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Save the play spaces – a plea for the preservation of play spaces in times of densification

Claudia Neumann, Deutsches Kinderhilfswerk e.V.


Conditions for playing and exercise in the city are becoming increasingly worse. The opportunities for children and adolescents to participate in society are not evenly distributed today. For example, children and adolescents from neighbourhoods with a large number of low-income households are suffering from multiple stresses such as air pollution, noise pollution and a considerable lack of green and open spaces, in particular playing facilities, which demonstrably limits their development potential. Recent studies have repeatedly shown that children and adolescents exercise less and less and are far from meeting the recommendations of the experts.

The lack of affordable living space and the need for further densification, especially in large German cities, are currently leading to considerable competition for land. There are fears that the green spaces and play spaces needed for the healthy growth of children and adolescents will increasingly fall by the wayside. Municipal playgrounds are partially or completely dismantled, large residential complexes with extensive green spaces have to make room for further urban densification, informal playgrounds such as brownfields are sacrificed to new residential construction or road construction. Private property developers are insufficiently fulfilling their obligation to build playgrounds and are thus increasing the pressure on the remaining public play areas. The expansion of nurseries, which is still necessary, often leads to further sealing of existing outdoor areas on the site or even to new construction on municipal green spaces and play areas. School extensions also repeatedly reduce outdoor areas, which are so important in schools that operate full days. Compensation through standardised playgrounds in newly built areas is just as unhelpful here as the strategy of compensating for the loss of green spaces by increased investment in roof and façade greening. Even if the situation in conurbations is strained, urban planning must remain child-friendly. According to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, it too must prioritize the best interests of the child. This is because irreparable damage to urban planning often comes at the expense of children and adolescents for whom open spaces and playgrounds are important and must not be lost. It is important, therefore, not to play off the two so important social concerns against each other: new housing construction and the preservation of play areas. Rather, creative solutions must succeed in satisfying both legitimate needs to a sufficient degree.


No dismantling of play spaces

The city is a living space for all people. Therefore, it must provide attractive facilities for all generations and be future-oriented, so that the people of today and tomorrow can feel comfortable, develop and flourish in a healthy way. In a time of rising property prices, the sale of land to refinance other projects and increasing competition for land, the framework conditions are changing in favour of the desires of many investors and politicians. Despite lip service to the contrary, construction development is occurring at existing open spaces and even parks. Children and adolescents will thus be pushed further out of the public space. Many of the unplanned informal play areas, such as brownfields, are increasingly giving way to the construction of new buildings and road traffic measures despite their high play value. Recent trends and surveys even show that in many municipalities playgrounds that have been managed for decades are being partially or completely dismantled or even playgrounds defined in the development plan are being declared building land and sold. The formal justifications are complex and, in addition to the necessity of further densification in the course of new housing construction, range from low demand for playgrounds in times of demographic change and the digitalisation of the play worlds, vandalism, neglected maintenance and obsolescence of playground equipment to a high investment backlog in the municipalities. From the point of view of the German Children's Welfare Organisation (Kinderhilfswerk), its partners in the Alliance (Advisory Council) for the Right to Play and the German Municipal Gardens and Parks Heads Conference, this trend contradicts the basic idea of providing public services and actively opposes the implementation of Article 31 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child in Germany. Future generations must also have safe, interconnected and accessible play areas at their disposal. The course must be set for this in the here and now. Areas and spaces that are privatised, sold or abandoned because they are not used in the current structure can no longer be used as recreational and play areas in the future. For this reason, as early as 2016 a joint resolution called for the following, among other things:

  1. In principle, abandonment of playgrounds is to be avoided.
  2. Playground development concepts and/or play expansion planning are to be developed and children and adolescents are to be involved through appropriate methods.
  3. In addition to their importance as key areas for play and exercise, the importance of playgrounds for urban climate, biodiversity, healthcare and social balance in the neighbourhood must be emphasised.
  4. Measures to secure, further develop and create new play spaces are to be concentrated in disadvantaged neighbourhoods.
  5. In the city-wide playground concepts, the qualities for the design of the playgrounds are to be emphasised in particular, whereby the guiding idea of a district-related system of open spaces and the multiple function of playgrounds is to be taken as the basis.
  6. With intelligent play space management, the option of interim use must also be considered.

