The City, Polarized for Play

M. Paul Friedberg, FASLA, on why cities should be places to play instead of places for playgrounds.

By Zach Mortice 

M. Paul Friedberg’s Billy Johnson Playground. Photo courtesy the Central Park Conservancy.

The granite slide in New York City’s Billy Johnson Playground is an illustration of M. Paul Friedberg’s design philosophy. Its 45-foot serpentine curve is nestled into a rocky outcropping, one of Central Park’s startling moments of geologic heft. The slide came from Friedberg’s observations of how his own children tumbled down the slate gray behemoths.

Located at the East 67th Street entrance to Central Park, the playground is inspired by the park’s landscape and context, expressed through rustic wood pole knots and stone blocks. The granite slide, like other elements of the playground, is less a discrete object and more “an incident in the park” that flows naturally from its setting, says Friedberg, the recipient of the 2015 ASLA Medal. “You wanted to make it look like you just came across this.”

By layering the slide on top of geology, the slide “doesn’t have to be in a playground,” Friedberg says. And it  gets to the heart of his approach at Billy Johnson Playground. “Do you consider Central Park a place for playgrounds,” he says, “or is it a place to play?”

The granite slides at Billy Johnson Playground. Photo courtesy the Central Park Conservancy.

Relying on childrens’ imaginations to fill in gaps and narrative context has been a through line of Friedberg’s career. By carefully arranging play infrastructure within a consistent design language, these landscapes are “not playground as object, it’s [an] integrated play experience,” says Christopher Nolan, the chief landscape architect at the Central Park Conservancy.

Thanks to a recent restoration, the playground is one that generations of children will get to experience anew. The renovation has repaired gradual wear and tear, improved accessibility, and provided new play structures. The Billy Johnson Playground renovation is part of the conservancy’s Forever Green initiative, a $300 million campaign launched in 2016 to restore and preserve Central Park.

Rustic wood predominates in the Central Park playground. Photo courtesy the Central Park Conservancy.

At the Johnson playground, the conservancy (with Friedberg’s input) added a smaller Americans with Disabilities Act-accessible granite slide, a sand table, and a user-activated water feature in the playground’s amphitheater. Wood arbors, a pergola, and a wood-framed tire swing (that replaced standard metal swings) enhance the pastoral atmosphere. A new net climbing play structure that Friedberg designed, built from posts of Douglas fir, is a new centerpiece for the playground.

A new net climber play structure was one of the key additions of the renovation. Photo courtesy the Central Park Conservancy.

Even before the Johnson playground, Friedberg’s playscape designs were based on the belief that play was “not just a way of wasting time,” he says, and a landscape designer’s job is to accentuate and stimulate the developmental ramifications of play for children.

At his innovative design for the playgrounds at Jacob Riis Houses on the Lower East Side of New York City, Friedberg used a language of abstraction to invoke flexible tableaus for children’s play at a public housing development. The elemental forms (pyramid, mound, maze, stepped garden, amphitheater) were grouped together to create a child-scaled urbanism with their own internal logic; their formal allusions were loose enough to make them a venue for anything. Rather than fences or extraneous circulation guides, transitions between zones were delineated by changes in materials, or other tactile and visual cues. This strong, architectonic approach organized all the elements of play from within a consistent and integrated set of design motifs and forms, rather than through commercial pro forma jungle gyms and swings selected from a catalog. In 1966, Ada Louise Huxtable raved, “It breaks every sterile mold and stale convention of the city’s park, playground, and open space policy for the last 30 years. They were great years for the manufacturers of asphalt, chain-link fences, and Keep Off the Grass signs.”

The playground’s miniature version of Gapstow Bridge. Photo courtesy the Central Park Conservancy.

The same intuitive transitions and holistic integration are used at the Billy Johnson Playground, albeit with a decidedly Adirondack sensibility. “It was just picking up on what was there,” he says.  And what’s there speaks to a certain Gilded Age conviviality, from the graceful 1896 stone Gapstow Bridge (given a miniature homage at Billy Johnson Playground) and the Dene Summerhouse, a gnarled pavilion that’s a prized wedding venue, where mossy tree trunks and branches hold creeping vines aloft.

An entrance to the playground. Photo courtesy the Central Park Conservancy.

In some ways, the Johnson playground’s integrated play structures are a reference to rubble-strewn post-World War II adventure playgrounds, where children defined and created their own play infrastructure out of what was at hand. But the synthesis of rigorously designed landscape architecture and open-ended immersion has been largely unexplored in landscape design since, Friedberg says. “It’s not advanced. If anything, it’s regressed,” he says. Landscape architect-led playscapes have become more and more immersive places that don’t lack for design sophistication, but there’s relatively little of the hands-off abstraction pioneered by Friedberg.

For Friedberg, play is an interstitial and omnipresent activity. “It’s really the linkages that are important, the choices that are made available,” he says. “The playground can’t be designed as a series of pieces. It should really be an environment that can be interpreted by the kids. The best playgrounds are the ones the kids build themselves.”

Zach Mortice is a Chicago-based design journalist who focuses on landscape architecture and architecture. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram. 

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