Improving the quality of play areas in Gropiusstadt, a growing district of Berlin

Thorsten Vorberg (District Management of Gropiusstadt, S·T·E·R·N Company for Sensitive Urban Renewal)

Improving the quality of play areas in Gropiusstadt, a growing district of Berlin

Berlin is a growing city, particularly due to its national and international influx. Hence, the population growth is noticeable in nearly every part of the city, even in the suburban districts.

Gropiusstadt is one of those districts. After its establishment in the 1960ies it rather experienced a population decline than a population growth due to its location outside the Berlin urban railway ring, its state border with Brandenburg and not least due to „Wir Kinder von Bahnhof Zoo“ (We Children of Bahnhof Zoo), a famous German novel by Christiane F. which was published in the 1970ies and showed the anonymity occurring in large housing estates and the lack of perspective of young adults in a very drastic way. For many years and even until today the story of the novel and the way in which it was told contributed to the negative image of Gropiusstadt as it tells about the generally difficult living conditions of its population and the challenges of the socially marginalised groups.

Although in the meantime a lot has changed for the better, during a long time, the people of Berlin mainly remembered the negative aspects of Gropiusstadt due to the descriptions in the novel whereas today most of the inhabitants like living here because of the well organised local supply, the path network in green areas, the well-designed apartments and the extensive social infrastructure.

Nevertheless, in the past 10 years the population number of Gropiusstadt has declined although the number of the overall population of Berlin has increased by 5.3 p.c. which is equivalent to approximately 180,000 inhabitants. While in 2007 it was 36,200 inhabitants living in the district, three years later it was about 800 less. Only since 2012 until today, the number of inhabitants has increased again by 36,900 inhabitants.

However, meanwhile the housing associations have made mayor investments in the urban development of Gropiusstadt. Green spaces are being renewed and further flats and apartments will be built mainly in the eastern part of the district where the state-owned public company “degewo” is the principal owner. It is here where in the past two years 200 new flats have been built. Until 2021, approximately 400 further new flats are scheduled to be built. This also includes an increasing utilisation pressure regarding the existing green, play and open spaces. Based on the population growth, more community based open spaces for playing, leisure and recreation are required.  The demand on play and sports areas for children and youngsters is particularly high as the main target groups of the new buildings are families with children. Compared with the number of the Berlin population, today the number of the less than 18-year-old people is relatively high (18.6 % within Gropiusstadt compared with 15.7% in Berlin, as at 31-12-2016). According to the current situation this proportion will further increase as the number of old people who were the first tenants of Gropiusstadt, is now decreasing.

Due to the building densification, several green open spaces will be eliminated. In particular those areas used by children and youngsters must compete with the new buildings. It is often the case that children’s needs for playing and exercise are not taken into account in public debates. However, the District Management (German abbreviation QM) of Gropiusstadt, has commissioned the STERN company for sensitive city renewal to implement the district coordination within the framework of the support programme for urban development called “Soziale Stadt” (social city) which has been initiated in 2005. Given the fact that more and more green open spaces disappear while at the same time the population number grows, the children and youngsters themselves should be asked about their needs and wishes related to green open spaces.

Right from the outset both the QM team, the residents committee and all networking partners knew that besides collecting the necessary information, it was also important to collect the necessary funds to improve the existing play and leisure areas for children and youngsters in the district. However, the relevant funds came from the urban development programme „Soziale Stadt“. The allocation of funds as well as the respective purpose have been specified by the public administration authorities at the senate and district level in the context of the implementation of the project „improving public areas for children and youngsters.“ Thus, the QM Team was challenged to involve the relevant target group and to find a site owner who was willing to cooperate on the basis of the results of the survey to implement the respective building measures.

 

The answers of children and youngsters

However, some local schools were considered being the appropriate partners to carry out the survey and reach the children and young adolescents of Gropiusstadt. By asking the target group, it should be found out which open spaces were particularly popular among children and youngsters and where they possibly saw need for improvement.  At the same time, they should be asked about the places they avoided or visited less frequently as well as about the relevant reasons.

Hence, the questionnaire was elaborated in spring 2017 together with school principals and teachers. In the next step, the QM Team visited three school classes of a local primary school to carry out a test run. It was the four to six graders who worked on the questionnaire and the district plan whereas the QM-Team and teachers explained the general conditions and clarified all relevant questions. The results of the test run showed that the questionnaire and the evaluability of the respective answers turned out to be appropriate for this age group.

After the summer holidays of 2017, three schools, inter alia two primary schools, one special school, including primary and secondary levels, received age group specific questionnaires from the District Management which were then distributed by the teachers and had to be filled in by the children during one school lesson. However, all children who participated had been prepared for green spaces and urban development issues. In the context of the 2017 survey, 267 questionnaires had been filled in and evaluated by the QM Team the results of which had been discussed with the regional district authorities. 

