A breathtaking climbing structure has been created at Cologne’s Rathenauplatz in record time.
Playground with soul
by degree-qualified Civil Engineer David Weise and Daniel Mauersberger
A playground with soul – what exactly is that? There is no easy answer to this question. The question of “where” is more straightforward. The approximately 5000 m² land parcel is located at Klosterstrasse in Ostritz, right on the Neisse cycle path.
Following a tender in 2009, Dresden graduate in Civil Engineering, David Weise was entrusted with the planning and restoration of the - at that time - desolate playground. The town of Ostritz, as the builder, decided that, with the use of ecological materials and the preservation of the existing tree population, a multi-generational park suitable for children and disabled persons should be created.
On completion, the town of Ostritz concluded: An optimally designed playground with high demand and usage. In 2011 the playground was then awarded the German Playground Prize. There has been an increase in the number of enquiries for the town: “How do you manage to create a playground like this?”
The clear concept for the playground is: “Create play areas!” as stated by Weise. Children have rights – as well as the right to discover for themselves, learn and play freely. Creating play areas means making naturalness and wilderness accessible. This includes, first and foremost, using natural boundaries in the form of trees and shrubs and drawing new ones. Also, the cycle of nature – so allowing seasons – contributes to the playground becoming a terrain for exercise and the avoidance of it becoming a rigid graveyard of equipment. The closeness to nature has to become commonplace again. Key concepts in this process are experiencing and discovering – both of these promote creativity, demonstrate boundaries, enable adventure and allow children to grow up individually.
Creating play areas, however, also means that the playground’s end identity is obtained only on the grounds itself and during the construction phase. This requires non-rigid boundaries and flexibility in the planning stage. “Children are catalysts for ideas. Without the observation of children in the playground - in terms of the behavioural and movement patterns - it would scarcely be possible to create a playground which is long-lasting, appealing and which receives plenty of visitors to it in long-term,” says David Weise. But the observation is only part of how to try and create free space. Another key idea is to involve and integrate everyone in the planning process and, eventually, in the implementation stage. For one thing, the feeling of solidarity and responsibility develops in respect of what has been built. In the end, this meant that, after completion of the playground, the residents could identify much better with the place and this also helps somewhat to combat vandalism. Another thing, according to Weise, after having spoken to children, residents, parents and even with cyclists passing by, is that he got much input in terms of ideas so that the playground could grow on the strength of suggestions of all participants. Last but not least, the father of three worked closely with the TÜV on the implementation and the planning stages. Any equipment and buildings, of course, correspond to current play equipment standards so that TÜV-approval could be granted without any problems.
Due to this concept, the concrete plan of having the relief of natural produce came about, with which selected miniature landscapes were readjusted. Heaped-up hills of earth now make the grounds appear flowing. Dry walls made using rocks from the region stabilise the earthy slopes and invite you to climb up. Other natural material offering variety and arousing curiosity were used. Materials which can be modelled, such as sand, gravel, bark mulch and wood contribute to the moving image and awake a desire for discovery and ingenuity. Large tubes and depressions in the ground serve as hideouts or retreats and help out children in escaping from parents’ view from time to time. In addition, bridges, balancing trunks, logging paths and boulders were integrated into the grounds. These challenge the motor skills of the children, allow them to try, touch and consciously experience for themselves.
Few well-selected items of play equipment were embedded. The focal point is the knight’s castle with a chute as the static element, which borders different platform constructions and balance beams on a rope garden and the tyre swings opposite.
A toddlers’ play area was also created, offering privacy and peace in a depression in the ground, and also relaxation for the adults.
In order to meet the demand for a multi-generational park, a plaza with a fireplace and seating benches was created. This is contained within an approximately two-metre high earth wall which serves as noise protection. The plaza is used as a meeting point – and also for parties and celebrations. In addition, a skate corner made from boulders, grassland and a rest area were created, also inviting tourists - whether from the Neisse cycle path, from the three-country triangle, from the Way of St James or St. Marienthal Monastery – to stay a while. Moreover, all the places on the grounds are easily accessible for wheelchairs and prams.
An ecological spirit is present through the soulful playground. Instead of tropical wood, only local species of wood, such as the wonderful oak, larch and locust trees were installed, which can be processed and used without any chemical pre-treatment because of its properties of being robust, hard and durable. Also, with the replanting in the form of borders of butterflies, bees and leaves, there was a restriction to using only local or regional seeds. For shrubs, there was a return back to using durable, local types, which can also handle breaking or tearing. Due to the creation of new biotopes, a deadwood biotope among others, the local Fauna was successfully re-established in the playground. The existing tree population with dense crowns, the earth walls and the new plantations defy light and shadow play and show the grounds in a new light, according to the time of day.
The goal of the playground is for the children to play using all their senses and intensively encounter it all in all elements. Experiencing, discovering, climbing, balancing, harvesting, dismantling, twisting, picking – these are characteristics of free play and are not prevented on this playground, but actually wanted and encouraged.
Now there just remains one question: “Playground with soul – what exactly is that?” It means that this playground isn’t the work of one individual. All participants who helped in the early phases, have given the playground soul. And it is this soul that invites people to stay longer and to relax, to play and to discover new things.