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Slow Build for Playscapes by Grant Lambie

Through the 20th Century, social philosophers from Alvin Toffler1 to Paul Virilio2 write about ‘the speed of change’ having negative effects on our social fabric, including child development. With the advent of the Slow Movement’s reaction to speed, can this be translated into playscape design?

Over the past few years I have been constructing some playscapes over a period of time, up to two and a half years, and looking at the rewards that come from using this process. The results are shown as a spider chart to give an overview of my findings and to show that this can be a holistic approach to playscape design.

The recent publication ‘Design for Play, A guide to creating successful play spaces’3, sets 10 strong principles for the design of a successful play space, which if followed will benefit any new playscape. What it does not do (like many books and publications before) is give a framework of how these changes are to be made in the present system of delivery, where (fast) contractors come in for a short time and then leave. Some horizon forecasting may have pushed the results further, for example, there was very little about climate change, (young people find it hard to play in full sun with no shade, or when thirsty), and areas such as carbon and other waste emissions.

From a design and architectural view, an Adventure Playground has a unique quality in that the structural playscape is never finished. Some parts may only last for minutes, others up to 30 years. So this is the slowest build of any playscape. Sadly this is rarely written into the running of an Adventure Playground, and has become a marginalised characteristic, which is under threat in many areas, with private corporations or charity groups taking on the role of building. With only around 98 London Adventure Playgrounds and three or four more in the pipeline, the greatest contact young people have with playscapes are the thousands of ‘fixed’ play areas, and of empty school playgrounds.

Can Slow Design be taken elsewhere?

Here is an example of slow design in a school; this is not the only example but one that shows the strength of a Slow Design process.

Difference between slow and fast delivery of a Playscape

During the tender for Stephen Hawking School, a school for young people with profound and multiple learning difficulties, some with complex medical needs, this slow design was made clear and all parties were happy with this approach.

After a consultation period with workshops and observations, designs were given to the school and broken down into 6 build phases, spread over two years. At the end of each build, the playscape was playable in and had finished units/areas for users. After each phase a play worker was brought in to aid the staff and young people in the different usage of the play equipment e.g., 10 people can get on the roundabout, not just two at a time. After a few weeks additional visits were set up at playtime to evaluate the play value of the playscape and obtain feedback from staff and pupils, plus from school therapists. The feedback informed the next build phase (unless it could be rectified then and there) to increase the play value of the playscape still further, this resulting in decreasing the size of the indoor sandpit to add a ball pool next to it, adding more hooks and giving advice about growing plants.

At the end of the build period the school has a playscape, (or ‘garden’ as the staff call it), which is bespoke in its design and meets the needs of the users. There was time for everyone to have some input into the design process, with an outcome that meets the needs of the school now and in the future, due to the inbuilt flexibility of the final design.

To carry this idea through to the never finished or the constantly changing playscape, the annual maintenance budget has been increased to allow a new small element to be added yearly. This I hope will keep their playscape a dynamic place for the young people and the staff who play there, in contrast to the “dis-play” (taking the play out of an area) or KFC (kit, fenced and carpeted) playgrounds we see everywhere else.

The Slow Design of this playscape has given the school a place that reflects the needs and wishes of young people and staff, a playscape which has been designed from a play and individual viewpoint, and not the “ready made” of the mass produced, which give so few play opportunities. I now try in all the playscapes I deliver, to place as much Slow Design into the process as possible; this not only gives the best playscapes, but also allows for me to have a positive meaningful connection to the space which is built.

1 Toffler, Alvin, ‘Future Shock’ Bantam Books, 1970
2 Virilio, Paul, ‘Open Sky’, Verso, 1997
3 ‘Design for Play: A guide to creating successful play spaces’, DCMS, 2008

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