it was one of his playgrounds, one of the safe, drab, battleship-gray ones whose WPA-era design had changed little since Moses assumed power as New York City’s parks commissioner in 1934 (during his twenty-six-year reign, 650 playgrounds were built). The banal swing-set. The bone-jarring seesaw. The galvanized slide. The joyless sprinkler. Each static feature was set far apart from the others, as if to avoid cross-contamination of respective functions, all of it embedded in a vast expanse of summer-blistered asphalt and concrete. I was five years old and with a sizable gash in my forehead, blood streaming down my face (eight stitches, lots of iodine, Roosevelt Hospital emergency room); it was my first and last major mishap in a New York playground, one that instantly implanted a lifelong phobia of pebble-dashed concrete. Along with asphalt (a “resilient” surface, Moses once proudly explained, that prevents children from “digging and eliminates dust”), it was the most unlikely play surface ever concocted by bureaucratic city planners charged with the safety of Gotham’s young. (An artificial agglomerate, it was thought to give traction to little feet running through sprinkler basins, but had the added benefit of acting like a human cheese-grater for unexpectedly airborne kids.)
The obvious irony in all this was that this standard-issue trauma did not occur in what the kids in my Upper West Side neighborhood fondly nicknamed “the dangerous playground” just up the hill—the one that called out with its siren song of massive timbered ziggurats and stepped pyramids with wide undulating slides, the vertiginous fire-pole plunging though tiered treehouses, the Indiana Jones-style rope bridge, the zip line, the Brutalist-Aztec watercourses, and tunnel networks. There, I received not so much as a scratch. And there wasn’t just one dangerous playground; these so-called adventure playgrounds were sprouting up everywhere, siphoning off, Pied-Piper-like, any kid with a scrap of derring-do suddenly bored to death with the old playgrounds, places that now had all the grim appeal of a municipal parking lot. (...)
Almost overnight, Dattner and Friedberg became the Young Turks of radical urban playground design, a professional discipline that hadn’t even existed until their respective projects somewhat inadvertently invented it. The act of designing for children suddenly gained an urbane, avant-garde hipness. The two men preferred the term playscape, an important distinction auguring the end of play as a series of dull interactions with one isolated object after another and offering a new conception of creative play as a fluid, freeform, open-ended map of imaginative experiences and sets of decisions, outcomes, and strategies—a differentiation that reflected a revolutionized understanding of the vital importance of play in mental and physical development. Inspired by the work of pioneering child psychologists Jean Piaget and Erik Erikson, among others, and their theories regarding the connection between cognitive development, adaptive intelligence, and play, Dattner and Friedberg both designed environments to unleash children’s natural instincts to choreograph their own experiences through a non-prescribed network of features enabling individual exploration, social interaction, and a dynamic sense of growing mastery over a variety of challenges. Play, as Friedberg noted in his 1970 book Play and Interplay, was not merely an “expenditure of excess energy,” as previous generations had been accustomed to treating it. (...)
Bold, geometric, and unapologetically monumental, the new playscapes were everything the dull and instantly outmoded playgrounds were not. They were the rebellious New Left’s answer to the authoritarian WPA steamroller approach to public recreation. Like the civic awakening that took place a decade before, the new landscapes were about self-empowerment rather than over-determining, one-size-fits-all behaviors. While each of the new play environments was unique, they were constructed using a budget-conscious inventory of inexpensive and durable materials: cobblestones, bricks, telephone pole timbers, nautical rope, wooden planking, galvanized metal pipes, beach sand, formed concrete. (...)
By the mid-1960s, activist neighborhood groups and politicized residents were flexing newfound muscle, working in parallel to the city and circumventing red-tape to get what they wanted by attracting philanthropists and foundations, raising private funds, rallying supporters, and hiring designers. In preparation for his 67th Street adventure playground, Dattner drew from his own anthropological research on how contemporary children played in New York, both inside and outside defined playgrounds. After consulting with various experts on childhood development, he led multiple workshops and meetings with neighborhood parents to build consensus, support, and a sense of collaborative involvement with the community. While the bulk of the $85,000 budget was underwritten by the Lauder Foundation, the rest was raised over the course of 1965–1966 though block parties, school bake-sales, and, as Dattner fondly recalls, a spirited picnic in the park accompanied by a folk-rock band of twelve- and thirteen-year-olds. By the time the formed concrete was dry, the community felt like it had always been there, that it belonged to them.(...)
But now it is clear that not everyone loved it, or at least cared enough to stop its destruction. The heyday of utopian playscapes didn’t, in the end, last very long—a little more than a decade. And then it was over. And most traces of the modern landscapes that formed an archipelago of play opportunities from Bed-Stuy to the Bronx were obliterated. Tunnels were bricked up. Volcano hatches welded shut. Water features drained. Play leaders fired. Gates shut.
The adventure playgrounds were undone in part by the social ills they were idealistically created to address. The city’s fiscal implosion in the 1970s led to a withdrawal of funding for adequate maintenance and supervision, and to the somewhat faulty perception among a bewildered public increasingly fearful of a chaotic atmosphere of crime, vandalism, and drug abuse that the playscapes themselves were to blame for their misuse. Innovations once championed were now seen as part of the problem. Every syringe or condom rumored to have been found in a sandbox, every urban legend of molesters and junkies lurking in the tunnels, led to the conviction that the designs themselves had failed and were actively threatening the city’s children. If public space is seen as permissive rather than liberating, then each tumble, bruise, and scrape is symptomatic of an encroaching anarchy. Not coincidentally, by the 1990s the culture of parenting had changed, reflecting a broad shift in expectations about safety and danger. The elimination of risk and chance, not only from play but from nearly every aspect of a child’s lived experience, seemed an attainable societal goal. The subsequent fear of litigation and increasingly stringent federal safety codes tipped the balance and the playgrounds suffered a slow, largely unsung death by closure, “upgrading,” and invasive renovation.
[Via Jesse Walker / Reason Hit and Run]