November 10, 2020
A Sense of Place and Environmental Stewardship
The Battery PlayScape is quietly emerging in lower Manhattan. Nestled in New York’s birthplace, the Playscape is sited where the land meets the sea, where locals meet tourists, where the bustle of the city is tempered by the presence of nature. Ecologically, the site is a dynamic confluence of water and land, including a partly fabricated coastline that has ebbed and flowed over time. Designed in the aftermath of Sandy, the Playscape is a response to the site’s resultant flooding; 1.5 acres that will tell an ecological story interwoven with play and a narrative about climate change. As the Playscape nears completion, we are in yet another critical moment. Covid 19 has asked us to re-envision the city, the role of public space, and how we imagine our urban future. Our need for public parks-as places of respite, of gathering, and of play-is more urgent than ever. No one needs this open space, with its connection to community and to nature, more than our children.
Our cities are not always child friendly, but playgrounds are where we let kids take center stage, one of the few public spaces where their needs come first. It is here that children play freely with both their friends and new faces, run loose, and test themselves. But, many of the city’s playgrounds were closed due to Covid. Anchored by stand-alone prefabricated equipment, traditional playgrounds are concentrated and prescriptive, inviting a density that is at odds with current needs of social distancing. By contrast, children at the Battery Playscape will traverse the playground’s 1.5 acres, experiencing a plant-filled expansiveness that is uncommon for many city-dwellers, while dovetailing with the new spatial logic of Covid. This diffuse organization encourages children to see-and therefore value–nature, while encouraging discovery, risk taking and creativity.
Instilling a sense of place and environmental stewardship underpins the design of the Battery Playscape. The world-class horticulture of The Battery and its ecological and cultural history set the scene for each play zone, subtly dividing the playground by activity rather than age group, fostering intergenerational and full family play. Existing mature London Plane trees inspired the playhouses, which allow children of all abilities to climb into the canopy and look down at the rain gardens snaking between root zones, out to the harbor, back to the city, or up at the sky. The Historic Castle Clinton Theater is re-envisioned in the ShowBox Theater, a nod to the cultural heritage of Lower Manhattan. Impermeable paving visibly directs surface runoff to the verdant raingardens crisscrossed by foot bridges, integrating environmental management practices into the very heart of the play experience.
The Playscape will promote ecological literacy in children while encouraging New Yorkers- as well as the Battery’s many international visitors- to envision coastal cities that work with – and not against – natural forces.
Playgrounds are an especially apt place for these lessons, as children engage in full-sensory embodied learning processes. It is through play that children make sense of the world, navigating questions of risk, engagement, and collaboration. It is yet to be seen how adults will make sense of our changing city, or what New York will look like in the coming months, or even years. Seeing our cities from the perspective of a child may help us all to imagine- and to create- healthy, resilient, and inclusive cities, grounded in an appreciation of the value of shared public space, and respect for the environment.