Inclusive schoolyards and playgrounds - A question of barrier-free accessibility and school development
The correlation between barrier-free accessibility and inclusion
YOUR FORUM FOR PLAY, SPORTS UND LEISURE AREAS
After about 15 years the central playground of Krumbach, a little village in Bregenz Forest, had become obsolete. Hence the playground was restructured in the context of a pilot project when the playground and open space concept was designed in autumn 2017. Thus, the existing play offerings for toddlers, children and youngsters could be extended in various ways. Since then, it is not only the inhabitants of Krumbach who are very enthusiastic about the play and sports offerings of the new playground. Whether swinging, jumping, climbing, balancing, sliding, messing around with sand and water, - this playground in the little village of Voralberg with its distinctive playing experience and open space quality, is an attractive meeting point for young and old.
Krumbach is a little village in the Bregenz Forest at an altitude of approximately 730 metres above sea level. It has only 1050 inhabitants. That is why investments in infrastructure and life quality require careful consideration. Over a distance of 25 km, which corresponds to the distance to Bregenz, for example, the infrastructural supply is guaranteed by regional facilities. However, local supplies including local quality playing experience are essential for families and children. Krumbach has exciting informal playing spaces in forests, at brooks or in moors. One of its scenic particularities is the small mosaic of moors. For over 10 years, Krumbach has promoted the responsible and enjoyable use of moorland with the help of moor guides and moor publicans in the so-called Krumbach moors project. Besides, the restaurants and guesthouses of Krumbach are traditional cultural assets. Because here the inhabitants do not only meet to enjoy a meal and a drink but also to discuss and organise their concerns. Regarding its quality as a meeting point, the central playground of the village remains unmatched. Since its creation about 15 years ago, the municipality has considerably improved its image and local reputation. The design of the village centre was created by the popular regional architects Hermann Kaufmann and Bernardo Bader.
A play and open space concept as a legally binding framework
With the law on public playgrounds and natural open spaces, in short law on play areas, the Land of Voralberg achieved a remarkable step forward in 2009 towards a high-grade development of public spaces. Ten years later, in March 2019, the law was adjusted and adopted as a national law of the most western province of Austria. The adjustment of the law was preceded by an external evaluation conducted by KAIROS Wirkungsforschung und Entwicklung gGmbH (a company dedicated to impact research and development). The main objective of the law was and still is to promote an open and youth-friendly society. The legal measures of this law are meant to enable children to promote their physical, mental and social skills by playing outdoors. When implementing play and open areas, it must also be taken into account to promote the relationships between children and adults. Hence, this concept ideally embraces all population age groups because cross-generational encounters are part of the concept design. On a conceptual level, the playground concept of a municipality must contain general basic statements about the playgrounds required, in particular about their location, dimension, target groups, equipment and thematic focuses. In addition, the required open spaces must be included textually and in the form of a map in the design concept regarding location, dimension and usage. In general, the national law of Vorarlberg states that the municipalities are obliged to install and maintain public playgrounds. In addition, they have the obligation to provide children with publicly available open spaces, in particular green areas where children can play. Child-friendly living spaces must be designed and organised in a way which allows children to develop their creativity and urge to move. Those playgrounds and open areas which comply with the Law on Play Areas will be generously supported by the Land as long as they meet the quality criteria required. The aim is to increasingly provide children with the necessary game and activity outdoor areas. According to the funding regulations of the present national law, playgrounds, natural play areas, youth parks as well as play and activity corners are eligible as long as their small-scale and site-specific installations, building constructions or landscape designs enhance the respective place for children and youngsters. The most important quality criteria refer to the natural design of the area, the play value of the devices and safety. Regarding playgrounds, natural areas and youth parks, the important quality criteria considered are accessibility, integration in the surroundings, spatial orientation, everyday suitability and possibilities for use at all hours of the day and all seasons of the year, natural design, consideration of flexible usage of open spaces, exciting play offerings with high play and recreational value for toddlers, children up to 14 years and youngsters, local recreation and cross-generational encounters, cleanliness, economic efficiency and, in general, measures which promote identity as part of the implementation. In general, both new constructions, changes and repair work are eligible for funding as long as the measures are explicitly mentioned and described in the municipal play and open space concept. After the first version of the law on play areas had been integrated into the national law of 2009, it was observed that first and mainly small villages were extremely sceptical about creating a concept. Sometimes it was the wish to create something new which gave the initial impetus to develop the necessary technical basis. It can also be observed that both in small villages and larger municipalities the development of play and open space qualities contribute to the location's attractiveness, to attract, for instance, qualified staff. In addition, visitors and tourists benefit from the high play and leisure quality. Additionally, they promote the socialisation of guests and contribute to an enriching exchange between the local population and visitors. Both the habitat quality and an attractive offer of childcare will especially pay off for rural communities since those are important factors which attract new influx on the basis of which it will be easier to maintain and develop both infrastructure and local supply.
