Volume 22, Number 01 | The Newspaper of Lower Manhattan | May 15 - 21, 2009

Photo by Malcolm Pinckney/Parks Dept.

Children dove right into the temporary play equipment for Imagination Playground last week. Condtruction has just begun on the Burling Slip park, which is expected to open next year. Below, park designer David Rockwell with Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe, right.

Imagine play starting before the park is built

By Julie Shapiro

For architect David Rockwell, the best part of last Thursday’s groundbreaking of Imagination Playground in the Seaport was not the politicians’ speeches or the obligatory shoveling of dirt.

Rather, the best part came before all of that, as Rockwell watched children from P.S. 234 and P.S. 126 scrambling around the vacant lot where the playground will take shape. Without prompting, the children immediately latched onto the dozens of blue foam blocks that will fill the new playground. Treating the blocks like lightweight, life-sized Legos, the children built thrones and moats, rocket ships and roller coasters.

“It was incredible,” Rockwell said afterwards. “It was great to see the variety of ways the kids played, vertically, horizontally, communally, linking what they were doing.”

The foam blocks and playing children were a glimpse into Imagination Playground’s future at Burling Slip: The full playground, with sand, water, a boardwalk and a crow’s nest, along with plenty of loose tools and blocks, will open near the Seaport at the end of next summer. Rockwell designed the park free of charge, and the Lower Manhattan Development Corp. contributed $4.5 million to build it.

The playground pioneers Rockwell’s philosophy of “free play,” allowing children to build and explore without restrictions. After years of research into how kids want to play, Rockwell found modern playgrounds too rigid and safety-focused, without enough chances for kids to manipulate their environment and get messy.

When Adrian Benepe, commissioner of the city Parks Dept., took the microphone Thursday morning, he called out to the rows of students sitting quietly in front of him, “Did you kids have fun?”

“Yeah!” they roared back.

Turning to the adults, Benepe said, “If you ever doubted that a concept like this would work, all you had to do is come here this morning and see the kids, completely without any instructions…they just took the stuff out and made it happen.”

Before the press conference started, four sandy-haired boys fit foam blocks together into the shape of a car, then hopped in as though they expected it to speed away.

“It works!” they shouted to each other.

For all the talk of Imagination Playground’s free-spiritedness, the children will not be left entirely to their own devices. The playground will have “play associates,” Parks Dept. employees who will set up the moving parts and keep the park safe.

Benepe sees Imagination Playground as a testing ground for new ideas that the city can eventually implement more broadly. One piece of Rockwell’s vision is already making its way into city parks: Imagination Playground in a BOX, piloted last summer at Brownsville Playground in Brooklyn, will bring the popular foam blocks into eight playgrounds across the city this summer through a partnership with nonprofit KaBOOM!.

Rockwell lives in Tribeca and said it was particularly important to him that the first permanent Imagination Playground open Downtown. The many new families in the neighborhood do not have enough playgrounds, and Rockwell likes the idea of bringing an innovative concept to the Seaport and Financial District, the oldest parts of the city.

Politicians hailed the 15,000-square-foot Imagination Playground as a public-private partnership, with developer Kent Swig providing more than half of the $2 million needed for maintenance. Swig said his contribution was in honor of his twin brother Bob, who died nearly 10 years ago.

The Dept. of Environmental Protection is also paying $3 million to relocate water mains and a sewer line from the park space, formerly a parking lot, into an adjacent street. The Rockwell Group is raising an endowment for future maintenance.

In addition to Imagination Playground, the city is also building open spaces in the Seaport at Titanic Park and DeLury Square and will expand Pearl St. Playground starting later this year.

Ro Sheffe, chairperson of Community Board 1’s Financial District Committee, said the new parks would be essential for the neighborhood’s booming residential population.

The construction of Imagination Playground is not as massive as the many skyscrapers rising Downtown, but, Sheffe said at the groundbreaking, “The shovels you see back there are every bit as important as all the cranes you see towering over Lower Manhattan today.”





Downtown Express is published by Community Media LLC. | 145 Sixth Avenue, New York, NY 10013 |
Phone: (212) 229-1890 | Fax: (212) 229-2790 | Advertising: 646-452-2465 © 2009 Community Media, LLC

Written permission of the publisher must be obtained before
any of the contents of this newspaper, in whole or in part,
can be reproduced.