Where Work Meets Play: A Research-Based Approach to the Design and Evaluation of Smale Riverfront Park

By Tooke, Kate | Parks & Recreation, July 2016 | Go to article overview

Where Work Meets Play: A Research-Based Approach to the Design and Evaluation of Smale Riverfront Park


Tooke, Kate, Parks & Recreation


Screams of delight come from the slide hillside, mixing with the comfortable chatter of nearby parents. I watch a little girl launch herself down the slide. She hollers cheerfully as she careens off the end, taking a tumble before regaining her feet. She turns and flashes me a big smile, eyes shining, calling out, "Mama, come play!" I scribble down a few last notes and run over to join her.

On this sunny Saturday in mid-October, myself, my daughter, Tessa, and a team of designers from Sasaki Associates Inc. are in Cincinnati to conduct a post-occupancy evaluation of the new playscapes at Smale Riverfront Park. The park sits on the banks of the Ohio River between Paul Brown Stadium and the Great American Ball Park. Cincinnati is hardly short on playgrounds--the Trust for Public Land ranks it No. 2 in the nation when it comes to playgrounds per capita--but in the six months since this playscape opened, it has become a regional destination for families. A park maintenance staffer said some parts of the park had "at least one child per square foot" on summer weekends.

In part, the park is so popular because it is so different. Here, instead of the plastic post-and-platform structures of a typical American playground, climbing walls, boulders, bridges, logs and slide hillsides await curious kids. It's a place that seems a bit wild and a little risky, a place where the unexpected can happen.

The refreshing change of pace at Smale is part of a nationwide movement to re-invigorate outdoor playspaces. Susan Solomon, author of American Playgrounds: Revitalizing Community Space, describes today's default playground as "the McDonald's model:" a garishly colored and unimaginative collection of posts, platforms, tunnels and slides stamped uniformly across the country. "Things like taking risks, learning to fail, learning to master something, to plan ahead, to develop deep friendships," Solomon says, "none of those could take place on most playgrounds today." Children are suffering as a result. A lack of free play opportunities is culpable in forming the habits of a generation of children who are less imaginative, creative and expressive, according to Kyung-Hee Kim, an educational psychologist at the College of William and Mary and the author of the 2011 paper The Creativity Crisis.

During the past decade a groundswell of play advocates--including parents, teachers and designers--have begun arguing that a reasonable level of risk in play is essential to children's healthy development. The pendulum is slowly swinging back, with cities increasingly engaging designers in the creation of custom play environments that are contextual, place-specific and creative in their interpretation of the safety guidelines.

The Playscapes in Context

The making of Smale Park is a decades-long story of transformation. In the mid-1990s, most of the 32-acre site was a brownfield covered in parking and vacant industrial parcels that were regularly flooded by the adjacent Ohio River. A bold master-planning process in the late 1990s laid the groundwork for the park. In 1999, Sasaki was selected to develop concept plans and a team of landscape architects, urban planners and engineers conceived a multiphase approach, which began with making room for the park.

The park's dedicated playscapes--the Heekin Family/Grow Up Great Adventure Playscape and the P&G goVibrant-scape --opened together in the late spring of 2015. They blur the traditional boundaries between park and playground--there are no fences separating zones. Instead, children and families encounter spaces from all directions and play spills out onto lawns and paths. The park was conceived as a family destination, integrating attractions like Carol Ann's Carousel, fountains and a labyrinth, along with places to picnic, rent bikes, swing or sit by the river.

Design Process

The design team and park board together aspired to set a new standard. …

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