In this context it should be pointed out that the efforts to improve the life quality of children in the most western Land of Austria have become a very important issue. In spring 2019, the Land of Voralberg has launched a process to create what is called the "Voralberg trademark". A project team representing all regions and areas of society of the Land has taken over the most important preparations. The result is the official joint positioning for the coming years. By the year 2035, Voralberg should be the most promising living space for children. Specific measures and developments to achieve this objective remain to be seen. However, the objectives of the law on play areas as well as the respective funding guidelines help to achieve this aim.
Success factor participation
Furthermore, a working group has been established specifically for the design of the play and open space concept of Krumbach. This group met regularly from March 2017 up to the final concept phase in November 2017. Apart from the Mayor and Vice Mayor, a municipal representative, two staff members of the operational area and staff of the city council, the working group also consisted of three pedagogues or kindergarten teachers as well as supervisors of the playgroup, the principal of the primary school as well as three adolescents. A similar composition of project groups in other municipalities has proved successful since a broader access to the issue can thus be guaranteed. In addition to the general tasks of the working group, parents were also involved. They were interviewed about the outdoor play offerings and the leisure time or play time behaviour of their children as well as their clear ideas of perfect play and open space areas by proposing concrete implementation measures. First up to fourth-grade children of the Austrian primary schools had been interviewed about their favourite play areas in summer and winter, their daily routes and ways to school and also about dangerous places. Thus, so-called “perceptual walks“ to favourite and dangerous places were offered in order to identify appropriate places which could be included in the concept planning. The participation of two adolescents in the working group proved to be a real advantage. The idea for their participation
is based on the so-called day of youth participation, which had been successfully implemented in Krumbach in June 2016.
Mayor Arnold Hirschbühl, who is well-known for his careful organisation of the village development acted as a voice for the senior citizens in the working group. At that time, he was in the midst of handing over his functions to a younger successor. However, the redesign of the central playground was a particularly important aspect for him. He was able to provide his knowledge from 15 years ago when the first playground was constructed. The participation of staff of the council house had already proven very helpful in other municipalities. Due to their participation, the personnel in charge identify themselves more closely with the implementation and the future maintenance of the play and open space areas. However, the participation of the representatives of the playgroup, the kindergarten and the primary school was substantiated by the fact that the urban playground is mainly used by these institutions, that is to say in the context of their duties and school lessons.
Children, parents, pedagogues and teachers also provided important information regarding safety and spatial quality along the school and kindergarten ways and other daily routes. As a result, improvements regarding roads and paths occupied an important position in the action plan of the play and open space concept of Krumbach. For both the village centre and the small settlements the concept includes measures towards deceleration of the motorised traffic, safety at bus stops and the improvement of the meeting quality along roads and paths.
The redesign of the playground or the improvement of the play offerings for children and youngsters were declared measures of high priority. In order to develop spatial thematic focuses for natural adventures, measures for forest games along the forest hills near the village centre were created as well as water games at the desert ditch under the shady ravine and moor games plus observation platform, moor basin, moor building site and moor benches at the edge of the Rossbad nature conservation area. The broad participation regarding the design of the play and open space concept for the little village was a real achievement insofar as the at the same time the spatial development concept as a technical basis for the entire municipal district was developed with the same commitment. Regarding the completion of the concept, the author found it necessary to prepare the progressive implementation of the measures. Thus, an initiator and an implementation partner were designated for each measure. In addition, the Vice Mayor was appointed the official open space coordinator. In addition, a youth advisory council was installed with regard to the youth agenda.
