Living spaces needs sensitive care and attention to thrive. While any gardener knows this, the idea of investing thought and resources into looking after public play areas and school playgrounds once they’ve been built is alien to many. The less maintenance required the better encouraging the concept of the ‘bomb proof’ all metal, static, rubber surfaced and plant free play area.
The green and grey deserts that constitute many school playgrounds require nothing in the way of thought and little in the way of labour – other than gang mowers. A slash and burn approach to shrub pruning (should any shrubs exist) and harshly weed-killed edges completes all too common a picture.
Competitive tendering and attacks on local authority parks budgets have robbed local authorities of the skills and resources they once had resulting in the division of gardening into ‘grounds maintenance tasks’ with no-one forming or holding an overall concept, or vision, or responsibility for a particular space. Under these circumstances it is almost impossible to create play spaces that stay inviting and dynamic after the initial thrill has worn off.
However there are examples in the public sector of alternative and successful approaches and as we know that maintenance budgets do exist for other kinds of public space (such as sports facilities and road verges and roundabouts) it should be possible to argue from the outset to build intelligent, developmental maintenance into play space planning. In North Lanarkshire, individual maintenance plans with flexible mowing regimes have been developed for school grounds, and the schools themselves, especially the janitorial staff are taking responsibility for features like sand areas.
‘Friends of Parks’ groups can be instrumental in pushing for better and more sensitive maintenance, including contributing to it themselves on a voluntary basis. A long standing example is in Ailie’s Garden (link to The Smith case study) at the Smith Museum and Art gallery in Stirling where volunteers work with the guidance and support of a committed gardener.
At the Rudolf Steiner School in Edinburgh (not public sector- but a good example of doing things differently), the gardener and gardening are central to the ethos of the school. And this shows in the grounds, which everyone has a hand in using and looking after, but with the guiding vision of the gardener.
So however good the design process, the design and its implementation this will all be immaterial if there is no-one who holds the idea of the play space – what it is and what it may become in their head and has the means of acting on it.