Based on these results, the most popular playground is the one at Lipschitzallee at the intersection with Sollmanweg. At the same time this playground turned out to have the greatest need for improvement.  It is indeed true that the relevant area of more than 1,700 sqm is relatively large and protected towards the road due to its thick vegetation. It also provides some separate playground sections (football, climbing, sand box). At the moment of the survey, three play devices (timber boat, climbing facility and the seesaw) were available, all of which hardly provided any stimulating activities in relation to the size of the play area. In addition, the playground provided a small football pitch without fences on paved underground as well as two firmly installed football goals in good condition. On the same surface area there is a basketball facility which is currently not available because there are no baskets.

The overall area of the playhouse is provided with sand, but there are no paved paths. Besides, the sandy area makes walking very difficult and thus reduces the number of different play option. In addition, sand makes it dangerous to play football and does not create an inviting atmosphere.

These deficiencies were also mentioned by the children and youngsters who had filled in the questionnaire. According to the results, their most popular games are team sports (especially ball sports), catch and running games as well as skating and cycling. When we asked them about further play and game options to be added to the play areas of Gropiusstadt, they particularly mentioned climbing possibilities and skating areas. But some other factors, such as lighting, waste containers, seating options and flowering plants were mentioned, too. 

Although only few of the aforementioned options could be identified at the playground of Lipschitzallee, the facility ranked ninth on the list out of 33 open green spaces available within the survey of the 8 to 10-year old children. The same result was achieved when asking the 11-13-year-old children. When the QM-Team inspected the relevant area at Lipschitzallee / Sollmannweg, they noted out that the football pitch is the most frequented area by the young visitors. All further play offerings provided by this playground did not appear attractive enough. This assessment was confirmed by some members of the UFO youth club, aged between 11 to 14 years, who are very experienced in the so-called Minecraft computer game. Hence, the results of the survey were made available to the Minecraft working group who should help to develop playground options digitally by using Minecraft, according to their ideas and supported by the educational staff of the playground.

The result was a digital playground concept, the design of which took up many of the aspects mentioned by the surveyed peers. In addition, the „Minecrafters“ said that bicycle holders, a barbecue area and the creation of paved pathways would improve the playground condition. According to them, the football pitch should be preserved, but be added by fences to keep the balls inside the area.  At its outside, streetball areas with several basketball baskets should be added. Furthermore, the working group added a water playground, a huge climbing castle, a skating area, an outdoor table tennis as well as a sand box.

 

Improvement in sight. More green spaces to be provided for playing.

Supported by the numerous answers and concept ideas, the district management team got into contact with the playground owner and the housing enterprise “Gropiuswohnen” to present their ideas and suggestions for the new playground design concept. The suggestions were highly appreciated. “Gropiuswohnen” supported the need for improvement and renewal of the playground by taking up most of the suggestions provided by all parties involved. In addition to the public funds, they were willing to provide a considerable financial contribution which covered approximately two third of the overall costs of the first construction phase which is much more than the originally requested contribution of 10 p.c. Hence, the implementation of the reconstruction of the playground, including the second construction phase will be possible through the application of additional funds out of the urban development programme called „future urban green spaces“. Besides, “Gropiuswohnen” also provided a financial contribution to the second construction phase.

Hence, the owner consulted the landscape architects’ office Teichmann. They are specialised in play areas and the participation of children. Thus, they developed a feasible implementation plan the concept of which was based on the results of the survey. Only two ideas could not be implemented: the water playground due to the relatively high technical demands and the installation of the obstacle course due to the lack of space. By maintaining the largest possible part of the existing structures, such as the main accesses, lawn and bed edges and the vegetation, but also by eliminating most of the sand areas, diverse play and sports offerings for the 8-14-year-old children and youngsters could be planned. The design concept includes swings, slides, skating and climbing facilities, table tennis, streetball and football possibilities. In addition, the spatial separation of the streetball and football grounds should in future avoid conflicts between the children playing different ball games.

However, the aim is to redesign and convert this playground into an attractive communication and recreation area with a nice and diverse area design, flowering plants and attractive seating options.

Finally, all parties involved in the project managed to consider and implement the most important needs of the user group in a positive way. That means that the results of the survey and the facilities suggested by the design concept of the Minecraft Working Group will be further considered. The children and youngsters have already been informed in which way their ideas will be included in the further redesign of the playground as well as about the relevant next steps. It is planned to continue the participation of children and youngsters in some further construction measures of several facilities and institutions of Gropiusstadt which are working with children. To be precise the new project is about a design concept of seating opportunities which should be developed together with children and youngsters. The concept will be created with the help of young people. The construction measure was started in spring 2019; after rescheduling during the construction phase, the completion now (July 2019) is expected in the fourth quarter of the current year.“

 

Photo: Thorsten Vorberg

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