Posts by Author: Sandra Larson

Risk-Taking Architecture for the Playground Set

From the “Extraordinary Playscapes” exhibition in Boston (Courtesy of BSA Space/Photo by Paige McWhorter)

The Land, an “adventure playground” in Wrexham, North Wales, is freeform, junk-strewn and rife with risk. Lacking designated play structures and anything remotely primary-colored, The Land instead presents children with possibilities in the form of old tires, fishing nets, tools and fire pits, allowing them to explore, build and even destroy in whatever way strikes their fancy.

The unusual site is one of 40 pioneering play spaces highlighted in the “Extraordinary Playscapes” exhibition in Boston. Curated by Design Museum Foundation, the show opened June 8 at BSA Space, a design exhibition center and home of the Boston Society of Architects/AIA and the BSA Foundation.

Boston is a fitting site for the launch of this traveling exhibition, as the hometown of Joseph Lee, father of the playground movement whose life of play advocacy spanned the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The show, which will move on to Portland, San Francisco and Chicago, highlights some innovative Boston play spaces, including a play sculpture designed for this show and installed temporarily at City Hall Plaza.

For Design Museum Foundation Executive Director Sam Aquillano, the grittiness of The Land recaptures something of the independence, with its risks, that he experienced growing up in Erie, Pennsylvania.

“I grew up playing in the woods, playing with hatchets and lighting fires,” he says. “I know the focus on play and being free in my childhood influenced my creativity and risk-taking.”

Part of the reason to explore playscapes now, Aquillano says, is that a growing body of research links lack of play to problems such as increased mental disorders, low self-esteem, low confidence and risk aversion. At the same time, surveys of top CEOs reveal that the qualities they want to see in their future workers include creativity, risk-taking and overcoming adversity.

“So the more play — and the more challenging play — the better,” he says. “Swing sets are great, but we’re trying to show opportunities for unstructured play, where you build something.”

The featured playgrounds are displayed in large poster format with photographs and a description of each site’s history, unique elements and size. The scale ranges widely, from the compact 650-square-foot indoor “Infinity Climber” at Jersey City, New Jersey’s Liberty Science Center, to downtown Chicago’s “curvilinear, topographically dramatic” Maggie Daley Park, whose 27.7 acres would cover 20 football fields. Most are outdoors, with varying degrees of wildness from rustic nature parks to urban lots with colorful PlayCubes. The ever-evolving set of found objects at the 15-year-old St. Louis City Museum spans the inside and outside of a former shoe factory.

Emerging ideas noted in the exhibition include the use of pop-up play equipment, such as Imagination Playground’s blue foam blocks, and the infusion of whimsy into everyday city structures, as in Vancouver’s “Whoopdeedoo” bike path ramps.

Barriers to free play in recent years include an overabundance of screen time for typical U.S. children, reduced school recess time and safety concerns. The exhibition’s timeline shows how fears of head injuries and liability in the late 20th century sparked the adoption of the ubiquitous post-and-platform manufactured play structures seen across the U.S. today.

On the bright side, improved safety surface technologies are allowing 21st-century playground designers to break free of these guardrail-heavy structures. Curator Amanda Hawkins says that as she and the exhibition’s advisory committee began seeking out innovative and engaging play spaces, she uncovered a surprising wealth of examples internationally and in the U.S.

“And this is just a snapshot,” Hawkins says of the 40 sites featured. “We are seeing communities and designers really coming together, making an effort to design spaces that are more creative and better than what came out of the ’80s and ’90s.”

Hawkins notes as a promising sign that Boston’s nonprofit Rose Kennedy Greenway Conservancy recently hired a play coordinator charged with concocting engaging experiences for youngsters and grownups along the 1.5-mile string of parkways that emerged after the dismantling of an elevated highway.

“It doesn’t have to start with government,” she says. “The community can activate play, and maybe then the government will catch up.”

A number of the featured playgrounds were funded with a combination of private and government funds. Private funders and citizen advocates can be a factor in inspiring playground planning in the first place, and swaying the design toward something more innovative than a municipal government might think of on its own. In Cincinnati, a public-private partnership was a crucial factor in furthering a highly interactive playscape for Smale Riverfront Park, according to Kate Tooke, a landscape architect with Sasaki Associates, the firm that designed the playground.

Sasaki is conducting an evaluation of the Smale playground’s use and maintenance to learn more about what works for playground visitors and what cities need to consider in terms of maintenance planning, Tooke says.

Incorporating vegetation or highly interactive features like sand or like Smale’s “water-play map” will require additional maintenance attention, Tooke says, but if properly planned for, the payoff is rich.

“The water feature is tremendously popular,” she says. “In the post-occupancy evaluation we heard children saying things like, ‘I’m an engineer!’ There are so few opportunities on traditional playgrounds to actually manipulate the environment and shape something new.”

