The most liveable cities are those that provide places to play. But prescribing this for citizens is not as simple as just designating space for running or ordering a one-size-fits-all children’s playground. When it comes to play, humans of all ages are wired to crave creativity and, when recreational spaces are designed right, they enable us to engage in activities that stimulate the intellect and keep us fit. With this in mind we’ve laced up our trainers and taken a global sprint around three cities where multiple factors have combined to create a culture of parks for play. Be it Berlin’s colourful adventure areas for families or Bangkok’s clever designs that maximise the fitness factor in a space-starved metropolis, here’s our selection.
In Marzahn, a district in east Berlin characterised by high-rise concrete housing blocks, lies a colossal beached blue whale. Children crawl into the mouth of this massive mammal, brushing past enormous tonsils through to its stomach or clambering across ropes to its large red heart before climbing up its tail and sliding down a pole onto the sand below. This whale, it’s worth noting, is made from wood and flanked by parents who look on from deck chairs outside a currywurst kiosk.
This playground in the Gärten der Welt park is one of 1,850 in Berlin, a city proud of its outdoor-play offerings. “We never had to walk more than a couple of blocks for our kids to run around and play with other kids,” says Anna Winger, a mother of two and the producer behind Deutschland ’83 and ’86. “There’s something about the sanctity of space for kids in the middle of a city that’s relaxing, both for parents and their children.” When Winger moved to Berlin in the early 2000s, the city’s playgrounds stood in contrast to those of her native New York, where the price of real estate limited available space. “In New York, nobody would waste a space where you could build 14 storeys of residential property,” she says. “The few playgrounds that are built are crowded and all look exactly the same.”
The past few years have seen rapid gentrification in Berlin but years of economic depression meant that the bombed-out plots of land smattered around the city after the Second World War weren’t seen as being worth the cost of property development. In these spaces now stand some of the city’s most beloved playgrounds, including the Drachenspielplatz (Dragon Playground) in the district of Friedrichshain.
In a narrow gap between tall residential blocks on the cobbled Schreinerstrasse, a green dragon made from wooden planks bares menacing red fangs. Children climb along its spine before whizzing down the metal slides at its head. It’s the design of Berlin’s Merry Go Round, Germany’s largest manufacturer of custom-built wooden playground equipment, which makes its structures by hand in a carpentry workshop in the southern suburb of Teltow.
“Wood is warm while metal is cold; that tactile aspect is important,” says Jens Zumblick, who has managed the company’s marketing for the past 25 years. “Most of the wood we use comes from the Black Forest but the playgrounds we build are mostly in towns. Giving something natural back to these settings is important when it comes to play.” The company’s designs have won it commissions not only in its hometown (where it also designed play equipment for Berlin Zoo’s panda enclosure) but across northern Europe.
In a playground across town in Schöneberg, Hamburg native Marianna Hillmer is watching her three-year-old daughter tackle a rope bridge. “They didn’t have parks like this where I grew up,” she says. Marianna and husband Johannes spent the last two summers visiting Berlin’s playgrounds and compiling a list of their 34 favourites, which they published as a guidebook – Spielplatzguide Berlin – earlier this year. “For people like us who don’t have a garden, playgrounds are essential,” says Marianna. “Children can socialise and it’s nice to chat to other parents too.”
The city’s playgrounds are so important to Berliners that many of the parks have been subsidised by fundraising efforts in the community. In 2016, when another whale-themed climbing frame fell into disrepair in Pankow, schoolchildren and residents raised €14,000 towards its replacement. “Playgrounds are a selling point for a district, they give it character,” says Vollrad Kuhn, city councillor for urban development in Pankow, the Berlin district with the most children. “But in recent years the price of land has gone up and owners want to use it for the highest possible worth.”
Yet as the arrival of big business continues to transform the city from grungy creative hub to sanitised metropolis, Kuhn is convinced that Berliners will keep fighting to protect their playgrounds. “We have something in Berlin that you don’t get elsewhere in the country – and people feel passionate about that.”
Parks shouldn’t be the only place for play in the city and sometimes the top spots for physical fun arise in more unexpected urban corners. On a summer day, a downtown river bridge might become a concrete diving board, while a dried-up drainage canal is reborn as a skatepark. City authorities can be quick to outlaw these kinds of reappropriations, citing health-and-safety regulations. But we think, for the most part, these happy accidents in urban planning that get people moving and bring life to a dead part of town should be celebrated. Here are six examples where the fun factor of a city has been maximised by mayors willing to let the people play.
