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7 September 2017

Big Fun

Intensification is biting into the traditional pavlova paradise so Auckland Council is dishing up an array of enthralling playgrounds to capture city kids’ imaginations.


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Manager of the team responsible for creating these modern adventure spaces, Dave Little explains what it takes to make them great.

Playgrounds used to be the odd swing or two, a shiny slide and perhaps a see-saw neatly contained in a barked area separating them from the grass. Over the last decade, that’s all changed, says Dave.

With their creative bespoke themes and wildly adventurous elements, central city playgrounds at parks like Myers, Western, Grey Lynn or Potters are vibrant community drawcards.

“Our industry [landscape architecture] has put more and more emphasis on playgrounds. It’s possibly something to do with the fact there are more kids around. And it’s something politicians like to spend money on because they hardly ever get bad press.”

It started with Auckland’s first ground-breaking playground at Barry Curtis Park in Manukau City 10 years ago. That strongly themed playground got valuable feedback and kicked off the modern era of playgrounds.

There’s been a shift away from the pre-fabricated plastics and steel kitset parts that were around in the 80s and 90s towards more natural materials like timber with big splashes of colour as well. Studies have been done that prove kids respond well to colour.

But one of the biggest differences is the circuit tracks built into them. Dave explains, “Kids spend a certain amount of time on the individual elements then they’ll get bored and start chasing themselves around the playground. Which is why we’ve created a variety of different things like ropes and logs and stepping stones and rocks that they can move around on.

“It’s about making sure you have a really good range of activities but also something that creatively gets their brain going so they’re not just there pushing a swing or going up and down on a see saw.”

Each playground has to respond to its site. In terms of design, Dave’s team think like marketers and try to give each playground a unique point of difference that sticks in kids’ heads and drives “repeat business”.

“Playgrounds used to be quite cooker cutter. You couldn’t differentiate between each one, whereas for Western, kids will have an image of treehouses. At Potters, there’s the splash pad and the big pick-up sticks tower. You want that sort of brand recognition where kids can create a story around it.”

Kids want to go back there because they can remember some of the games they made up. A really successful playground is when kids are making up games around the playground, not just playing on a piece of equipment.  Ideally that’s tied back into the wider landscape.

“At Western Park, you have the biggest slides in Auckland so they want to take them on.”

As a father of two young kids, Dave understands how kids love something that’s the biggest and the best in the world.

They’re so big, you can get air as you shoot down. For some, that can be a bit daunting. And that’s how it should be says, Dave. “Risk is good. But no matter how fast you go, you still have to come out of it safely. Which is why we have long run-outs to scoot along so kids don’t splatter themselves on the ground.”

Safety is still an issue and playgrounds have to comply with standards which are open to a fair degree of interpretation and always changing.

For the steep slides, the bottom rung of the ladder was removed so small toddlers can’t access them. That puts the responsibility back on the caregiver to lift them up as opposed to turning their back and the toddler deciding to climb a ladder too steep to negotiate on their own.

 You can’t take all the danger out of playgrounds, says Dave. “But you want to eliminate all danger that can’t be anticipated. Anything where a kid can’t see the danger coming has to go. You have to allow them the ability to assess danger and make decisions because kids aren’t lemmings. They don’t want to damage themselves. As long as they can see there’s a risk, that’s acceptable, they can manage that themselves.

“If you have a moving part that they put their hands on and they can swing around and crush their fingers – something they might not have anticipated, that’s the sort of risk that’s not OK.”

Playgrounds tend not to elicit much feedback, apart from when neighbours complain, as happened at Stonefields when the flying fox was too noisy. If Dave doesn’t get feedback, it usually means he’s done quite a good job, which is the case for most city playgrounds. It’s money well-spent.

In some areas, like Waterview, the playgrounds created a renewed focus for the community. Before AT decided where to put the motorway tunnel, Waterview just had the dairy and a laundry. Now it’s really vibrant – ‘the Rainbow’s End of the West,’ says Dave. In future, more parts of the city will open up for public use.

“There will be places people haven’t been able to get to that they’ll suddenly have access to, which will be really nice. When they lose their private spaces, there will be fewer back yards, so more emphasis goes on shared public spaces instead to make a healthy city. That's something we push quite hard. You have to invest in your parks because you’re losing back yards. The parks take up the slack.”

And because land is too expensive to buy, it puts a premium on all the grassed space.

“You have to make sure every square metre works as hard as it can.”

That puts pressure on Dave’s team. Still, he says, “It’s the best job in the world. Probably my favourite aspect, is taking the family to the places we’ve built and seeing them try out all the stuff.  It’s really satisfying looking around the city and seeing things you’ve designed all over the place.”

Dave’s team designed/delivered Grey Lynn, Western and Potters – For Myers they did the development plan for the overall park redevelopment, and the planting/furniture/lighting/CCTV/entry and signage work, but Isthmus Group did the playground and splash pad on Myers.

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