Berliner Kinder: Berlin and its playborhoods

You’ve heard my fellow Placeshaker, Scott Doyon, say Smart Growth = Smart Parenting. More than once, actually. As well as how living in a walkable neighbourhood may shape our children. I’ve also talked about how my winter city, Winnipeg, nurtures active kids, as well as put some of those ideas into a TEDxTalk. Last week, walking around Berlin, my 10-year old pointed out the exceptional numbers of downtown kids, and really enjoyed hanging out in some of the neighborhood parks.

Our favorite was Kolle 37, which for a kid’s experience truly hit it out of the park. Project for Public Spaces does a great job of telling why it works, so I’ll just share some of our stash of images and a few back-of-the-envelope thoughts.

Much of what we’ve written about walkable urbanism and kids is all about resisting the urge to be helicopter parents that raise fragile, teacup children. With the help of a walkable neighborhood, it’s a little easier to experience that letting-go process, with slower cars, more eyes on the street, and a network of people you know and trust. Slowly, we’re letting free-range children happen again.

In a similar sort of way, Kolle 37 introduces kids to some rather lethal tools – hatchets, fire, hammers, nails – with some coaches close-by to keep the Lord of the Flies away. Within relative safety, the kids have built their own play houses, bake bread in a wood-burning oven, throw some good-looking earthenware at the wheel, grow their own food, and raise some rabbits.

I have to admit, as a somewhat safety-conscious mom, at first climbing into the 3-story kid-built structures had me on high alert. Aside from watching out for foot placement and taking responsibility for my own safety, watching how the kids interacted with each other and their tools made me feel that same sort of pride that I did during my first game of watching street hockey – realizing that the kids had the basic skills they need to stay out of harms way, and work through their internal striving.

This sort of cultural inclination to allow and encourage hands-on building must contribute to German engineering prowess? Just as Canadian embrace of our wintriness likely nurtures winter Olympic gold?

My only complaint about the park was that I got thrown out in the end. I hadn’t noticed the signs that said, “No parents allowed,” except in the entrance and exit areas. I would have been much less likely to let my son while away the afternoon on his own, Although if we were residents of the neighbourhood and he was in the company of friends, that’d be another story.

From the SmartCode Manual. Click for larger view.

From the SmartCode Manual. Click for larger view.

That neighbourhood structure itself is one of the things that make this park function so beautifully. The 30 to 100 children from 6 to 16 years old who visit the park everyday most likely get there mainly on foot and bicycle. That’s because the park is within the immanently walkable Prenzlaur Berg neighbourhood that we discussed on Monday. As you know, we define the pedestrian shed as a 5-minute walk or quarter-mile from the centre to edge of a neighbourhood, with a walkable neighbourhood containing most of your daily needs. Similarly, the playshed is the eighth-mile radius, with every residence within 1000′ of a playground. If I didn’t have a deadline calling, I’d illustrate it for Prenzlaur Berg. To learn more about playsheds, check out the form-based SmartCode and manual. And to see who’s legally requiring playsheds, check out the Codes Study.

The other thing that makes this a playborhood is the exceptionally safe cycling network. When the streets are narrow and slow with a strong sense of enclosure, cyclists mix with the slow-moving cars. On busier streets, the separated cycling lane mounts the curb, and is separated from the pedestrian sidewalk by punitively bumpy pavers.

If you know of parks similar to Kolle 37 in our careful nanny-states of the U.S. and Canada, please let me know in the comments below. So far, I’ve yet to see something so organic and formative on this side of the pond, although the Globe and Mail’s Alex Bozikovic points out in an article last week that we’re moving in the right direction. Click any of the images below for a larger view.

Kids are first required to build a model of their proposed design.

Kids are first required to build a model of their proposed design.

Then take a visit to "the lumber yard" to ensure they don't need to modify their designs to make them in keeping with local provisions.

Then take a visit to “the lumber yard” to ensure they don’t need to modify their designs to make them in keeping with local provisions.

The pole and grass lumberyard helps too.

The pole and grass lumberyard helps too.

Out come the hatchets and hammers and shovels next.

Out come the hatchets and hammers and shovels next.

A peer review helps out pre-construction.

A peer review helps out pre-construction.

Structures range from one to three stories, with an underground tunnel joining two of them.

Structures range from one to three stories, with an underground tunnel joining two of them.

Wood-burning oven helps with baking.

Wood-burning oven helps with baking.

The vegetable and herb garden is about to wrap up for the season.

The vegetable and herb garden is about to wrap up for the season.

This mud and straw house is a gathering place, with seating all around the wall, and a raised fire pit in the middle.

This mud and straw house is a gathering place, with seating all around the wall, and a raised fire pit in the middle.

Narrow street with a strong sense of enclosure lets cyclists mix with the slow-moving cars. Small wheels are always allowed on the sidewalk.

Narrow street with a strong sense of enclosure lets cyclists mix with the slow-moving cars. Small wheels are always allowed on the sidewalk.