In summary, it can be stated that every parks and green areas department should vehemently fight for the highest level of preservation of play areas and use all its know-how in order not to permanently lose the battle for open spaces. Even if a continued urban sprawl is to be avoided in order to halt the consumption of land, it is still necessary to tackle inner-city densification with intelligent, creative and courageous solutions. Instead of focusing on more density at the expense of open spaces suitable for children, "increased height" would be the more appropriate motto in some places. Because no one has the right to a two-storey townhouse in a prime city location if an important playground and open space had to make way for it first.

Making private property developers accountable

The playable city, in which children and adolescents find a close-meshed network of varied play opportunities, linked by green corridors and paths, which invite them to play freely and as self-determined as possible, should be the goal of any municipal planning. An important component of this network are easily accessible playgrounds close to the residents. These playgrounds close to their homes are particularly important for younger children. Their radius of action only increases over the years and even stagnates if early experiences on playgrounds close to the home fail to materialise. 

For some years now, however, it has been observed that many private owners of apartment buildings no longer adequately fulfil their obligation to create play facilities on their own property to the extent required by law. This not only means that a significant area potential is lost, but also that the pressure to use the remaining public play areas is increased many times over. As a result, the German Children's Welfare Organisation saw the need to carry out a nationwide study and, in doing so, to work out what scope of action the municipalities actually have in order to demand compliance with the obligation to build playgrounds and what proposals can be made to improve the situation in quantitative and qualitative terms. The results of the study published in spring 2018 show that there are considerable differences both in the legal bases of the individual federal states and in municipal practice. Despite a large number of different regulations, only a few municipalities formulate quality standards for the construction of private playgrounds that go beyond safety standards. References to DIN 18034 exist ‒ if at all ‒ only in municipalities which have a separate playground statute. Hamburg is setting a good example in this respect and has even produced a brochure with very clear design examples especially for private property developers.

From the point of view of the children's rights organisation, it is therefore important to implement and monitor these regulations more consistently than in the past. Exceptions should always be assessed by the municipality and not decided solely by the architects or property developers. For the possible exemption from the obligation in justified individual cases, the municipalities should in any case demand an adequate transfer fee, to be invested in public playgrounds. In addition, the lack of families moving in should not lead to exemption from the obligation to build a playground. Otherwise there is the risk that in retrospect families are deliberately prevented from moving in, in order not to have to fulfil this obligation later. In addition, not only the location and size of playgrounds should be controlled on the basis of the planning documents, but also the realisation and design quality, as well as continuity and proper maintenance. It is also particularly important that planning of the playgrounds is carried out by professional playground planners or garden and landscape architects, to the extent possible, and that future residents and thus the children are involved in the planning and creation of the playground. In many cases, this would require the playgrounds to be created or finally realised within a certain period of time after the families have moved in.

Quality instead of quantity?

Even though DIN 18034 stipulates certain area size requirements ‒ graduated according to age groups ‒ the requirements with respect to a certain quality of the playgrounds are at least as important. These include stimulation diversity, room design, natural play, rest areas, new interpretations of classic play equipment, design possibilities, opportunities for interaction, as well as reachability and barrier-free accessibility. All of this should be based on a participatory concept for play areas. Particularly in the densely populated inner city district, where despite all efforts to maintain the area, fewer and fewer large, contiguous open spaces will be available for play, special attention should be paid to placing particularly high demands on the quality of the space to be designed, in order to compensate for a quantitative shortage to a certain extent. The following points should be taken into account, therefore, when planning in small areas:

