
  • Dust and litter
  • “Weird” people – in Auckland examples included gang members and people screaming in the streets. (I Am Auckland strategy 2012 research, Carroll et al, 2015)

As children get beyond toddlerhood they will be looking for a variety of activity settings where they can meet and play with their friends, and in cities, public spaces serve a very important role in providing them. In Freiberg, Copenhagen and Amsterdam, all very child-friendly cities, there is a huge diversity of amenities close by. They are close by because there are sufficient people in the local area to support them.

This mid-rise housing – in walking distance to the Copenhagen city centre – has play mounds out front of them. The safe cycle lane – fun, in itself – leads to a playground on the right…

… and a school on the left. Cafes and shops are around the corner.

All of the play equipment is different, allowing more opportunities for children to challenge themselves in fun new ways. The school playground is in front of the school and can be enjoyed by all the children in the area in and out of school hours, with priority given to school children at play time. This is quite common. In central Copenhagen (below) a play area in a square is shared between a primary school, high school, and the locals from infancy to old age.

Beyond the square is a beautiful park with a small lake. Behind us, across a quiet road with separated bicycle lanes, is a popular covered food market with cafes. Various visitors may come to buy food, meet a friend for a coffee, sit down, find some shade under the trees, hang out on the steps, play basketball, or scooter around it, play in the water feature, access local wifi, or take a shortcut to the park. The flat paving stones also lend themselves to pop-up events. Because the space welcomes people of all ages, there are always people looking over the space. These ‘eyes on the street,’ as Jane Jacobs put it (1961), make it safer and more appealing for everyone.

The Project for Public Spaces based in New York has a concept called the Power of Ten which means that, to function excellently, cities, destinations and places should have at least ten things going for them.

Let us compare the examples above with Myers Park in Auckland:

Myers Park was set up as a place for children to play, and Auckland Council continues to consider this a place primarily for families with – if one can take a cue from the playground design – young children. This is understandable; research suggests that investing in children’s play and wellbeing in the first three years of life will have the greatest impact over their lifetime. The only problem is that this extreme targeting approach has the adverse effect of discouraging many potential park users – including children’s carers and play gatekeepers – leaving it empty, quiet, unappealing, and unsafe. There are about 1,500 children 8 or under in the CBD. If they come with one carer each, that makes 3,000 targeted users in a population of 57,000 (year to June 2017), not including the north of 100,000 people who work in the CBD. This wider absence of patronage creates a vacuum in the park which is filled by people who have nowhere else to go.

Jane Jacobs noted in 1961 that ‘distinctly separate street neighbourhoods are nothing to aim for; they are generally characteristic of failure’. This also applies to parks. Let us consider the power of ten idea to Myers Park. There is a:

  • Playground appropriate for toddlers to junior primary school children.
  • Water feature (as above, in summer only)
  • Shade (but far from the playground)
  • Loos (often revolting)
  • Lawn for lying around or sitting on.
  • Seating (not much close to the playground)
  • A drinking fountain

Occasionally there are festivals or events and the place comes alive, and bursting with children, but afterwards it is quiet again. If the park broadened their concept of family park to welcome the whole human whanau, then kids would benefit: because they would come more often, and be more likely to find other kids to play with when they did. We could explore this by trialling:

  • Picnic tables across the park including near the playground
  • Shade sail over part of the playground in summer
  • A cafe overlooking the park
  • A pop up toy locker, with games to rent like board games or badminton
  • A barbecue area
  • Planting an orchard (then having a blossom viewing festival)
  • Putting in herb planters
  • Taking pride in the flower beds
  • Signage to other amenities
  • A notice board with information on local events/ services
  • Art installations, which could include: patterns in the paving, statuary, changing exhibitions
  • A concert programme after work in summer.
  • Consider play options for older children, e.g. plant trees that are suitable for climbing, a long slide, a flying fox (that is strong enough for grown-ups, because why can’t adults have a go?)

Adjacent features provide options and draw different demographics. People of all ages will benefit from better access to natural space with a variety of plantings that change through the year. On the one hand, density is required to facilitate a wider variety of fun, and on the other, where housing is more dense a wider variety of fun is needed. Options will lead to more people working and visiting the park providing ‘eyes’. Park maintenance and cafe staff may also become public figures who children – and others – can go to for assistance if required.

