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Schermbeck - a 'playable' town
By Isabella de Medici (DTP Landschaftsarchitekten GmbH)
DTP landscape architects have transformed common spaces in the small community of Schermbeck so that they can again be used for play. But the outcome is not merely a leisure or amusement park - quite the opposite. At first sight, the changes resulting from the introduction of the play and exercise space concept can appear ordinary and anything but exciting. However, on closer inspection, it becomes apparent that they can be both influential and inspirational.
The weeks of coronavirus lockdown have shown us the diverse ways that urban open spaces can be used. We saw children again playing on the pavement and now using empty car parks as velodromes or as a basis for flying kites. Their parents were able to jog down the middle of the road and safely cycle somewhere else. Of course, at a time when playgrounds and sports facilities are closed there are few other alternatives. But at the same, time the situation has demonstrated that car-free urban spaces can motivate people to use them for play and exercise.
It was this concept that underlies the play and exercise concept realised in the peaceful community of Schermbeck located near the Ruhr area. The many, relatively unspectacular alterations to the open spaces in their town have been designed to encourage the residents to return to play in the urban environment - on the new playgrounds, on pathways and their verges or in the areas adjacent to schools, kindergartens and sports venues. Everyone - young and old - can get back on their cycles or once again get about on foot. The local mayor welcomes this development: "Here in Schermbeck we see people walking again and children out and about in the open. I find this splendid - it's just like it used to be," enthuses Mayer Mike Rexforth. There is nothing backward-looking about his reference to the past - rather he is aware that the changes in the way that the residents are using open spaces as a result of the new play and exercise concept are at last luring them out of their cars into the fresh air.
Originally, Schermbeck had not intended to introduce such a comprehensive change to its infrastructure. DTP was first commissioned to take a look at the existing playgrounds there. It soon became clear that what was on offer did not meet needs given the growing population and the corresponding designation of new areas for the construction of housing. The playgrounds were often isolated islands - there was no connection between them, and they were sometimes sited in areas where few children lived. Other open spaces needed upgrading, their use was restricted or what they had to offer was simply unattractive. For years, no master plan or comprehensive play concept had been followed.
Fortunately, we at DTP were able to convince the local authority that it would be advisable to draw up an appropriate overall plan. And the situation in Schermbeck was hardly unusual. The publicly accessible leisure areas and playgrounds in many towns and cities are getting on in years. The condition of equipment provided is inadequate or what is on offer no longer meets the current requirements of the various potential user groups. It should be borne in mind that playgrounds can be facilities that are not just for young or school-age children. Adolescents, adults and even the elderly can be among the target groups when it comes to urban-based play and exercise options.
Our play and exercise concept took all this into account. In 2014, we put forward ideas on how Schermbeck could be transformed into a 'playable community' in which fun and pleasure could be derived from playing on and near playgrounds and exercise in the open. Our concept proposed creating various themed zones, linking these together and connecting them with the countryside surrounding the town. A total of five themes were defined, and their attributes were refined and accentuated. One of the concepts involved the construction of a multigenerational 'play park' around the primary school located in the south of the town. A green link provides a connection with an 'adventure' zone further to the east designed for more informal types of play. From here, small pathways lead to a 'sports strip' to the north. This themed area is intended to be an 'exercise complex' with the secondary school as its starting point. It extends as far as the playing field in the northeast. An almost linear zone - the 'landscape' playground - stretches through the western side of the town. It begins at the kindergarten, connects this with open countryside on the western edge of the town and runs as far as the 'Schermbeck Piazza' in the south around the town hall square.
The existing playgrounds in the themed zones were updated, including the Bleichwall playground. Part of the 'landscape' zone, the current play equipment on the site has been retained, but the facility is to be extended further to the west in future. New sand play areas and a water playground with channels and basins are to be created here where children will be able to splash around to their hearts' content. But the whole is to be further upgraded by the installation of new benches, cycle stands and litter bins. In other themed zones, the stereotype playgrounds have been replaced by more exciting play spaces. In most cases, new concepts encourage users to explore the surrounding area. Play options are not just located in plots but also on pathways and along these, for example, along the so-called 'processional way' between the 'play park' and 'adventure' zones. Previously, the 'processional way' had been bordered on both sides by open green spaces. Now it is lined by equipment designed to be used to train the sense of balance, such as a bridge, balancing beam, hop bollards and two concrete undulations that can also be used by skateboarders. And trees that bear blue blossoms have also been planted. Blue is the colour that predominates throughout the whole play and exercise concept. There are blue footprints on the ground leading visitors to the new attractions, blue lampposts, blue-coloured surfacings, blue finishes on play equipment together with shrubs that also produce blue blossoms. The external areas of the schools in Schermbeck are designed not just to be used by pupils during breaks. They have been included in the play and exercise concept as open spaces that can be used for meeting with friends, relaxation, climbing and bouldering, running and ball games at any time. The redesigned school grounds also now incorporate elements coloured blue.
Through these and other less obvious small touches, we intentended to make sure that the residents of Schermbeck have the opportunity to play and exercise in variously designed zones scattered throughout the town. In particular, we wanted to stimulate them to rediscover their place of residence and show them how many attractive and diverting routes there were to be explored away from the roads. With this objective in mind, our concept has significantly contributed to generating in Schermbeck a footpath and cycle path network that can be used every day.
All the inhabitants of Schermbeck, and especially the children, can now see their town from an entirely new perspective. Using attractive routes that are entirely separate from the roads, they can move from one exciting play and exercise site to another - and also find their way to the kindergartens, schools and sport facilities. Through play and exercise, they are able to investigate where they live anew while rambling through the town. "Although it may all seem trivial, the educational value is enormous. So much has changed in Schermbeck because of the introduction of the play and exercise concept that was developed in consultation with children and young people," sums up secondary school head Norbert Hohmann. As a result of these relatively minor changes, Schermbeck has undergone a metamorphosis and is now a 'playable' town. The planning and implementation of the last two themed zones - the 'landscape' and 'adventure' zone with the Schermbeck Piazza, is currently on-going. By the end of 2021, the play and exercise concept is scheduled to be implemented.
By then, we at DTP will be able to look back on a 7-year process in which we collaborated closely with a community and its citizens. At the very beginning, when developing our concept, we consulted the inhabitants of Schermbeck concerning the design details of the individual zones. The local schools provided significant project support. We now hope that Schermbeck's children will grow up enjoying their new pathways and play spaces. Perhaps they will inspire developments elsewhere, so that accessible and appealing areas for people will be created in our towns and cities, replacing at least some of the space dedicated to car travel. The importance of this is something that we all - not just those living in Schermbeck - have come to realise in the weeks of the coronavirus lockdown. With fewer cars on the roads, we are happy to use the opportunity to play and exercise in the urban environment.