Insights into the management of playgrounds by a housing association in Berlin.
The Ninja warrior playground
By Christian Loderer (plancontext gmbh landschaftsarchitektur bdla)
The "Else" playground was officially opened in December 2019 after an extensive planning and refurbishment process. The design marries an artistic approach with a sporty trend: red elliptical forms create an original and striking facility which self-confidently asserts itself in a vacant lot. The play ellipses offer scope for innovative play and represent a particular sporting challenge. Inspiration was derived from well-known and popular TV obstacle course shows such as Ninja Warrior. These see contestants compete against one another in various disciplines requiring power, endurance and physical and mental strength.
A changing district
The Else playground is in the Tempelhof-Schöneberg district of Berlin in the immediate vicinity of Kurfürstenstraße. For centuries this was primarily known as a red-light area. The playground was created in 1985 and needed to be completely redesigned and refurbished. In recent years it had sadly acquired notoriety through press reports as an established location for the practice of street prostitution and drug consumption. The talk was of a "sex playground".
However, the neighbourhood has become very popular precisely because of its diversity and tolerance and the mostly harmonious coexistence of street prostitution, the nearby gay quarter, middle-class residents, shops, nurseries and galleries. Like so many trendy districts, it attracts investors. The construction of several expensive new-build projects in recent years meant there was a growing fear of change and displacement among residents.
This made it all the more important that the playground was redesigned with great sensitivity. The aim was to provide children and young people with a safe and stable environment in the urban fabric, creating a playground that reflects the diversity and vibrancy of the location through its design and facilities.
The development of the neighbourhood provided an opportunity to redesign the playground so that it was again safe and attractive for children and youths. The playground was on a private plot formerly occupied by the Polish embassy and was only leased. In 2016 a new-build project directly alongside the site enabled ownership of the playground's plot to be transferred to the local authority. To this end, an appropriate agreement was reached with the investor. As a result, the local authority was able to secure long-term control of the playground.
It then obtained funding for the construction project from the Federal Ministry of the Interior, Building and Community's "Social Integration in the Neighbourhood" investment package. The gross costs of the project amount to €691,045.21 in total, of which €591,891.86 was made available via the investment package. Other sources of funding were used for the remaining amount. The principal was the Road Construction and Green Spaces Department of the Berlin district of Tempelhof-Schönerberg, which will also be responsible for the future maintenance and upkeep of the facility.
Design approach: Else Lasker pupils
The playground is on Else Lasker Schülerstraße, named after an avant-garde poet and illustrator (1869 to 1945) who lived close to the site. She was loved for her creativeness and independent spirit, but also ridiculed and eventually driven out. This makes Else Lasker-Schüler an ideal representative of and advocate for the preservation of the neighbourhood's open-mindedness and tolerance.
Her poems evoke dream worlds. Inspired by her poems, we have designed a modern but largely fantasy world. The aim is to challenge the creativity of the individual and leave it up to each visitor to invent their own dream worlds.
At the ellipse-shaped entrance, the visitor is welcomed by the quote "Back home I have a blue piano. Yet I can’t play a single note.", which is from one of her most famous poems "My Blue Piano". Visitors can find the piano by the graffiti wall at the back of the playground - in the form of a surreal concrete seat sculpture. A small board at the entrance with a brief account of her life also serves to preserve the memory of Else Lasker-Schüler.
A playful approach: Ninja Warrior
Invitations were first extended to several architecture studios as part of an expression of interest process. Over the course of this process, the district authority decided to disregard a pre-existing design from 2015 and instead had the courage to permit an innovative, unconventional approach on this special site.
The redesign took into account a wide range of public opinion.
An information event in the nearby community centre of the evangelical Zwölf-Apostel church offered all residents the opportunity to take an initial look at the plans. While in the main receptive to the new design, the largely older visitors to the event requested measures to deal with noise and unruly youths. A participating social worker from the "Outreach“ youth welfare association was able to allay their concerns to some extent by referencing playgrounds with a similar structure in the immediate vicinity. There are hardly any conflicts of use between the different age groups and no significant vandalism.
The participants were also concerned that prostitution could again become established in the playground despite the new design. However, they were assured by the Green Spaces Department that an approximately 2.5-metre-high fence to the road would remain in place and that a locking-up service would continue to be used in future.
The immediately adjacent new building means there is also greater social monitoring than of the previously derelict site.
Representatives of the district's Children and Youth Parliament were invited to a further meeting to discuss the specific play facilities. Only two youths took part, but very constructive discussions were held with them regarding alternatives to the plans and equipment. Their local knowledge and views on the area's needs could be usefully factored into the design. The idea of a movement course inspired by "Ninja Warrior" was enthusiastically received. A variety of difficulty levels and the possibility of exercising the entire body were requested. Greater sporting challenges were also important since they felt that the offering on most playgrounds demanded too little of youths in particular. This was a cause of boredom and frustration.
The area of the site is around 1,640 m² Play facilities were created for various age groups, ranging from infants to youths. The playground is now easily visible as shrubs and the climbing plants on the new football pitch have been removed. Unnecessary fencing of and upstands around planted areas have been removed to make the playground look more spacious.
Most of the equipment has been specially developed. The centrepiece is the large "futuristic" main item of play equipment consisting of two elliptical platforms. An off-kilter level challenges children's balance while the rope ellipse offers a play level supported by wooden poles mounted at an angle on which children can balance high above the ground. Beneath this level are various additional elements such as ropes, nets, climbing poles, hanging rings and rung ladders which create an exciting obstacle course and enable children to switch between the upper and lower levels. The off-kilter level and rope ellipse are linked by a very high rope bridge which is especially challenging and which allows children to switch between the two platforms.
Both items of equipment provide the opportunity to perform callisthenics and freestyle. Hanging, climbing, strength-testing, sliding, swinging and other activities are combined here. Many children and youths can also use the equipment at the same time - alone or with others. Various items for ascending and descending - such as slides and rung ladders - offer a variety of difficulty levels, enabling each child to use the equipment according to their individual ability.
Adjoining the site of the playground to the north is a nursery with direct access to it. Accordingly, the play area for infants was located in this peaceful, rear area. An undulating, elliptical border serves as seating and is perfect for balancing. It creates a sheltered sand-play area for the smallest children. A playhouse with a slide platform augments this offering.
A nest swing, a spring rider, table tennis tables and large upright ellipses with various functions have also been provided.
There is seating on the surrounding path. Seating pedestals around trees and a "seating ellipse" create meeting places.