Growing up on the Upper West Side in the 1970s, the artist Julia Jacquette saw plenty of the urban decay for which that era is known. … The typical city playground of that time was built as an afterthought, a corral for children, made of asphalt and chain-link fencing. The play equipment was sparse and isolated: a slide here, a seesaw there, a jungle gym. Nothing connected.
The new generation of adventure playgrounds, by contrast, was the product of careful planning, with linked play areas, often incorporating running water and sand. Most exciting for Ms. Jacquette was that the design allowed children to make up their own forms of play.
The concrete structures referred to ancient architectural forms: amphitheaters, pyramids and sunken gardens. And there was no one correct way for children to interact with them.
A 2008 view of the first adventure playground in Central Park, at West 67th Street. It opened in 1967.
The rise of the adventure playground, which is outlined in the book, was driven by architects like M. Paul Friedberg and Richard Dattner, who were the subject of a New York Times Magazine article in 1966 headlined “Putting the Play in Playgrounds.”
This movement, sparked by the parks commissioner Thomas Hoving, faced some resistance from traditionalists and defenders of the sanctity of Central Park’s green spaces. The whole saga was notable enough to provide the focus of at least a dozen other articles in The Times. (A 1967 editorial acknowledged that not all of the changes to Central Park then in progress were undesirable: “But it is essential that this new approach not get out of hand.”) …
The shift was prescient in another way. Facing tightening city budgets, the adventure playgrounds were originally funded by wealthy donors, like the Lauder Foundation, which gave hundreds of thousands of dollars for the earliest projects.
About three decades later, the adventure playgrounds faced a new challenge: safety regulations. In the late 1990s, there was a push to replace them. Eventually that drive ended in a compromise, and the playgrounds were only modified, dialing down the adventure, perhaps, but satisfying city litigators.
Ms. Jacquette … still treasures what remains of the original vision. “The architects who made these didn’t ever want to dictate play,” she said. “They offered the kids a vocabulary.”
“In a way,” she said, “I am still that kid.”
A similar story could be told about the rebuilding of the gravel-and-dirt playing field of Lord Roberts School In the West End by a local group of residents led by UBC prof Gary Pennington in 1986 – a unique, ‘hand-crafted-and-built’ design that took the adventure playground to a new level. It lasted for a few years, until maintenance and safety issues led to its almost complete demolition. Only a handful of trees on a bluff in the southeast corner remain of the original vision.