American Playgrounds: Revitalizing Community Space
Solomon, Susan G. (2005).
Lebanon, NH: University Press of New England; 251 pages. $29.95. ISBN 1584655178.
The cover of Susan G. Solomon’s book American Playgrounds features a subversive image: a child leaping over a small channel of water. Nowhere in the picture can you see a slide, a swing set or a squat plastic play structure purchased from a catalog and plopped down on a grass or sand surface.
This image summarizes Solomon’s theme and most important point—that playgrounds in the U.S. have deteriorated into set pieces of prefabricated play equipment that children find uninspiring and that anchor empty public space no one young or old really enjoys.
Filled with quick sketch case studies, Solomon’s book provides a useful overview of the history and current state of playground design and argues her case, proclaimed in the opening passage, “Existing American playgrounds are a disaster.”
An academic researcher and art and architectural historian, Solomon has the insight and background to carefully tie the emergence of the modern playground in Europe to the current state of the U.S. playground as a vast sea of manufactured sameness interrupted occasionally by a handful of promising designs.
The historical review Solomon provides paints the contemporary playground as a place operating in the shadow, and occasionally under the influence, of the great post-WWII European playground designers. Chief among these, at least in Solomon’s telling, is the Dutch master Aldo Van Eyck. His playgrounds extolled ideas of community, modernity, art, and aesthetics and, centrally, the freedom to let children play. Throughout Solomon’s historical survey, she returns to Van Eyck’s designs and concepts as the measure of progress, and decline, in playground execution.
The contemporary playground, perhaps best characterized by the colorful plastic structures found at any local McDonald’s, fails as an imaginative play place for Solomon because of the design’s basic lack of any community function, aesthetic or room for children to explore. Rather, these conservative edifices provide a safe cage for kids to simply scamper about like giant gerbils.
Solomon’s analysis provides a strong spine for her contention that modern playgrounds have, in almost all cases, failed. This platform provides the stage for a summary section on hopeful remedies. Picking current examples of playground designs that work, such as McEnery Children’s Park featured on the book’s cover, Solomon connects the classic Van Eyck model to what she perceives as some of the best examples of current playground building and a hopeful direction for the future.
How did playgrounds fall from their place as coveted commissions that teamed greats of modern art and architecture with community groups to produce fabulous open play places? How did they become the stark outposts of contemporary plastic we offer our children today? Here Solomon provides the persuasive argument that fear of injury, or merely of lawsuits, has dug out the heart of the playground. Further, she lays out data that suggest the problem is more one of perception than of reality. More children come to harm playing supposedly healthy sports than ever reach the emergency room from toppling off classic pieces of playground equipment. Solomon shows that these risk assessments do not take into account children’s natural ability to self-assess risk, nor the abilities of the designers, politicians, planners and parents to accurately weigh the real risk of playground experience.
Central to her notion of the direction playgrounds should take in the future, and perhaps a natural weakness in her overall argument, conflates the notion of playground with that of a park. In one sense, this is intentional and practical. For Solomon, a good playground is a park, a place where people gather and children remain free to cavort and explore. By seeing a continuum of use, with children, teens, adults and seniors all enjoying a space, Solomon offers a strong perspective on how the kiddie-ghettoization of playgrounds happens in the U.S. and how designers should approach the role of the playground in community space in the future. Knitting meaningful play spaces back into the fabric of public park space benefits both the playground and the park setting.
Still, thinking of playgrounds a place for children and adults, for local neighbors and community visitors, seems unnecessarily to confuse the idea of park and playground. In this view, the playground is limited to being a child-specific area located inside a larger community space. As a consequence, Solomon veers close to the territory staked out by commercial playground equipment manufacturers—that playgrounds are defined by children’s physical activities as confined to architectural structures and designs.
While emphasizing the designable elements of the place and equipment that sits on the ground, Solomon gives only cursory attention to the subject of play itself. She never adequately addresses the motives or the needs children have in play or really comes to terms with what children want from playgrounds.
She also exhibits the architect’s professional bias toward the designer and the designed. In a study of Jamison Square in Portland, Oregon, for example, she labels this complex and evocative fountain as a type of “unexpected playscape.” She holds up as one of the well-designed aspects of this fountain its ability to allow for serendipitous play. Ironically, Portland is also home to one of the most well-known appropriated play spaces in the world—one not mentioned in the book. The Burnside Skateboard Park was famously taken over and constructed without any form of city approval by a group of skateboarding teens looking for a place to ride. The power of play as a human motive and its unsurpassable ability to express itself outside the confines of formally trained designers is an important piece of the playground context missing from this book.
Still, as a survey and a passionate argument aimed at the professionals, politicians and community activists who have eviscerated the U.S. playground, Solomon’s work provides a welcome discourse. Her clear-headed attack on the playground as a low-risk plastic pavilion is a message for patrons and politicians who create playgrounds to think more broadly in aesthetic and cultural terms. After all, a playground where children take a daring jump across a raging stream provides a more inspiring image than kids sliding down a sticky tube for a chance to eat a burger.
University of Colorado
David Thomas is a videogame critic, researcher and teacher. He founded the International Game Journalists Association and writes regularly for the Denver Post and the Grand Rapids Press. He teaches critical videogame theory and the history of digital media at the University of Colorado where he is pursuing a Ph.D. in design and planning in the College of Architecture and Planning. He can be found online at www.buzzcut.com.