The focus is on toddlers, children and youngsters
After questioning the parents, children and adolescents and the simultaneously implemented design of the playground and open space concept, the re-planning of the urban playground could be started. The aim was to design an attractive and multifunctional playground and open space area for all age groups. But this time, especially toddlers and youngsters should be given greater consideration. In addition, further free lawn areas should be provided. Due to its central location, the playground possesses great development potential. Its proximity to the school and schoolyard, kindergarten, playgroup, local authority, village store, tavern, churchyard and church makes an essential contribution to the local meeting quality. Furthermore, a bus stop and two parking areas guarantee good accessibility. Meanwhile even school classes and groups of children from the neighbouring municipalities come to visit the newly designed playground. For youngsters, the proximity to the local football pitch is also of utmost importance. Thanks to the glacial morainic deposits the position of this area clearly distinguishes itself. When taking the inventory of the old playground, one of the upgraded cable railways, a solid wooden playhouse and two spring rockers turned out to be the only devices worth preserving. According to the present re-design the site as such should remain largely unchanged, without excluding minor changes. Overall, there are approximately three altitude metres between the highest and the lowest point of the area. A majestic ash tree with a trunk diameter of 150 cm at the edge of the playground adds to the incredible quality of the space. In addition, two lime trees, which were planted during the first construction phase also contribute to the good microclimate by providing shade and cooling zones. In fact, it was the detailed inventory of the heights and the existing tree population which provided an important basis for the new design. The climbing focus of the playground was implemented over a wide area. A 4.5-metre-high and 8.0-metre-wide rope pyramid consisting of two horizontal nets and Hercules ropes is the main attraction of this area. The rope pyramid helps to promote the motor skills, particularly of children and youngsters. Regarding the play devices the most important criterion was the possibility that several children should be able to play there at the same time in order to promote interpersonal communication in a playful way. Further play elements of the new climbing area are the triple horizontal bar and the two-metre-high natural climbing rock from a regional quarry. At the upper timber platform with a diameter of approximately three metres there is a steep slide of stainless steel. However, it is not only the children who are enthusiastic to slide after having stormed the black locust timber deck. In addition, this area has also become a popular view and meeting point for young and old. Between the different playground levels, stairs and climbing trunks attract toddlers and children to train their motor skills. In the shade of the old ash tree, a naturally safe and partially manual fabrication of a sand water play area could be installed for toddlers and children. Furthermore, there is a second timber platform with a diameter of three metres which includes a beam pump with an integrated valve combination. From the storage basin the water flows through a massive water gutter to the round mud table. Children love this washed sand which can be installed up to a height of 60 cm to build creative hilly miniature landscapes. The border of the sand water area as well as some small-scale boundaries of the fall protection area next to the nest swing were framed with regional limestone blocks. Washed round gravel with a granulation of 4/8 was used for the specified fall prevention zone. This material complies with the hygienic requirements, it is durable and of an attractive design. On the playground embankment towards the schoolyard of the school opposite, a seating area was built from limestone blocks. There, the spectators are provided with a small lawn ball court between the low edge of the slope and the schoolyard of the primary school. Between the sand-water zone and the swings, a train runs through the playground and another footpath leads from the playground to the adjacent urban football pitch. Since the playground opened its doors in spring 2018, the wide range of seating facilities as well as the chill areas for young and old have been very well received. Bench and table combinations from mountain larch, typical park benches, two play areas of black locust, a hammock, seating steps and seat stone rows from limestone blocks as well a small playhouse provide the visitors with a free choice of seats. Regardless of preferences, age, weather condition and time of the year or day, there are enough nice places available for everyone. The new playground was restructured between August and October 2018. The two workers of the municipal building yards were responsible for the implementation. They deserve every respect for the professional and successful project implementation. The civil engineering was carried out by a regional construction company. The equipment installation was accompanied by the Salzburg-Lungau-based company Moser Holzspielgeräte, manufacturer and supplier of the playground equipment. Regarding their range of playground equipment, this company is characterised by good value for money, best service and convincing design quality. In addition, the company Hans Moser is the responsible representative of the company Richter Spielgeräte in Austria.
