The Sustainability Buzz

Sustainability on the Playground

Greenbuild Legacy Project at Smith PlaygroundImagine this.

You’re seven years old.  You see a brightly colored path and want to find out where it leads.  You meander through a forest where ropes allow you to connect from tree to tree.  The mountains just outside the forest invite you to explore their tunnels and build connections from peak to peak.  You wander into a jungle and construct a canopy for yourself by weaving 6-foot-long bamboo-like shoots together.  The jungle gives way to a clearing where you have a much-needed rest before exploring the nooks and crannies at the base of a stately old maple tree on the edge of the clearing.

Imagine how that experience might shape your relationship with the natural world.  Now imagine that you’re doing this in the middle of Philadelphia.  Have we lost you?

Engaging with nature can be difficult in the concrete jungle of a city, but a new Adventure Playground is underway at Smith Memorial Playground and Playhouse—a unique space that has provided a safe place to play for generations of Philadelphia children—to encourage kids to interact with the natural environment around them.  Chosen as the Legacy Project that will be part of the U.S. Green Building Council’s annual conference (Greenbuild) to be held in Philadelphia in November 2013, the playground is a collaborative effort among Smith, the Delaware Valley Green Building Council (DVGBC) and Public Workshop, an organization that works with youth and their communities to shape the design of their neighborhoods.

Kids' ideas for playgroundThe model for how things are designed and built is very different for this project.  A team of neighborhood organizations, families, youth, and green building experts helped shape the design process through early planning meetings and charettes, and children from the surrounding community developed the Build Your Own Adventure theme.  Young adults from Public Workshop’s Building Heroes project are leading construction, which integrates reclaimed and everyday low-impact off-the-shelf materials into the design and produces little waste.

It’s a complicated project, but you’re not likely to find much in the way of building plans.  As Public Workshop’s Director, Alex Gilliam, puts it, “We don’t draw very much.  We build full scale and iterate until it’s right.  We think that when building on-site, full-scale, anyone is able to make better decisions about how to build.”  It’s a very empowering design/build model, and it encourages the teenagers and young adults constructing the playground to consider building materials and methods and the natural environment surrounding them at every step of the process.

Urban Blazers help pour concrete for Adventure Playground.The design/build model also guarantees that virtually anyone can get involved.  Children who will actually use the space provided input into how they want to play and interact with nature, and the daily building crew has ranged from urban middle-schoolers to seasoned contractors, all of whom can provide input into the design and own a little piece of the finished product.  It’s a far cry from the playground designed by an architect in his air-conditioned office and built by a crew of building professionals for children they will probably never meet.

Greenbuild Legacy Project Building Team

It’s a process that encourages people of all ages to consider the question of how we relate to our natural environment and create structures that act in harmony with the world around us.  In doing so, the cause of sustainability is strengthened incrementally by each person who touches the project and becomes more aware of how they relate to the natural world.  As a bonus, the project “stimulates a much larger conversation about green building techniques, risk, play, learning, and the role of youth in making their cities better places to live,” says Gilliam.

In the end, the playground, which will be sustainable in its own right with its use of reclaimed and low-impact, durable materials, will offer kids a way to explore nature through play in a way that’s self-directed and, most importantly, fun.  And perhaps that means a whole new generation of inner-city Philadelphia kids will grow up with a heightened awareness of how important our environment is.

Now that’s something worth imagining.


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