Schönausteg Bridge, Bern
The Aare River begins in the Bernese Alps before its crisp glacial waters snake through Bern, the picturesque Swiss capital founded in the 12th century. Come summer the motorboat-free river is dotted with swimmers and inflatable rafts – and has a practical piece of infrastructure that’s become the diving board of choice for residents. The Schönausteg Bridge, a footbridge that crosses the river near the Dählhölzli Zoo, sits four metres above the water; it’s the perfect spot to make a splash into the river below.
National Olympic Stadium, Phnom Penh
Before the Khmer Rouge wreaked havoc on the Cambodian capital and the country beyond, architect Vann Molyvann designed some of Asia’s most fascinating sporting infrastructure. This included the 1964 National Sports Complex, a masterclass in the democratic, tropical modernism he was pioneering at the time. In recent years this built-to-last marvel’s role has superseded its original purpose as a place for events and become open to the public. Now the city’s top exercise spot, this 50,000-seater stadium’s steps provide a perfect fitness forum, while the wide platforms in its upper sections offer brilliant city views and a relaxed spot for morning Tai Chi.
Burnside Skatepark, Portland
While 140 days of rain each year pushes many Portlanders indoors, in 1990 it sent a trio of skateboarders to the underside of the Burnside Bridge, which was built in 1926 to span the Willamette River. There they poured a small patch of concrete and formed it into a banked wall – marking the beginning of the Burnside Skatepark, now a busy complex of rain-protected concrete ramps and quarter-pipes. While at first the skatepark wasn’t sanctioned by city officials, it was soon embraced after they realised it breathed new life into what was otherwise just a derelict underpass.
Kangaroo Point Cliffs, Brisbane
When daredevils in Australian city Brisbane started scaling the sheer face of Kangaroo Point Cliffs, an inner-city natural wall that’s perfect for rock climbing, the city chose to embrace the activity rather than outlaw it. Officials added a series of safety features at the face’s summit and installed a lighting system for night-time scrambles. In the years since, Kangaroo Point has become a thriving exercise hub with abseilers diving down the walls, joggers dashing up a steep series of nearby steps, canoeists paddling about on the river below and the spectacle of shirtless bodies at play forming an enjoyable view for the passing commuter ferries every morning.
Galata Bridge, Istanbul
Night and day, hundreds of fishermen can be found atop the Galata Bridge – so much so that it’s become a city icon. Their fishing rods curve over the railing as they cast their lures into the Bosphorus Strait below. Caught between the Aegean and the Black seas, and with bluefish and bass galore, the bridge is the city’s best destination for urban anglers (often found with a cup of steaming tea in hand). It’s even home to a mini-economy of vendors hawking bait, hooks, flies and fishing line.
Market Square, Pittsburgh
The Market Square, an urban plaza dating back to 1764, has been home to courthouses, a jail and the Pittsburgh Gazette, said to be the first newspaper published west of the Allegheny Mountains. But while the square has long been Pittsburgh’s public heart, we’re willing to bet that centuries ago the city’s planners didn’t envision it would one day be a yoga studio. Today people take to the square twice weekly for free hour-long yoga sessions. It’s a good reminder that keeping public spaces flexible allows residents to adapt them to their needs, like on Friday nights when the square becomes a dancefloor.
To call the tropical Thai capital a paradise of parks and play might be stretching the truth a little too far. Yet despite this metropolis’s rapid urbanisation bringing about a whole host of outdoor issues (be it air pollution or serious flood threats from the terrible drainage), the population of Bangkok is known for wanting to play outside and making the most of the city’s public spaces.
Lumpini Park is Bangkok’s oldest, favourite and most lushly planted park. It was landscaped in the 1920s and has been packed pretty much ever since. As Monocle meanders along the wide-paved running circuit on a cool Sunday morning, a steady stream of joggers leave us in their wake. A serious effort from city authorities keeps this sporty space (where a smoking ban is strictly enforced) pristine. And while the free exercise equipment has seen better days it’s in use almost constantly during the mornings and evenings, bringing together body builders from all walks of life.