Play elements of good design quality
Playing experience does not necessarily depend on the existence of play devices. Cultural landscapes of structural diversity as well as diverse natural areas are unrivalled informal play areas. However, they are becoming increasingly rare in the direct residential environment. It can be observed that particularly in urban areas there is a trend towards the creation of secondary biotopes with habitat quality for residents and their social environment. Playgrounds as such in the classical sense will, however, always make an indispensable contribution to the quality of play and open space areas. In both cities and villages, they promote the socialisation, not only of children. In addition, the parents, too, benefit from the possibility to come together and exchange experience with other people in comparable living situations. However, the expectations and demands on playgrounds vary considerably. In the context of planning, urban planners, for example, find it essential to gain profound knowledge about the expected target group. In case the technical basis in form of a play and open space concept does not exist, in any case it is recommendable to look behind the plate of the residential area or the urban or city district. Strengths and weaknesses as well as any other important focus of the respective catchment area should be included in the design planning. Another important aspect for the planning is the selection of playground devices. In addition, the contracting authorities need to be given adequate information about the individual devices. As a general rule, play devices which can be used by several children at the same time should be preferred. Apart from promoting the sensory and motor skills of children, they specifically promote the social and emotional development of children. We as landscape architects with a high demand for design quality of play devices are constantly on the lookout for special non-mainstream elements. The market for play devices is very competitive, not to say unmanageable. However, many elements offered are of similar colours and design. Relating to high-quality architecture, the demand for design quality of playground equipment increases accordingly. Preferably the play devices and play elements are compatible with the forms and materials of the respective playground by becoming part of the overall concept so that the structural engineering and the play objects form an ensemble. In addition, both the place and landscape also benefit from using play devices of high design quality. But in practice, searching for a simple frame for the nest swing might take considerably more time than previously expected. Stereotypes of devices neither exploit the full potential of design quality nor do they contribute to the enormous creative potential of toddlers, children and youngsters. Sometimes we have the impression that play devices are reduced to a stereotypical implementation of vivid colours. The efficient planning of playground equipment, however, require concepts which mainly focus on convincing materiality instead of colours. Therefore, the play functions should always be reviewed and redefined.
Play and open space areas in spatial planning processes
The planning practice of the past 10 years has shown that the demands on high quality design of play and open spaces areas are constantly increasing. Whereas in former times it was the building construction and roads which were in the focus of the municipal interest, these days issues such as densification, climate chance and social isolation have become increasingly important with respect to the design of open and green areas, playgrounds and meeting and exercise zones. In the old days it was the remaining space, today it is the space in between, which increasingly dominates the quality of life and habitat quality of human settlements. In this context, both architects, city planners and landscape architects operate on equal terms. In addition, there is an increasing willingness to make financial resources available for the development of play and open space areas. The planning of play and open space areas does not just begin with the building planning but starts much earlier with the strategic planning. In the course of the modification of the spatial planning legislation in Voralberg with effect from 1 March 2019, the play and open space concepts have reached the same level in the planning hierarchy as for instance traffic concepts. At municipal level, play and open space concepts are considered a binding and professional spatial planning basis in the context of district development concepts. Due to the legislative adjustment, from now on it is possible to elaborate play and open space concepts as an integrative, constitutive part of a spatial development plan. When the municipality of Krumbach designed its play and open space concept, they already required the integration of the respective target plan into the spatial development plan as a separate thematic field. In addition to the increasing focus on play and open space areas in the context of spatial development, it is also the foot and cycle paths which become increasingly important. However, networking structures and spatial quality between the green areas, parks and village squares, urban or city districts create open spaces in a figurative sense. Thus, encounters and subsequently neighbourhood can arise. Finally, it is the encounters with other people, short or tall, young and old which make life worth living and spaces worth living.
Photo: Graduate Engineer Maria Anna Schneider-Moosbrugger / landscape architecture and spatial planning