Hållbara Lekmiljöer is a testbed project for transforming urban playgrounds into digitalised, sustainable, user-friendly green play environments.
Planning a city with its children in focus is becoming an increasingly compelling incentive in sustainable development. This has resulted in the predominating design of playgrounds for children receiving critique. The archetypal playground consists of one or a few swings, rubber asphalt, and tools and structures for play. Research on out-door play however, show that such playgrounds have a low play value compared to environments that are more nature-like with more abundant resources for play. The trend today is to down-prioritize play environments close to homes and schools in favour of play parks located further away. This makes everyday play hard to access for children, being especially problematic for children with special needs. Moreover, it produces unnecessary strain on environmental functions in an urban environment in need of more efficiently used green spaces, as well as paying little or no mind to the proximity of dangerous traffic. In fact, detailed interferences in playgrounds do not create lasting qualitative play value for children. Thus, the concept of ‘playground’ (Swedish: lekplats) is gradually being replaced by ‘play
environment’ (Swedish: lekmiljö). The project Digitala och fysiska lekmiljöer/Hållbara lekmiljöer i staden has, in various steps since 2013, elaborated on how to innovate these environments by bringing together relevant housing and construction companies, municipalities, landscape architects, playground designers, researchers and local children in testbeds in which the natural environment is utilized in combination with digital components for better outdoor play value.
Good practices & solutions
Digitalisation and utilisation of existing natural conditions are guiding factors in the process, thus allowing for more green spaces and ecosystem services. The constellation of partners has been involved in a hands-on manner, often engaging physically with the environment themselves by working collaboratively on-site. Thus, all stakeholders have viewed the consequences of their ideas in real environments, helping them to screen some of the less constructive prototypes. Children, naturally, have been involved as the chief evaluating actors regarding play value together with
the partners. Digital tools have been integrated into the natural environment, using sound and light effects to inspire play with natural materials.
Local actors have had a substantial role in shaping the outcome; in Vårby gård, a stigmatised low-income suburb of Stockholm, the local housing company Balder helped create commitment among local children in formulating their challenges and possibilities. Children were temporarily given cameras for documenting their everyday life and expressing their needs and wishes regarding playing opportunities. The project has experienced several phases, during which some actors have been brought in and others have stepped out. Prisma Tibro was brought in by the project manager Eva-Lotta Sallnäs Pysander at KTH who realised that the company produces exactly the kind of robust materials for outdoor equipment that the project needed, but for a totally different kind of product.
Outcome & opportunities
Apart from producing a buyer’s competence guidebook (Swedish: beställarkompetensguide), the project has established a new area of competence within KTH as a coordinating actor but equally so a new business model among playground designers, architects and housing companies emerges. The concept of play environment is gradually becoming more accepted among the partner
organisations and potentially on a broader national level.
Lessons learned & recommendations
Designing the dialogue process has been a key concern; traditional dialogue meetings with target groups and stakeholders do not work well enough in this type of project. Asking people, including children, what they wish for in their playgrounds is not an efficient way of creating the optimal playing environment, as these questions produce archetypal answers. Instead, you need to ask different questions focussing on children’s concrete experiences and habits of play in a specific setting, observing children’s behavior and response to play environments, and experimenting
iteratively in order to evaluate what creates positive prerequisites for play as an activity. Research shows that play is intense and that children exhibit a browsing behavior in archetypal playgrounds, and that play is more long-lasting and engaging in natural environments. Combining the engaging mechanisms in digital play with known benefits of play in an environment with vegetation, terrain and natural materials can create innovative play environments with a high play value accessible to children in their everyday contexts.
It is interesting to note the generational differences inherent in the process, as younger architects and planners are generally devoted to the idea of natural playing environments whereas older generations are more used to the notion that children only feel safe to play in traditionally designed and secluded spaces. However, enthusiasm is not sufficient if the still rather radical and disruptive principles in the project are going to become commonplace in policies and construction operations. The positive outcomes need to be effective enough but also comfortable enough to uphold in order to be lasting and sustainable.
An essential starting point has been a common goal among the project partners. With regards to the co-creative process, it has proved vital to the project that all actors need to be involved not merely as decision-makers or in discussions but in the actual operations occurring on-site. Vinnova’s Challenge Driven Innovation programme states the need for concrete product development showing alternatives to existing solutions, thus encouraging physical engagement in the creation process among all participants. This creates understanding of one’s own role in the larger creation
chain, trust in the process and confidence in the jointly created vision. Team building has been fostered through hands-on working procedures and site visits rather than just meetings. Commitment cannot be successfully created unless an actor has been present in shaping the physical result with other actors. Moreover, the steering committee has been dedicated, which is considered a main prerequisite for success. Sending a representative to convey messages is insufficient; direct contact needs to be established between coordinators, steering committee members and driving spirits within the various organisations.
All things considered, fostering a buyer’s competence among municipalities and other clients of children’s outdoor play environments is considered one of the key effects with potential of transforming outdoor play environments for a sustainable urban development.
Engaged partners & stakeholder groups
Balder housing company, Children, Hags, HIQ, Huddinge Municipality, Hälsoträdgården, KTH, NCC, Nordic Parks, Prisma Tibro, SLU, Uppsala University, Urbio AB, Örebro Municipality.
Project: Stockholm Co-creation