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Playgrounds Gone Wild

The era of the skill-challenging, danger-embracing, starchitect-designed play zone has dawned, and the city’s children are the better for it.

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If children could sculpt a landscape to their liking, it would probably feature a big, shiny mound like the one adorning the seven-month-old playground at Union Square. This magnificently minimalist stainless-steel hump is a tough climb. Kids hurl themselves up it, legs churning, trying to get purchase on the slick skin. Once they have conquered its summit, they leap, roll, or slide off, occasionally taking out other children on the way down.

After years of creating playgrounds that placated alarmists and muffled thrills, the Parks Department has rediscovered the joys of risk. You might see the slippery slope at Union Square as, well, a slippery slope, leading to a vale of recklessness and lawsuits. (And yes, parents recently complained that the overheated metal was scalding little palms and thighs—it’s since been shaded with a canopy.) But the dome provides children with something crucial: a bracing challenge. It issues a license to fall and fail.

New York’s playgrounds are getting less predictable, more imaginative, and more complex, making the city a national leader in showing children a good time. “Other big cities are playing catch-up,” says Darell Hammond, CEO of the Washington, D.C.–based playground-advocacy organization KaBoom! Indeed, children’s zones are becoming opportunities for design virtuosity. Frank Gehry has been cooking up some wavy canopies for a planned playground in Battery Park. And next month, the city will inaugurate David Rockwell’s Imagination Playground at Burling Slip, a cornucopia of dense blue foam blocks that young builders can use to erect space stations, fashion corrals, and practice impromptu teamwork.

Beyond those showcase projects, the city’s attitude toward play is being nudged along by the deft and prolific landscape architects at Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, who are pioneering the integration of play into complex mixtures of landscape and public space. They installed that dome at Union Square and also designed the lushly verdant Teardrop Park in Battery Park City. In this secret, almost primeval place, toddlers splash in artificial rapids or plummet into a sandpit from an extra-tall slide, while their grown-up escorts monitor them from a lookout platform, sprawl on bleachers, or perch, nymphlike, on artfully positioned boulders.

If a playground can be a manifesto, the riverfront wonderland that Van Valkenburgh designed at Pier 6, in the still-developing Brooklyn Bridge Park, represents a stirring declaration of urban glee. It will look a little windswept until the fledgling trees provide a canopy of shade. But from the minute it opened earlier this month, kids swarmed the Tarzan swings, the geodesic climbing structure made out of cords, and the long, tubular slide that emerges from a wooden steeple. The mostly German-made equipment still seems esoteric in an American culture obsessed with liability, but the children have spoken, and the message is clear: Stop fretting, and let us have fun.


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