A couple of images of Domino Park in New York – something for everyone at all times of day:

As things stand, very few Auckland children under ten years old can access public spaces without supervision, so their parents, grandparents or older siblings need to take them. If those carers do not enjoy hanging around children’s play spaces they will not visit them, or at least not as often as their children would like. On the other hand, if the streets are easier to negotiate and public spaces more appealing for everyone, then chances are higher that children will spend more time out and about in their neighbourhoods: forging friendships, building their street smarts and local knowledge, and becoming prepared for the time when they can go out by themselves.

Further Reading:

Jacobs, J. (1961). The Death and Life of Great American Cities.

Carroll, P., Witten, K., Kearns, R., & Donovan, P. (2015). Kids in the City: Children’s Use and Experiences of Urban Neighbourhoods in Auckland, New Zealand. Journal of Urban Design, 20(4), 417-436.

Gehl, J. (1981). Life Between Buildings.

The Project for Public Spaces.

I Am Auckland Status Report Executive Summary. (2017).

Tranter, P. (2006). Overcoming Social Traps: A key to creating child friendly cities. In B. Gleeson (Ed.), Creating Child Friendly Cities (pp. 121-135). Abingdon, UK: Routledge.

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  1. Adults need playgrounds too! I want my giant slide that I won’t get stuck in.

    It’s a bit depressing to see how well they do things overseas and how poorly we do things here when in the age of the interwebs we have no excuse to be so ignorant of functional design.

  2. Great post, Alex. I wonder if Council can make additions to parks easily, once the need becomes apparent. I also wonder how holistic the design process leading to the current Myers Park design was.

  3. None of the suggestions for Myers Park above address the elephant in the room – that Myers park is in a forgotten hollow and it acts as a sump for the detritus of the city. No one in their right mind goes there after dusk (let alone at night). The park is often full of the homeless and the sundry downright dangerous. You would have to be insane to allow or take your kids there without government forst addressing the significant public order issues that often exist there.

    1. I wonder what the Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design team would suggest? Is there still a CPTED team at Council?

    2. I’m hardly an expert but I’ve long thought that there were significant issues with the park given its reputation. This is particularly apparent with the lighting design which, where present, creates shadows that designer would probably describe as ‘moody’ or ‘atmospheric’ but a child/parent would call ‘dangerous’ or ‘creepy’. Notably there is little to no lighting covering the playground.

      The entrances are another issue entirely. To the south you’re funneled past Whammy and onto Karangahape Road which is fine during the day but will put some people off later on, the East and West entrances are either invisible or uninviting and the North is under a bridge full of anti-homeless measures and through a car park.

  4. Myers park is a strange one as they had a blank truly baffles me that we have have a cafe or coffee stall every 20 meters in the CBD, even shops like Spark have them, but not one where kids play. Its not like we can’t do it in NZ, as you go to the playground at Chaffers in Wellington, or even the playground on the Lake in Hamilton and they are teeming and have great cafes for parents to sit and kids to buy drinks and lollies etc! I can’t think of a central park in Auckland that has any ‘adult’ things near kids playgrounds (Western Park, Myers Park, Albert Park – which doesn’t actually have a playground)

    Does Auckland council not allow them? They are missing out on revenue as they could run themselves quite easily..

    1. I completely agree. The best one I can think of is in the Domain. Western Springs Park has the zoo kiosk’s back window, so Council aren’t opposed in principle, I imagine. It’s probably that they can’t be bothered with objections.

      Western Springs Park is crying out for one that opens into the evening. Instead Council is talking about removing the lights in the park, so the people who do use it (especially for a pleasant cycle through from the central isthmus or the NW to Pt Chev) will feel like they’re unwelcome at that time. I certainly will.

      Far better to bring some life to the park than to shun life from it.

      1. Yes, cafes are a good idea, pretty much always adult eyes around then. Myers certainly has a connotation in my mind as connected to crime from hearing news stories over the years. Haven’t visited it for years but seem to recall that the large palms even obscure viewing down into it from Queen St.

    2. Possibly a decision was made to not have adult facilities such as coffee outlets near playgrounds so that perverts wouldn’t be able to sit there drinking refreshments while watching the children. The current situation is that perverts who loiter are pretty obvious.

      1. Scotland tackled this one by turning it on its head. They had banned adults from playgrounds unless accompanied by a child. And when awful crimes were still occurring, they had to look at the problem deeply. They realised the needs of society don’t get met through exclusion. By welcoming everyone in, society is healthier. The man who’s just been fired or had his wife leave him, the woman who’s just found out she’s got cancer, the couple who lost their premature baby. Everyone has need of being able to sit and be part of life, even while they’re crying inside, and see the beauty that is children playing, or birds collecting material for their nests.

