Mayor Walsh has repeatedly called for Boston to have, in the near future, the greatest parks system in the country:
By the time my first term is over we will have the greatest parks system in America. #ourboston—
Mayor Marty Walsh (@marty_walsh) March 25, 2014
In our view, Boston will not be able to claim this distinction without becoming a leader in public play space design and implementation for all of its neighborhoods – not just along the tourist-traveled Rose Kennedy Greenway and the Innovation District. To increase the quantity and quality of neighborhood play spaces in Roslindale, the city must stretch the conventional understanding of playgrounds and embrace a planning approach to Roslindale’s play space scarcity that is in line with Mayor Walsh’s vision for the whole city. The city must strive for more innovative, nimble and fun solutions.
To truly address the problem the city should, among other efforts, employ the following approaches to play:
Consider play elements, not just playgrounds
Children will play almost anywhere they can with almost whatever they can. The Parks Department should look beyond typical playground structures and think broadly about elements that activate play in all its forms. An element that is not even a structure, such as blocks produced by Imagination Playground, can be more creative and collaborative (so called “lateral” play) than typical structures. A cart of these blocks made available a few times a week in say, Adams Park, would highly activate the area and engage Roslindale’s children in a new and exciting way.
Expand the notion of suitable locations
Do not just consider large footprint playground sites, but consider small and oddly shaped locations and design the play elements to suit the site. For example, a site with a steep grade not suitable for a traditional play structure, could use the grade for a climbing feature and slide. A potential site for such a play space is at the western end of the “upper” MBTA parking lot in Roslindale. Or, consider a vertical play structure with a small footprint like those created by Tom Luckey, and place it in a pocket park – or even a parklet reclaimed from a street.
Consider play elements as art and public art as play elements
Cambridge and other municipalities have been effective in engaging architects and sculptors, such as Mitch Ryerson, to develop play structures. Even a bus stop, a covered bench, or a sidewalk can be a sculpture and a play element. The swings at the Lawn on D, a project of Massachusetts Convention Center Authority, are beautiful, innovative and fun. They have activated a dull corner of the Seaport for an adult set. This is the brand of art-play innovation that Boston Parks should be developing in Roslindale. A good thing about unique sculpture-play structures is that they expand the potential funding sources for projects to arts budgets and grantmakers.
Consider play elements as tools toward civic engagement
Empower the New Urban Mechanics to conduct a contest for inexpensive play elements in the mold of its Public Space Invitational. This could result in inexpensive approaches to Roslindale’s play element scarcity and will engage the community – and beyond – around problem solving what is essentially a civic problem about making public space engaging for younger populations.
Work across city departments
To best achieve the ideas expressed in this vision, the Parks Department should prod other city departments to help solve this issue and engage as much of the city resources it can: Boston Transportation Department for locating new parklets, Public Works for identifying and developing locations where side walks can be bumped out to accommodate new pocket parks, the Boston Arts Commission (and the Department of Arts & Culture) for public “play” sculptures, Boston Public Schools for joint development of additional playground space and the New Urban Mechanics for new play civic engagement projects.
Partner with non-government institutions
Certain Roslindale institutions would benefit from jointly developing and siting play elements on their land. The Arnold Arboretum, for example, which has a robust education program, has signs up that state children should not climb its trees because the trees can be damaged. Climbing, an irresistible urge for most children, could be channeled toward an artificial “climbing tree” that doubled as an education tool for children about tree botany. Hebrew Senior Life has touted its success with engendering a multigenerational campus in Dedham, which includes both elderly housing and The Rashi elementary school. Children “bring liveliness and joy into [its] community” of elders, its website declares. A playground within the view of patients of its Roslindale facility could also very easily achieve the same goal. Rogerson Communities could similarly be enticed to embraced this model for its several Roslindale locations.
Commit to making Adams Park a focal point for play activity in Roslindale Village
Installing a play element in one of the park’s two under-utilized corners would activate the park with children and serve as a destination for families. This would help capture greater economic activity for Roslindale businesses, a goal expressed by Mayor Walsh in the Plan’s introduction.
Develop parks with kinetic and unpredictable elements that help children to learn to make calculated risks
Much has been written in recent years about how playgrounds have become too safe for our children’s own good. It is suggested that children do not develop the skills to assess their own limits or develop a healthy regard for independent exploration. Play spaces that are different from the linear play structures ubiquitous across all of America will challenge children in new and different ways.
As evidenced by the numerous links above, Boston has fallen far behind pioneering cities such as our neighbors across the Charles River in the realm of creative play. The time is now rich with possibilities for Boston. And Roslindale in particular is a community eager for bold and creative action.