A short sprint away, a more informal fitness spot has sprung up under the Taksin Bridge. Here locals go head to head in recreational sepak takraw (a high-intensity sport combining football and volleyball) rallies, ping-pong battles and Muay Thai boxing matches.
Yet despite this Thai passion for urban play, Bangkok has not provided citizens enough in the way of public space. Enter the new and sprawling Chulalongkorn University Centenary Park: a gift to the city’s residents from its top university. “In central Bangkok there was no new park for almost the past 30 years,” says Kotchakorn Vorraakhom, the landscape architect responsible for the park’s clever sloping design. Nestled into the bottom of a hill is a U-shaped structure with an earthy terracotta brick façade, for those wanting to catch some shade. It also features a green roof that people can run on. “I drew a brick design from a traditional Thai pattern and used the soil from this site to incorporate the history of the place,” says architect Chakdao Navacharoen, who designed the building.
But Chulalongkorn University Centenary Park is much more than a beautiful place of recreation for Thais. The area was designed to tackle the city’s drainage problem and features underground water tanks, porous wetlands and retention ponds. These features work together to alleviate rain run-off from the tropical monsoons that regularly hit the city. To manage this water flow, Vorraakhom gently tilted the park, creating a large sloping lawn that’s now used for numerous playful moments.
“The incline creates space for so many activities,” she says, recalling a moment earlier this year when 2,000 people gathered here to listen to the Royal Bangkok Symphony Orchestra on a stage at the bottom of the slope. “People sat there and realised ‘Oh, this is how to use it.’”
The Netherlands might have the most accident-proof population on the planet. Trained from the age of two to swim, children in this low-lying flood-prone nation quickly develop a tough skin. This is on display during a sunny spring day as a brave 11-year-old tows Monocle across the murky waters of a lake on a rickety rope-drawn barge to Play Islands in the Amsterdam Forest. Out here, in the middle of the water, we encounter a series of playground paradise islands (which would be a public health-and-safety nightmare in more conservative cities) linked by a zip-line and wobbly wooden stepping stones. Rope swings to dive off, timber jetties to clamber to: there’s plenty of play equipment on which the young (and the young at heart) can get themselves into trouble.
“Safety can be viewed differently through a risk-benefit analysis, which simply means that if you learn how to deal with risks, you learn how to handle them,” says Elger Blitz, founder of architecture firm Carve and the no-nonsense Dutch designer behind many of the city’s best new playgrounds, including this one. “You can put a fence around water to stop drownings or you can teach people to swim. Looking at safety in different ways is very important.”
Today on Play Islands children easily outnumber adults, demonstrating a parental willingness to simply let kids play here. It’s part of a national mindset that promotes independence from an early age (also the reason why you’ll see children cycling to school on Amsterdam’s busy streets). In the realm of parks, Carve is just the latest Dutch name in a long line of design firms that have taken advantage of this mentality to pioneer in play. Near the lake is Amstelpark – designed by Bert Mos for an international garden show in 1972 – that focuses on fun to get people of all ages moving. Its huge hedge-walled labyrinth, beautifully landscaped mini-golf course and running paths for morning joggers are well used and well loved nearly 50 years since the park’s inauguration.
Yet it’s an even older name who helped Amsterdam become a play capital: Dutch modernist and rebel urbanist Aldo Van Eyck created about 700 playgrounds in the city after it was ravaged by the Second World War. The graphic style and unusual forms of his play equipment (none of which has a specific defined use) challenged the militant order of the uniform modernist housing estates into which these parks were tucked. His most famous piece of equipment is a steel-framed igloo-like structure that children are as likely to use as a climbing tool as they are a den (sporty adults use it too as a multi-function gym). And while only a fraction of the architect’s fantastic playgrounds remain today, his work continues to influence his successors.
Our journey comes to an end in Amsterdam’s northern neighbourhood of Het Breed where, within the neatly gridded confines of a 1960s development, Dutch architecture firms Openfabric and DMAU have taken a Van Eyck approach to new playground Gridgrounds. “We wanted to play with ambiguity,” says Openfabric founder Francesco Garofalo, pointing out a brightly painted lamp-post that’s being used as a “safe space” in a rowdy game of tag. “Play is free from rules – this is a place where you make up your own.”