Creative Public Playgrounds in Cities


For all the wonderful things there are to celebrate about cities, there is obviously not the same kind of open space and freedom to move as in the country, which is why so many families are attracted to the suburbs.  The world is becoming more and more urbanized, and even in many suburbs, residential lot sizes are shrinking, there is more traffic, and people move often, so that many families do not know their neighbors, and don’t feel safe allowing their children to play, skate, or cycle around their neighborhoods.The first public playgrounds appeared first in Britain, and then in America around two hundred years ago, and their importance was well described by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1907:

          City streets are unsatisfactory playgrounds for children because of the danger … Neither do small back yards nor ornamental grass plots meet the needs of any but the very small children. Older children who would play vigorous games must have places especially set aside for them; and, since play is a fundamental need, playgrounds should be provided for every child as much as schools. This means that they must be distributed over the cities in such a way as to be within walking distance of every boy and girl, as most children cannot afford to pay carfare.

This exhibit celebrates some of the creative ways that city governments and residents are approaching the challenge of providing safe and sustainable playgrounds.

Creative Use of Space

This bright orange play structure was designed by a Danish firm, CARVE, and is more dynamic than it might look in a photograph. The airy, see-through mesh screens support wavy metal walkways that turn into a wall, or a ceiling, or a simple rope mesh. Tle enclosed space encourages socialization. The verical orientation not only saves valuable space in a small park or schoolyard, but also stimulates a child’s thinking , as well as providing large muscle exercise that promotes good health and development.

two boys play on a vertical climbing structure

This playground rises to the challenge of tight urban spaces


In Lima, Peru a planned electric train project was abandoned before completion, creating an eyesore. One group saw this, not as a problem so much as an opportunity. This group, Basurama (which translates roughly as something like “Trash-o-rama”) takes an approach that previous generations might have termed “thrifty”. They used the partially completed overpass as a major support for swings, tire nets, and toy riding structures, and named the playground, “Ghost Train Park”, alluding to the train that never arrived.


A play horse made from reclaimed tires under an abandoned overpass in Lima, Peru.

A play horse made from reclaimed tires under an abandoned overpass in Lima, Peru

Building Community

In Missoula, Montana, an entire community came together to build an imaginative playground they named “Dragon Hollow”. It rises high, making maximum use of the available space and providing extra interest to the adventurous.

In a manner reminiscent of early American “Barn-raisings”, a large group of volunteers gathered in 2001 to dig 150 holes for the posts needed to frame the body of the fanciful dragon, and in a total of just nine days of labor, the structure was essentially complete.

Of course, nearly a year of hard work had already gone into conceptualizing, planning, and designing Dragon Hollow. The community hired a playground architect for the actual design, but nearly a thousand children and youth contributed ideas for the design, and benches were built using about a thousand bricks they had decorated with colorful stones and mosaics.

The names of of contributors are inscribed on walls and even on the picket fence that runs around the area, testifying to Dragon Hollow as a monument to enduring community spirit.


Children playing on a colorful slide.

The St. Kilda playground in Melbourne, Australia provides safe and creative play to low income children.

A playground with ramps for wheelchairs.

This Science Playground in Calgary, Alberta, allows children with physical difficulties to play alongside their more able-bodied peers.

A playground within a half mile of every child is a laudable goal, and especially meaningful for low-income families, who may have limited transportation resources. These are also the families most likely to be living in unsafe neighborhoods, with underfunded schools.

The St. Kilda Adventure Playground (shown at left) in Melbourne, Australia is specifically designed as a kind of big backyard for families living in hi-rise, low income housing. and was built in 1981 with federal funds, on the premise that safe, accessible play opportunities is a child’s right, as set forth in the UN Declaration of the Rights of the Child.
Besides the usual assortment of swings  and slides, there is a giant castle with lots of places to explore or hide in; a large airplane, a wooden horse (with saddle), and a dinosaur to ride on; a pirate ship, a tepee… I could go on! There is a wonderful slide show on their website.
Playgrounds are also especially important for children with physical difficulties. Playing alongside their peers can change how able bodied children view them, and how differently-abled children view themselves. It can help to reduce the social isolation that many physically handicapped children face. And, of course, everyone needs exercise and fun!
The Science Playground in Calgary, Alberta is especially notable because, though the wheelchair ramp goes only to the first level of the play structure, it does allow inclusive play, and is designed to demonstrate basic physics that children can understand and absorb through their play.

Deeper Connections

A company called Boundless Playgrounds was started in 1997 by Amy Barzach of West Hartford, Connecticut. Her first project, for which she and her husband raised $300,00, was built by 120 volunteers. It is called “Jonathon’s Dream”, a memorial to their son who had recently died as a small child. (Full story here.) It was designed primarily around the needs of children who use wheelchairs. but accommodates able-bodied children as well, so that everyone plays side by side, and socialization is enhanced. Today, Boundless Playgrounds guides, supports, and certifies handicap-accessible playgrounds in communites all over the US and Canada.

A Boundless Playground in Fort Campbell, Kentucky provides a positive environment where injured veterans receiving physical therapy can

A beautiful example of a Boundless Park, in Saginaw Michigan.

A beautiful example of a Boundless Park, in Saginaw Michigan.

A beautiful example of a Boundless Park, in Saginaw Michigan.

reconnect with their families and children while they are recovering. Orlando, Florida’s inclusive  “Give Children the World” park features

the world’s first life-size Candyland game, and serves children with life-threatening illnesses. There are many more examples of Boundless Parks here.

The Future of Playgrounds

Not only is the world becoming more urbanized, it is also aging.Several cities in Japan, Finland, the UK, and most recently in the U.S., may be pointing the way to the future: the Senior Citizen Park. It provides an opportunity for older people to socialize as well as exercise, both of which are important for health and happiness, and a path to lower health care costs for societies. Play is for everyone!

Elderly ladies have fun exercising at a park.

Playgrounds designed for senior citizens promote health and friendship.

Senior citizens at a park in Japan

Japan has a long cultural history of encouraging fitness for seniors.