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17.08.2020 - Ausgabe: 4/2020

Upgrading of a playground – outcome of a multiphase consultation process involving children and young people in the Gropiusstadt district of Berlin

By Thorsten Vorberg (Quartiersmanagement Gropiusstadt, S·T·E·R·N Gesellschaft der behutsamen Stadterneuerung mbH)

©Quartiersmanagement Gropiusstadt, S·T·E·R·N Gesellschaft der behutsamen Stadterneuerung mbH

The population of Berlin is growing and as a consequence the demands in respect of infrastructure are similarly increasing in terms of both quantity and quality. The results of the continuing trend towards greater population density have long become apparent even in suburbs on the outskirts of cities and also in those districts that have been identified as having special development needs. Gropiusstadt, a large housing estate constructed in the 1960s and 1970s, is one such district. For decades, the area suffered from an image problem although much has been turned around since the start of the new millennium. The majority of the residents are happy to able to live in Gropiusstadt in view of the local facilities, the good road links and access to green spaces, the well-designed flats and the extensive social infrastructure here.  


A need for more green spaces for more people

The local housing associations are investing heavily in the maintenance of the local facilities - green spaces are being renovated and new blocks of flats are being built. However, the arrival of new flats also means that the open space available for play and leisure is coming under increased pressure. Berlin has its own legislation with regard to children's playgrounds, the aim of which is to ensure that at least one square metre of play area is provided per head of the population. Sadly, this commendable goal has yet to be realised in Gropiusstadt where the corresponding shortfall in terms of available public open space is some 23,000 m2. And as flats continue to be built, this deficit can only become more extreme. 

Since 2005 S·T·E·R·N Gesellschaft der behutsamen Stadterneuerung mbH that focuses on strategies for sustainable urban renovation has been collaborating with the Gropiusstadt district management authority within the Soziale Stadt program. In view of the worrying combination of population growth and loss of open space, the district management authority decided to initiate a consultation process with the local children and young people in summer 2017. The objective was to find out what the attitude of this group with regard to green and open spaces was and determine what sort of play, sport and leisure facilities they wanted. 

From the very beginning, the district management authority team intended not just to collect ideas but also to make available the funding to implement the suggestions that were put forward. The necessary money was accessible in the form of the Soziale Stadt urban development fund. The purposes for which this resource is to be used are regularly discussed with the public authorities at the senate and local levels and also with a committee of residents. 


It is children and young people who know best what they want

The team got their target group involved in the project by partnering with three local schools - the Zwickauer Damm school, Hugo-Heimann school and Janusz-Korczak school. As a result, it was possible to distribute a questionnaire designed for young people among the target group in which they were asked to specify their favourite outdoor spaces and to indicate what improvements they would like to see. To prepare them for completing the questionnaire, the pupils were previously exposed to the topics of green and open spaces and urban development in lessons. A total of 267 questionnaires were completed that could be analysed by the district management authority team and the results then discussed with the local authority departments.

The questionnaire included a map showing the available playgrounds and other public open spaces and the children could specify which of these they preferred and even themselves add particular sites they favoured to the map. When it came to the category playgrounds/games fields, the fourth most popular site turned out to be the playground on the Lipschitzalle/corner of Sollmaweg. At the same time, it was identified as being particularly in need of upgrading. 

This is a relatively large site, extending to 1700 m2, is centrally located and protected by a strip of vegetation from the road. At the time of the survey, it had just three ageing pieces of play equipment (a wooden ship, climbing frame and see-saw) and a small, unfenced asphalt games field. This latter was also designed to be used for basketball but could only be used to a limited extent for this purpose as the basketball basket had gone missing. The whole of the rest of the playground was covered with sand and there were no paved pathways. It was difficult to run on the sand and because this could be easily transferred to the games field there was a risk of slipping here. The expansive sanded areas hardly made an inviting impression. So the options for play on the site were considerably restricted. Although the playground is privately owned it is publicly accessible, meaning that public resources could be spent on its renovation.

A further finding of the survey was that the children were particularly fond of team games (particularly ball games), tag and running games, skating, scooter and bike riding and also climbing. The lack of adequate lighting, litter bins and seating options were aspects that were also mentioned. 


