Sunday 12 July 2009

Here we go round the chimney pot

HERITAGE AND HABITAT: Urban playgrounds have changed since the days of drab, concrete squares; the new Docklands Chimney Park is designed with input from children, and mixes old and new to vibrant effect

THERE WAS a time, in the not too distant past, when a child’s playground was an altogether different place. Standardised and regimented, they were identical right down to the potentially lethal tarmac flooring. An obligatory slide, with centrepiece set of swings; a roundabout intent on bringing your lunch back up and, if you were really lucky, a rusty rocket that barely moved despite Herculean efforts to push it.

In the last decade, the city’s playgrounds have undergone massive change, supposedly reflecting the Continental aspirations the Celtic Tiger ushered in. These new spaces are about “letting kids figure out for themselves how they want to play”, according to Mette Boye, project manager of a new park initiative in Grand Canal Dock in Dublin. The Docklands Chimney Park, which opened last month, has attempted to redefine what a play space means and who it belongs to.

“During the park’s planning we organised a series of meetings and workshops with the local community to find out what they wanted from a park in their area,” says Boye, “We thought that by getting the input of the people who would ultimately use the park, it would create a sense of ownership for them.”

Top of the list for canvassing were children themselves. Rather than quiz them about the kind of equipment they wanted, UK playground design specialists Snug and Outdoor set about asking different questions. “They sat down with the kids and asked them about the concept of play and how it makes them feel,” says Boye. So children were challenged to put a mirror under their chin, watch their reflection and try to walk in a straight line. They were also asked about whether they liked water play and encouraged to let their imaginations run amok in conjuring up their ideal playground.

The fruits of this consultation resulted in a quirky fusion of past and present, with the new park centred around a redbrick 19th-century Gasworks chimney. Originally used for coal-burning in the production of gas, the conservation report states that it is “one of the only remaining structures that symbolises the industrial history of the Docklands area”. The seemingly opposite concepts of work and play are united in the chimney itself which was incorporated into the park in more ways than one. Writer Chris Meade worked with children from City Quays National School on a poem called The Talking Chimney, lines from which have been engraved into the park’s seating. The chimney, standing at 38m (125ft), now sports a basketball hoop on one side and climbing footholds (with specially made bricks) on the other.

From a preservation and heritage point of view, there were limits to what could be done, according to Susan Cogan, an architect with the Dublin Docklands Development Authority (DDDA). “We had a lot of ideas for the chimney, but there were technical limitations. One plan was to install a telescope at the top so that you could see the whole of Dublin, but structurally it wasn’t possible.”

The park also features palm trees, which were imported from Sicily. Their inclusion came about because of a childhood memory related by Mette Boye. “During the consultations, an adult told us that they remembered playing in trees and that it was one of their happiest experiences of playing as a child.”

TRADITIONALLY, PARKS in the city centre have been architectural squares such as Merrion or Fitzwilliam Squares or historical spaces such as the Garden of Remembrance or St Stephen’s Green. Suburban parks such as Herbert or Fairview Park offer a huge range of amenities and most of Dublin’s parks now offer play spaces alongside the usual football pitches or duck ponds. Gerry Breen, Dublin City Parks Superintendent, is in charge of 35 major parks in the city, many of which started life as tip heads and old quarries. He cites Bushy Park as the best example of what a city park can be and how they’ve come a long way.

“A big change came about in playgrounds about 12-15 years ago. Apart from the fact that concrete surfaces weren’t safe, the industry got more sophisticated and the range of equipment available really took off.”

Many parks started using woodchip or recycled rubber and opted for equipment for different age groups that had multiple elements to them. Instead of a rudimentary slide, it could now be housed in a tower that resembles a boat or castle, with climbing footholds, rope bridges and an abacus on the wall or compass points on the ground if the physical stuff gets too much. Mountjoy Square Park has an interactive game powered by solar panels and Bushy Park is home to the concrete bowl of a public skatepark. “It almost doesn’t matter what equipment a playground has because the real value of it for children is social,” says Breen. “It’s a safe location where they can make friends and where parents can also meet up.” Dublin City Council’s playground refurbishment programme is almost at an end, with most parks having been upgraded. No bad thing from a timing point of view, as the average cost is €300,000-€400,000 per playground, money that would be difficult to find in the current economic climate.

A key element in Dublin’s modern playgrounds is the effort to appeal to various age groups. Children have microscopic attention spans at the best of times, so holding their interest when they’ve grown out of something is crucial, rather than applying a one-size-fits all policy to equipment. The Docklands Chimney Park has tackled this in a couple of ways, says Susan Cogan.

“We wanted to focus on a couple of groups, especially young children, so we opted for the water feature and the sand area.” Apart from the paths, the Chimney park surface is comprised of sand, which works well as a safety feature beneath the climbing footholds on the chimney itself.

LOCALS WERE at first resistant to the idea of using sand in the park. “Some people thought it would be messy or hard to maintain, but we’ll be keeping an eye on things to see how well it works,” says Mette Boye. “Lots of playgrounds in continental Europe use sand surfaces so there’s no reason it can’t work here.”

The park is also aimed at young people caught in the limbo between being a child and adulthood, when social options are limited.

“We held a forum for young people and teenagers of 13 and 14 told us that there were very few places they could just meet their friends and chat. This park has no gates so it will be open all the time and will hopefully feel like a space of their own.”

With that kind of access there is a risk of anti-social behaviour or vandalism, but there will be security monitoring the park. Creating a sanctuary has merit, but on a day-to-day basis – not least because of insurance – safety is paramount to any children’s space. Gerry Breen believes that “good contractors and daily checks by staff” can help eliminate the rare incidence of accidents or injuries. The UK-based Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RSPA) carries out checks here to ensure safety standards are being enforced. Susan Cogan tells me that while the DDDA liaised with the RSPA, they were determined not to let things get too restrictive.

“Kids need to test themselves and we wanted the Chimney Park to be a rich play experience but also a place where kids can challenge themselves.”

Boulders line the park’s path, creating texture, and there is a mirrored wall at one end. Next to the chimney is a bright blue lounging wall, which serves as a backdrop to a small stage which can be used for outdoor performances.

It’s a small but striking place, dubbed – in planning terms – a “pocket park”. There are plans for a larger leisure space in the Docklands area called the Chocolate Factory Park but it’s unlikely to have the unique combination of old Dublin architecture with modern playground landscaping that the Docklands Chimney Factory Park has. “I love the way the palm trees in the park echo the verticality of the chimney,” says Cogan, “It’s whimsical and fun.” A whole new generation of Docklands children would certainly agree.

The Docklands Chimney Park is located near Grand Canal Square in Dublin’s southside Docklands

Irish Times

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