Case Studies in Placemaking & Play Spaces

By Steve King, Jeffrey Velasquez, and Stephen Shurson
Chicago, Ill. (September 21, 2009)- People come to parks for a variety of reasons. One reoccurring reason is to play with their kids, to watch their kids play, and even to enjoy a rare moment of peace. Kids and adults often spend hours at these special places, and parents will schedule trips to come back because it feels good to relax, observe and meet others. They will come back because the park and its experiences are relevant for their kids’ well-being, and because this public space offers something that can be found nowhere else.


These play spaces are educational. They’re interpretive and creative. They offer interactive opportunities to learn about local ecology, stories, ethnicity and traditions. They’re designed to help people of all ages connect their experiences with the history of the region. This is the idea behind creating a “sense of place” that geographers have discussed for years — the direct awareness of how our hometowns and regions are unique and meaningful.
By helping people reconnect with nature and learn about the local significance of “place,” a new generation of playgrounds can help fill a void in modern life where people are often cut off from nature, unaware of an area’s history and its relationship to overall development, and often cut off from interacting with one another. Many Americans move from one suburb to another with very little sense of how the areas differ. Their kids grow up in over-structured settings where they have very little chance to explore on their own. Adults are cut off from other adults, and the significance of experiencing intergenerational mixing of the young and elderly is often overlooked.
The idea of “place” and fostering a local appreciation for it matters for landscape architects who seek to instill a sense of stewardship for the land. How better to encourage a child to someday campaign to protect a watershed than to introduce her to sustainable irrigation in a desert playground? How can a sensory garden help children and adults learn that interacting with nature can be so much more than a visual of a “landscaped scene.” That it’s more about a thorough understanding that insects, the seasons, growth and decay are all part of nature’s cycles.
This session explores the concept of placemaking in play spaces and looks at two specific projects that were successful in creating a sense of place for their community. Though from two very different regions of the country, Arizona and Minnesota, they both show how design for play can encourage conversations, fantasy play, and new awareness of regional ecology and history.
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Case Studies in Placemaking & Play Spaces