The implementation phase comes closer

Having obtained the constructive views of local children and young people, the district management authority team was able to approach the playground owner, the housing association Gropiuswohnen, with the various ideas for improvement. Gropiuswohnen was receptive to the concept of improvement and renovation of the Lipschitzallee playground and to a large extent endorsed the survey proposals. Not only that, but Gropiuswohnen also proved willing to supplement the public resources available in the form of the Soziale Stadt fund from its own resources to an extent considerably greater than the required 10%. A successful application for additional funding from the Zukunft Stadtgrün urban development program meant that sufficient money was obtained for a full overhaul of the playground. In general, the amounts provided by the state and private sectors were more or less equal. 

The playground owner commissioned Landschaftsarchitekturbüro Teichmann in Berlin, a landscape architect business specialised in the design of play areas and consultation with children to draw up a workable plan, supervise the tender and award processes and monitor construction progress. The site was then redesigned on the basis of the results of the survey. 


Young people and professionals acting in concert 

During the planning phase, the schools that had participated in the survey, other local children and personnel of the neighbouring children's and young people's facilities were repeatedly involved in the process. At an event in November 2018 organised by the district management authority team, the landscape architects presented their plan and took note of any further wishes and suggestions for improvements.  

A number of proposals were submitted by the Minecraft group of the UFO youth club. The district management authority team arranged for further consultation with this group. Using the digital construction game Minecraft, the 11 to 14 year-old members of the group had produced a virtual version of the Lipschitzallee playground and a video that took viewers on a virtual tour of what the site would look like with their suggested changes. 

Luckily there were considerable similarities between the suggestions of the landscape architects and those of the Minecraft group. The planners looked at the feasibility of the proposals of the young people, and incorporated certain aspects, such as the installation of bike stands, provision of seating and planting with blossoming plants in the plans.

Everyone benefitted from the exchange of ideas during the meeting. They got to see things from a different perspective, planning processes and procedures were explained and a greater awareness of needs as well as the associated general framework conditions was generated. 


The excavators come… and new partners too

Construction work finally began in March 2019. By this date, a lot of time had passed for those children who had participated in the survey in the 2017/18 school year and some of them had already left to go to new schools. There is always a considerable lag time before a major project such as this involving construction costs of just under €500,000, including state funding, actually sees the light of day. But thanks to close cooperation between the constructors, planning office, owner, local authority and district management authority, it was possible to drive forward the construction process so that the playground could be made available to the children during the remaining warmer months.

From the outset, there was an emphasis on ensuring that the playground would be popular with its future users. Exploited were existing contacts with the premier league basketball team ALBA Berlin - which had already shown its willingness to support measures to promote exercise among children by sponsoring a kindergarten project in Gropiusstadt - to obtain advice on the design of the new streetball field. In addition, ALBA Berlin pointed out that it would be happy to organise activities on the completed streetball field - an offer that was gratefully accepted by all involved in the project as this would not only contribute to enlivening the site but would also give children and young people an introduction to the sport.

Another successful element that has made the playground into an attractive place to meet and relax is a polygonal, two-step seating platform. A group of primary school pupils from the adjacent Hugo-Hermann school were responsible for its design and colour scheme. They were helped by their art teacher and an artist. It is quite possible that pupils will return to what is 'their' site when the play season recommences not only because of the interesting play options it offers but also because they were actually involved in its design.


A happy conclusion

The site on the Lipschitzalle/corner of Sollmaweg has been converted into a many-sided play and leisure facility after less than six month's work. With the retention of existing structures, such as entryways, plant beds and vegetation and the removal of most of the sand, diverse play and games options have been provided for children in the age range 8 to 14 years. It now has swings, slides, table tennis, a street ball and games field and areas for climbing and skateboarding. It is divided into separate zones, making it more exciting for the children to discover the various options available and that contributes to avoiding conflicts between users. Spatial separation of the streetball and games fields means that children can use these at the same time. There are various seating options where they can chill out and chat with friends. A pathway now crosses the site that is not just for walkers - the smaller children can use it as a track for their scooters and bikes.

This major upgrade of the site was, of course, suitably celebrated. The new playground was inaugurated on 18 September 2019 by Martin Hikel, the mayor of Neukölln, and the two city councillors Falko Liecke (Youth) and Jochen Biedermann (Urban Development). Speeches were also given by the local representative for disabled persons, the director of Gropiuswohnen, the owner of the commissioned landscape architect firm and the head of the Gropiusstadt district management authority team. The roughly 30 children who used the playground as soon as it was opened demonstrated how well its concept functions by their exuberant play and participation in the streetball activity organised by ALBA Basketball.


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