On busier streets, the separated cycling lane mounts the curb, and is separated from the pedestrian sidewalk by punitively bumpy pavers.

On busier streets, the separated cycling lane mounts the curb, and is separated from the pedestrian sidewalk by punitively bumpy pavers.

Hazel Borys

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Comments

  1. wow, this just blows my mind. I am a mom raising kids downtown in a small city. We do have a park right behind our house, but in general, I feel like I have to take my kids OUT of the city for them to get free-range play with natural elements. My kids have been begging to roam the neighborhood, but I just don’t feel like it’s safe enough. Your article gives me several pertinent (and radical for the US!) ideas. Inspiring.

  2. I hear you, Margo. Tough to let go, but interesting some of the things that happen when we do.

    Thanks to all of the people contributing to these ideas from the Lean Urbanism community. The cool thing is that once a region gets it, more than one pops up. True with most good ideas. A few snippets from the Lean group:

    BBC survey of London Adventure Playgrounds, London

    Islington Play’s Lumpy Hill Adventure Playground, Islington, London

    Glamis Adventure Playground, Shadwell, London

    Notting Hill Adventure Playground, West London

    Atlas Obscura, Berkeley

    Adventure Playground, Huntington Beach, Berkeley

    Playscapes, Review of all sorts of playgrounds, including adventure

    Tiong Bahru Park Adventure Playground, Singapore

    Adventure Playspace, Philadelphia

    Adventure Playground, Dufferin Grove Park, Toronto. Really like the fact that this one started out with $11k and grew organically. Very Lean.

    Seven Up! TV series documenting the lives of several kids every 7 years until they were in their 60′s showed quite a few shots of the kids playing in an adventure playground with loose lumber, climbing rough construction high up and so on.

    Christopher Alexander’s Pattern Language talks about adventure playgrounds

  3. Hey, Hazel. I love this place, as I do all adventure playgrounds. However, I want to emphasize to other readers that what makes it a Playborhood is the fact that it’s frequented by many kids on a regular basis, and that these kids, by and large, get there on their own.

    The facts that the kids are building all sorts of cool stuff is not the most important thing. My goal (I’m the author of the book Playborhood) is for kids to play vigorously and independently in all neighborhoods. Adventure playgrounds are one solution, but there are many, many more that aren’t nearly as “sexy” to planners and architects.

  4. Hi, Mike! Great to see you here. Completely agree with your comment. The neighbourhood structure itself is one of the things that make this park function so beautifully. If you took this adventure playground and plunked it in an auto-centric subdivision where there aren’t “free-range children” at liberty to run around their “playborhood” without adult supervision, it’d be a potentially scary place, instead of this intensive learning environment.

    This neighborhood of Prenzlaur Berg has an elegant and effective cycling network and is exceptionally pedestrian friendly. My son kept pointing out all the kids on their own, on bikes and foot. When I have a bit more time, I’ll map the “playshed” (1,000′ from every residence to some sort of playground or gathering place, connected by walkable, bikeable streets). You’re right, it’s the fact that this neighborhood is so deeply porous to kids that makes this adventure playground work so well.

    I have to admit, though, as an engineer and a mom and a potter, this playground is compelling to me on many levels to amp up experience. I get it though, from the many of the suggestions in your book (everyone else, you should at least read Playborhood’s chapter descriptions), that many of these experiences could be done in smaller increments that work more easily with North American culture.

  5. Hal Senter says:

    Great idea. I had the privilege of growing up with a large pile of old lumber near my backyard from which I and a few friends built a tree house around three pine trees. However, times have changed and trying to do this in the US now will send a city’s liability lawyers into a raging fit.

  6. Hazel, it was fun to read your post! In the mid 1970s I went on a 2-month bike trip in Denmark and Germany searching out adventure playgrounds. It was fascinating discovery to find that a free-range childhood could have a place in urban settings. Thank you for seeding us with a great idea.

  7. Yeah, I hear you, Hal. I’d like to change that!

    Ross, thanks! Sounds like one amazing trip. Your great pocket neighborhoods are a natural fit for some of Mike’s playborhood ideas … your own private adventure playgrounds that are half tactical, half lean. And very fun. The parents could always keep the hatchets locked up until one of them is present. Reminds me of some of your stories on co-parenting.

Trackbacks

  1. [...] "Much of what we’ve written about walkable urbanism and kids is all about resisting the urge to be helicopter parents that raise fragile, teacup children. With the help of a walkable neighborhood, it’s a little easier to experience that letting-go process, with slower cars, more eyes on the street, and a network of people you know and trust. Slowly, we’re letting free-range children happen again."  [...]

  2. [...] The Urban Planning, Design, and Development Network. Berliner Kinder: Berlin and its playborhoods. You’ve heard my fellow Placeshaker, Scott Doyon, say Smart Growth = Smart [...]

  3. [...] so we’re on a slow recovery. We still have a whole lot to learn about playborhoods and playsheds. Here are a few insights from Berlin on the [...]

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