January 2009

Below is Penny’s update on Sheffield Square, following a number of team brainstorming sessions, of making lovely drawings and costing elements and warming ourselves through this cold January on the toasty possibilities of this space. 



So… I turn up at Sheffield Square in a warm jacket,  brand new sticks of chalk in the pocket, christmas tape measure on its maiden voyage. I am putting the last strokes to the designs we have whipped up to make a  magic  playspace with a  tiny budget of £2K, on this bleak stretch of tarmac    the details of the project scamper around in my head as I walk towards the space.

We  are planning to hold  play sessions while weave  willow into the fences We are meeting with residents to gather stories about their play memories and offer them training to support their children ‘s play. We have useful bits and pieces of reclaimed wood,stone and  fence squirreled away in a scrap yard. We have plans to plant a living climbing tree. I am working out how to do some of the construction work that is needed myself and still fit in office and development work…

Anyway this is the last of my preparatory visits.  Next time  I have planned to glue  tissue paper letters to the tarmac (PLAY!), distribute the flyers, , three on each photocopied sheet.  and  chalk arrows and information  advertising the session on the walkways all over the estate. The school will know and estates officers have been informed.

Then I round the corner and find this:


The site has been turned into a building site office with port-a-cabins and port-a-loos and blokes in hard hats and lots of ‘scaff’ and tea and mud and no room for children at all. No room for twinkling fairy lights in the trees or wildflower seed planting, no village pump feeding the stream designed to meander around the dip in the tarmac near the surface drain, no marine ply throne shapes to transform the seatless benches of forty years ago…

This work is a constant series of setbacks and re-inventions, of extreme hope and profound disappointment; Of visionary, dynamic and dedicated employees of the council and Registered Social landlords and voluntary sector people and of complete jobs-worth duffers  who are without passion or pride in their work , who hinder, halt and make stale the work of others.

So, through enept planning and  efficient bungling I am forced to break the  promise to turn Sheffield Square into a playground by the end of March.. The children have less room and freedom to play than they did before I made that promise. The funding is lost. The willows missing their season. The goodwill and trust betrayed. “Them do-gooders, they come in here from the outside, making their  promises and then they go away and you never hear or  see ‘em again…’  people here have learned to expect to be let down.Its going to do folks no favours if I mope about this. So I put on my High Resolution  (Hi Res) playwork warm jacket, pick myself up, dust myself off and plan all over again.  

Back to the team with an optimistic plan. Back to the funder with a justification for non-delivery of sessions that does not look like a fumbling excuse.

I am so glad that I am a Playworker.


No seriously.


In what other profession would equip me to expect the unexpected, prepare me for the constant devaluation of the work that I do and the experience that I have and still let me love my work so much that I am enthusiastic and optimistic again by the end of a day like this one.


 I think it helped that this was the day that President Obama was inaugurated.  If he can become president of the United States of America (I hear Hendrix spitting out the star strangled, (sic) banner), then we can make Tower Hamlets playful, ( I hear Aretha.)


We went for another walkabout last week, and talked to a couple of teenagers (Asian-British males) who had been born and raised on the estate about local play opportunities.  They were perched against a railing in between a torn-up playground and a parking lot.  Their responses are as follow my questions.


What happened to the playground over there?

 “The council came and tore all that (equipment) up.  About five, maybe ten years ago?  They were going to build flat there, tear up those buildings behind as well.  Didn’t take those though.  But there used to be loads of kids playing there.  Every summer there’d be bare kids, just running and that.  They had parties there and everything, man.”


Where do kids play now? 

“In the stairwells.  The hallways in those buildings there, and there.  It’s a bad place though, the walls are covered in piss.  Even the police don’t like coming in.  His little brother nearly died, man.  He climbs stuff, and so he was climbing up that scaffolding there and fell off.”


Where else might kids go? 

“There’s some playgrounds that way, but it’s across the road.  Besides, that’s the E3/E14 boundary right?  So even if the kids could go over there, they wouldn’t.  That’s why they’re indoors all the time.”


Who uses that former playspace? 

“It’s for dogs now.  They just come in, drop the dogs in and shut the gates.  They run all over there now and it’s dirty as hell, man.”


And for the teenagers? 

“There’s a youth club.  It’s supposed to be open 6-9, but you know.  The workers are all old, it’s so funny.  They’re all smoking all the time, before they arrive, you know?  They’re all getting sacked now, because of that but because they’re old so none of them went to school, no degrees or nothing.  Some of them play mad pool though!”


Maybe it was the run-up to yesterday’s Blue Monday, but all of this got me to thinking.  We wandered around that torn-up playspace, now yet another dog toilet, and read the scars on the tarmac for original design in the way we do every time.  On this project we have been to place after place, once designated playgrounds in the centre of housing estates, but now vacant lots.  We see places where equipment has been torn up, where it’s cracked or shredded from people training their dogs to attack the seats, and we see peeling safety surface that’s become a Petri dish for varieties of mould.  That mould is the only growing thing that seems at home there.


Each time we see the sign of the thing – the thing being play, a place for children outdoors – but we do not see the thing itself.  We see the shape of its absence, conjure up the ghosts of games, laughter, the testing of growing selves that must have happened there.  On that last grey wandering, the repetitive sense of loss and emptiness reminded me of trips to old European cities and all those signs that say “This used to be the ghetto”.  This sounds like an extreme comparison (perhaps especially when made by a Jew), but when I go to all these different places and find that people in power have attempted to remove play from the public sphere, all at roughly the same time, it feels culturally deliberate.  It feels like the erasure of children from the public realm, and I think it is.  Why and how were children’s places, children’s tangible rights as citizens, eradicated from the centre of public housing?  From the centre of public life?  And why would the people looking out their window prefer a socially sterile and abandoned-looking dog toilet to a thriving play space?

We’ve been talking and thinking a lot about playgrounds in Amsterdam, not least because Penny is freshly returned from a trip over there and very enthusiastic.  However, as is usually the case, once we started making connections to and through Amsterdam’s playspaces they seemed to be everywhere!

We’ve had this book on the project’s bookshelf since the beginning:


and it’s a remarkably interesting collection of images, interviews and writing that starts with a generous notion of play that includes playgrounds, public art and urban golf.

The authors – a theorist and an architecture firm – then go on to address how places for play enable connections between people, and consider how this understanding might develop new models for design practice.

There is an excellent review of it here.

Some of the playgrounds in this book are in Amsterdam and designed by Aldo van Eyck, who in his career starting at Amsterdam Public Works provided the designs for some 700 playgrounds across the city, and the inspiration for many more across the world.  I grew up in Southern California, scrambling around the metal tumbling bars that he’d designed some 40 years and 10,000 miles away.

There’s an excellent article spanning his career, playgrounds and influence here, including some lovely pictures of his plans and sites.  Central to his design strategy was an understanding of how these often small locations tied together to create a network of play opportunities throughout the city, places where ‘ the seeds of community were sewn, where the city was not to be viewed or consumed but experienced.’   Archis No. 3, 2002 (where this article comes from) also offers a “‘psychogeographic cycle tour of Amsterdam playgrounds by Aldo van Eyck’, encompassing the sites of about 40 playgrounds within the city’s ring road.

For those seeking a more armchair-based exploration, Sara Winter has a lovely set of images up on Flickr, and more on her blog.

Below is a little taster.