I am currently in the middle of a four-year Urban Planning degree at the University of Auckland, and hope to use my qualification to focus on designing public space to encourage community cohesion (which will be a continuation of my pre-twin life of working in corporate social responsibility and community engagement).
Here’s why I believe that fenced playgrounds can be of benefit to communities:
Fenced playgrounds provide a focal point in the local community.
The fenced playgrounds that I know are always busy – far busier than the nearby unfenced playgrounds. People travel from out of the suburb to visit it, precisely because they know that they and their children can have a good time there. In other words, fenced playgrounds act as nodes (to use a bit of urban planning lingo), serving as a magnet and drawing people in. This can then have additional benefits, because services and amenities that are relevant to the parents of playground-using children can cluster themselves nearby, making use of the attractor qualities of the playground. Our local Plunket toy library is located across the road from the fenced playground, and it’s very common to see parents collect toys from the library and then spend time in the playground. And who knows how many parents didn’t know that the Plunket toy library was there before they saw it from the playground one day? Playing aside, what’s to stop children’s mobile dental clinics, or other important services, from locating themselves next to a fenced playground on a temporary basis?
Fenced playgrounds encourage and enable casual encounters between parents.
I’ve written in my ‘parental perspective’ post about the benefits of being able to catch up with friends while our children enjoy the safe play space that a fenced playground offers, but I think there are greater social benefits than that when using these playgrounds. I’ve had countless social interactions with parents that I don’t know, while my children played in our fenced playground. Some of the parents I’ve spoken to are locals, whose faces I’ve recognised, and other have been total strangers that I’ve never seen again – but what we all have in common is our children, enjoying themselves. If I see a parent whose young child is having a tantrum because of [insert whatever random reason said child has decided to lose the plot temporarily], you’d better believe that I’m going to give them a sympathetic smile, at the very least, or tell them about how my kids spent ten minutes going mental before we left the house because they weren’t physically able to carry all of their toys to the car, or whatever the most recent threenager complaint was. A couple of months ago I spent 20 minutes talking to a twin mum who I’d never met before, because she was weighing up the pros and cons of different forms of child care, and I happened to mention that au pairs have been a good option for us. And I can take the time to have that kind of interaction precisely because my own children are playing and I’m not having to ignore everything else in the world while I watch them obsessively to ensure that they don’t run into traffic, or get attacked by a passing dog. With local parents that I see more often we have good chats about all sorts of things: we trade notes about the nearby schools, discuss other issues in our suburb, or generally just chat about what our children have been doing recently. We may not necessarily progress to the ‘come round for afternoon tea’ stage, but that’s OK: life is rich if it has a range of social relationships of varying intensities, and these friendly neighbourly relationships definitely have their place.
People go where people go.
Jan Gehl, the godfather of public space, has been saying it for years, and as Gehl disciple I totally agree. A fenced playground condenses play space, to good effect: people can see that children and their parents are having fun there, and that encourages other families to use the space as well. While I totally recognise the value of more open play spaces for older (school-aged) children, and the benefits of allowing children to roam during their play time, that kind of play does not bring people together in the same way.
Fenced playgrounds represent high quality public space for their relevant demographic.
As cities become more densely populated (which is certainly the trend in Auckland, and a trend I totally support), the quality of our public space becomes more and more important. I believe that people will be far more likely to consider raising their young children in apartments, or smaller houses without private gardens, if they can be confident that there are safe fenced playgrounds nearby.
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