“Extraordinary Playscapes” runs at BSA Space through September 5 and will include a series of related events over the summer. The exhibition then travels to Portland, Oregon, San Francisco, and Chicago through 2017.


Land Trust Network Launches in Boston

Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative’s acclaimed land trust has created more than 225 units of permanently affordable housing in Boston, as well as gardens, playgrounds, urban farms and a greenhouse. (Photo by Cheryl Senter)

Excitement and optimism were palpable at the public launch April 27 of the Greater Boston Community Land Trust Network, forged over the past year by a dozen local neighborhood groups looking to build strength in numbers by joining forces. A packed community room buzzed with energy as residents and advocates chatted about various scenarios for community-controlled land use.

“This launch is coming at a critical moment in Boston history,” said Harry Smith, director of Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative’s widely acclaimed land trust. “As one of the fastest-gentrifying cities in the United States, we’re here to either claim the future of our neighborhoods … or risk losing them to gentrification and displacement.”

In the community land trust (CLT) model, a nonprofit acquires land with the intent of developing it for community benefit — often building affordable housing — rather than for pure profit. A buyer of an affordable home purchases the building, but not the land beneath, helping keep the price low. Resale price is restricted, ensuring affordability for subsequent buyers, while also allowing homeowners to accumulate some equity.

CLTs go beyond housing in Boston. Chinatown CLT aims to preserve cultural spaces. In Mattapan, community leaders are looking to keep and attract small businesses. The Urban Farming Institute hopes to create a community land trust for commercial farming space, where low-income residents could receive agriculture training. “I like to think we are returning to the roots of the land trust movement by exploring how to use it for commercial urban farms,” said UFI’s Barbara Knecht, who notes the first U.S. community land trust was formed to preserve land for African-American farmers in Georgia in 1969.

Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative (DNSI) was organized in 1984 by residents ready to reclaim a swath of Boston’s Roxbury neighborhood ravaged by disinvestment, arson and illegal dumping. Granted eminent domain authority, DSNI acquired hundreds of vacant land parcels and established a 30-acre CLT. Three decades in, that land trust has created more than 225 units of permanently affordable housing, as well as gardens, playgrounds, urban farms and a greenhouse.

But today’s fledgling CLTs face starkly different land acquisition challenges. In a growing Boston with a red-hot real estate market, any usable property — from a vacant lot to a decrepit rowhouse — might be scooped up quickly by deeper-pocketed private developers.

A new report by Tufts University’s Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning Department, released the same day as the CLT Network launch, calls land trusts a “proven solution” and makes the case for their implementation in Boston. The report includes recommendations for the city to increase its support by prioritizing city-owned land for CLT stewardship; establishing a CLT loan fund or line of credit; providing technical assistance; and exploring the establishment of a citywide multi-CLT “central server” hub.

“The finding is, here is a model that works — but it’s at a small scale. So how do we scale that up?” said Penn Loh, the Tufts UEP professor who oversaw the report.

Melora Hiller, co-executive director of the national Grounded Solutions Network, an affordable housing advocacy group, said there is a benefit to cities in supporting CLTs, with their capacity to create and steward affordable housing. “It ensures that the city’s investment of public dollars for affordable housing goes further,” she said. She cited a Lincoln Institute of Land Policy analysis that describes options and model practices for beneficial city-CLT partnerships.

Some cities have embraced CLTs fully. But, Hiller said, there are reasons others may be cautious. Prioritizing public land disposition for CLTs is a good way to assist, but cities may be unwilling to favor CLTs above other affordable housing programs.

“Most governments treat the CLT the same way they would treat other nonprofit developers,” Hiller said. “They’re all applying for money.”

But city support is crucial, Loh emphasized. “You’d be hard-pressed to find a successful land trust without some municipal support,” he said. “Land trusts really do require partnership with government.”

At the April 27 launch event, a Department of Neighborhood Development (DND) representative spoke of CLT support largely in generalities. “The city is committed to working with the network,” he told the crowd. “We want to collaborate with the network to make it scalable and sustainable.”

Mayor Marty Walsh’s administration supports expanding Boston’s affordable housing supply. The ambitious housing plan issued in 2014, Walsh’s first year in office, indicated the city would “explore” CLTs as a means of mitigating gentrification effects. And more recently, the city’s Housing Innovation Lab, a Bloomberg-funded partnership between the DND and the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics, identified CLT technical assistance as one of four key pilot projects to begin this year.

Loh, a former community organizer, expressed measured optimism in light of the new Greater Boston Community Land Trust Network. “I’ve seen many cases where because of community leaders coming together, things work,” he said. “While the odds may be stacked against it, the land trust model is not hypothetical. The fact that people are organizing around it bodes well.”


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