        Scotland’s crime went down as a result.

  5. The article neglected the use of the playground by the large kindergarten about 30 metres away. Also I am not sure that parents and caregivers are so selfish. Mine were prepared to take me all over the city for great playground opportunities. Something to watch is the current sell off of small parcels of land and reserves, as the city intensifies these would form the play areas illustrated in the overseas examples. Ultimately this is the real agenda behind the super city. The facilitation of the public into the private.

    1. Regarding parents and caregivers being prepared to take you all over the city to play- I think this is also part of councils strategy- develop super parks or destination parks as they call them- including the new one in Massey heaps of carparking even though the park is surrounded by hundreds of houses- the aim is to attract numbers to a park even if people drive all over Auckland to reach it. I often think that it is the adults who think kids need a supercharged play ground when kids only want to be able to get together.
      Regarding Alex’s idea of a toy box with rental games, a friend of mine did similar in Wigan – he at his own expense provided a bin full of games and sports gear and left it in the park. He was told kids would just steal the stuff – his response ” so, they will still be kicking a ball around or playing frisbee”

      1. Yes, we put out lots of toys at the Pt Chev square last summer. Gian jenga, coits, skipping ropes, chalk, swingball, etc. And we had some losses. I feel good that somewhere, some adults are using the adult-sized skipping ropes that were taken. But in general, the gear was well-respected. We had comments like – ‘we were on our way to Coyle Park but actually the kids are having so much fun here that we’ve decided to stay’.

  6. Two other open spaces in Auckland add great value to open space for kids:
    The green space and water fountains in front of the Westpac HQ
    The ad-hoc nautical themed park at the Western Reclamation.
    Both are good examples of small, safe and engaging spaces. The adjacent wind sculpture adds to the openness and provides a treat for hot feet in the summer

  7. I’m puzzled why the author picked on Myers Park. It is a fantastic playground, I go there a lot. Yes, there are issues due to its location, but on the other hand it is also very pleasant having a very green area in the middle of the city. It is very different to the urban playgrounds the author uses as examples – it was never going to be anything like that.

    Auckland does have some very successful urban playgrounds, look at Silo park for example, which ticks all of those boxes. Or the other new playground in Wynyard Quarter. The new playground in Takapuna beach also springs to mind.

    Personally, I have no problem that some playgrounds are targeted at one age group of children over another. It is a far better strategy cater to one group well than lots of groups badly. Research also shows that different age groups of kids do want to have their own space.

    1. The problem with being too targeted is that groups and families don’t necessarily arrange themselves neatly around particular demographics. You can’t be all things to all people but if you have a family of two adults an eight year old and a twelve year old then a space solely aimed at any one of those groups will fail for the other two and be less well used.

    2. Different age groups should have their own space, but the level of separation is wrong. They should have their own space on one playground. Not have separate playgrounds. Takapuna is great for older kids but nothing for toddlers.

  8. I can agree heartily with at least two idea for Myers Park.
    Firstly the concert series, it’s a natural bowl at the bottom so perfect for a stage and audience.

    Secondly, an epic flying fox down the gully. But it could it be suitable for all ages, including a 100kg middle aged man? Asking for a friend 🙂

  9. The seating in Myer park is a joke. The seats are in the wrong place and feels so uncomfortable for the parent to sit down watch their kids play.

    Also I think it is a benefit to have a cafe that also sells ice creams and drinks.

    Auckland council seems to hate food trucks to operate in parks and public place.

  10. I have often had the impression that over here kids were introduced only a couple of years ago over here, and society is still figuring out how to deal with them…

    Myers Park is always oddly quiet. Not that it is deserted during the day, but it is much less busy than for instance Onepoto Domain just across the bridge. Nothing to do after daylight in either location.

    The segregation of playgrounds in different age groups is… interesting. You can go to Takapuna with older kids. You can go to Myers park with younger kids. But imagine you have two kids aged 3 and 8. Now what.

    McDonald’s understands this well. Kids get to play in the little playground, and are introduced to fast food.

    1. A lot more families and people with young children live in the suburb compared to the CBD. Myers Park also seems to be a place for the homeless to congregate who are often behaving in an unsavoury way that I wouldn’t want to expose my children too

  11. I think Victoria Park playground does a good job of catering to a range of ages – it’s a bit dated compared to some others (including Myers Park), but there is something for everyone including adults who I often see using the play equipment to exercise, sometimes while their kids are playing.

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