  1. Multifunctional use of areas ‒ a wooden pedestal can be a seat and a space for lying down at the same time, as well as a climbing course, a mosaic snake at the same time a bench and a balancing facility, the legally required fire brigade access to the courtyard can also function as a ball game area, the lawn can be used as a ball play area, the art object or the fountain can be used for playing, a public place can invite to run around playing temporary water games, trees can invite to relax in the shade on circular benches.
  2. Creating play opportunities that can be used by many children at the same time and thus providing opportunities for interaction ‒ for example, rope pyramids or rope playhouses are suitable.
  3. Creating play space on several levels, building vertically in order to make the best possible use of the limited space ‒ a bird's nest tree or a cage for climbing and playing are sensible in this respect.
  4. Existing structures such as walls, passageways and staircases, etc. can be embraced as a challenge, not seen as a hurdle, and consciously integrated into the flow of play ‒ for example, a climbing course can be installed on a soundproof wall, a screen made of wooden trunks can also serve as a play labyrinth, ventilation systems of underground car parks can be transformed into a multifunctional play object.
  5. Choose plants in such a way that they invite children to play ‒ narrow shrub plantings also provide space for hiding and crawling, trees can be deliberately left climbable.

Even if free space is limited, no playgrounds should be built on the roof of a house or indoors. They are certainly great opportunities to create additional facilities, but are unsuitable as a substitute for an outdoor space that is as close to nature as possible. Instead, one could consider designing a mix of a children's playground and a meeting place for generations. Multifunctional facilities and structures could be used with a deliberate natural design, i.e. raised beds to be cultivated together, a garden of the senses or the like. It is nevertheless important to create a differentiated and stimulating range of facilities and not a bare lawn. With a great deal of creativity you can create true gems even in the smallest spaces, which invite to play, but also to relax and unwind.



Federal state capital Stuttgart: Kindergesundheitsbericht 2015, Gesundheit, soziale Lage und medizinische Versorgung in den Stuttgarter Stadtteilen [Children's Health Report 2015, Health, Social Situation and Medical Care in the Stuttgart Districts], data from the years 2009 - 2015, Stuttgart 2016, accessed on 1 July 2019 at https://www.stuttgart.de/img/mdb/publ/26322/116776.pdf

Deutsches Kinderhilfswerk1 [German Children's Welfare Organisation1]: Kein Rückbau von Spielflächen Resolution vom Beirat Bündnis Recht auf Spiel1 und der Deutschen Gartenamtsleiterkonferenz (GALK), Berlin 2016 [No dismantling of playgrounds Resolution of the Alliance (Advisory Council) for the Right to Play and the German Municipal Gardens and Parks Heads Conference (GALK), Berlin 2016], accessed on 11 July 2019 at https://www.dkhw.de/schwerpunkte/spiel-und-bewegung/politische-arbeit/kein-rueckbau-von-spielflaechen/

Deutsches Kinderhilfswerk2 [German Children's Welfare Organisation2]: Untersuchung zur Anlage von Spielplätzen durch nicht-öffentliche Bauherren/-träger in deutschen Großstädten [Study of the construction of playgrounds by private builders/property developers in German cities], Berlin 2018, accessed on 11 July 2019 at www.dkhw.de/spielplatzstudie

Deutsches Kinderhilfswerk3 [German Children's Welfare Organisation3]: 10 Bausteine eines kindgerechtes Spielplatzes [10 building blocks of a playground suitable for children], Berlin 2013, accessed on 11 July 2019 at https://www.recht-auf-spiel.de/recht-auf-spiel/themen/spielraumplanung

Hanseatic City of Hamburg: Private Spielflächen in Innenstadtquartieren, Hinweise zur Gestaltung [Private playgrounds in inner-city districts, design tips], accessed on 11 July 2019 at https://www.hamburg.de/contentblob/1835354/331b0437cc9584085d0b2b93529fb4bc/data/kinderspielflaechen.pdf


Image: Lappset

cf. Children's Health Report 2015 (Kindergesundheitsbericht 2015), Federal State Capital Stuttgart p. 102

The WHO recommends 1 hour/day, the national recommendations even specify up to 3 hours.

cf. Deutsches Kinderhilfswerk1, 2016, no date.

cf. Deutsches Kinderhilfswerk (Children's Welfare Organisation) 2, 2018, no page

cf. Deutsches Kinderhilfswerk3 (Children's Welfare Organisation), 2013, no page.

cf. Hansestadt Hamburg, P 53 f

cf. ibid., P. 8

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