An earlier version of this piece was first published in the New York Times on February 11, 2007.
Even in a city dotted with parks, New York children don’t have that many chances to interact with nature. Around the country, to counteract this problem, a growing number of planners and educators are creating wonderful new play areas where children can roll down green slopes and climb rocks sheltered by trees. These green playgrounds offer many advantages in a culture in which children—urban, suburban and even rural—are more likely to know the names of video-game characters than the names of the creatures and plants in their own neighborhoods.
Meanwhile, plans for a new playground near New York’s South Street Seaport are both intriguing and frustrating, especially if this model is advanced as a prototype for new urban play areas nationally. The proposed design replaces slides and swings and other traditional structures with sandboxes filled with blocks, ropes and pulleys, as well as wheelbarrows, crates and cardboard tubes.
The core philosophy is good—create a play environment with a large variety of loose parts, which encourage creativity and discovery. But natural play areas could offer children even more loose parts—and more of a sense of adventure.
For instance, studies show that children on flat playgrounds play in short, interrupted segments; but in greener, more natural playgrounds, children make up adventures that they carry forward from day to day—and they’re far more likely to invent their own games.
“Natural spaces and materials stimulate children’s limitless imaginations and serve as the medium of inventiveness and creativity,” says Robin Moore, a professor of landscape architecture at North Carolina State University and one of the nation’s pre-eminent natural play area designers. Mr. Moore says that while he admires the use of wood decking and timber in the South Street plan, the lack of greenery is a missed opportunity.
So, what would be better—if not at South Street, then elsewhere in the city? First, grass and other greenery instead of the artificial ground cover. Surprisingly, green play areas can be designed to survive thousands of little feet. During the last two decades, natural play area designers have become skilled at creating living landscapes for these situations. They use specialized soil and plants, as well as new irrigation technologies; they design slopes to resist erosion; they cover walls with hanging gardens. To reflect sunlight and dispel gloom, designers even place mirrors on surrounding buildings. Some of these techniques are now incorporated in Teardrop Park in Battery Park City and are being planned for the larger Brooklyn Bridge Park.
There are plenty of new opportunities to transform decaying asphalt playgrounds or vacant lots into natural play areas. And doing this would be a tremendous benefit to society. Researchers at the University of Illinois, exploring people’s relationship to nature, have discovered that green outdoor spaces relieve the symptoms of attention deficit disorders, improve the quality of interaction between children and adults and, in urban play areas, reduce crime. What better city than New York to go beyond the typical roof garden and create energy-efficient, habitat-providing green roofs, adapted for use as natural play areas?
There will never be another Central Park, but New Yorkers could make new urban history by creating a new kind of park—thousands of small natural play areas, a galaxy of urban emeralds on the ground and on the roofs—and calling it by one name: New York City Children’s Zoopolis. Or, simply, New York City’s De-Central Park.
Every city could use a de-central park.
Would such a goal preclude the kind of design being planned for South Street Seaport, which has its own merits? Not at all. Nor would it mean that the more traditional play equipment should disappear from natural play areas, when space is available. Swings, for instance, allow children to feel they’re taking risks, but without much danger. Good maintenance and more forgiving surfaces remove most safety hazards.
Swings are simply too magical to banish from Zoopolis. A parent pushing a child on a swing experiences a special sense of connection. And for a child, that sense of flying, of floating somewhere between heaven and earth, of being part of the sky—that, too, is nature.
Richard Louv is founding chairman of the Children and Nature Network. He is the author of “The Nature Principle: Human Restoration and the End of Nature-Deficit Disorder,” and “Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder.”