By: Jennifer Wagner, Land Planning & Design Project Manager
Parks as the Great Equalizer
Parks and playgrounds have the ability to change the health and well-being for people of all generations, ethnicities, and economic backgrounds. Parks are truly some of the only public places where people of all demographics can gather for free to engage with one another and commune with nature. In addition to the numerous benefits that parks provide by giving people a place to interact with nature, exercise, socialize, and play, parks should also give users an experience of “perceived risk.”
Why Introduce Perceived Risk?
Due to current society expectations and a litigious environment, our designed environment has become overly safe, tame, and unchallenging. This is a particular issue for children who are developing their skills at balance, reasoning, and spatial understanding. As children are allowed to wander less and spend more time indoors on electronics, homework or doing organized activities, kids have lost the chance to explore, climb trees, jump over creeks, and build forts. Most children interact with nature on a limited basis, when they are taken to a park or greenway. As designers, it is our responsibility to ensure that these designed environments provide an element of adventure and challenge.
What is Perceived Risk?
Perceived risk conveys the idea that the playground has been designed to prevent fatal or serious injuries, but gives the user the feeling of a physical challenge and an opportunity to make decisions on their journey. This “safe risk” challenges users, raises heart rates, exposes kids to making judgment calls and increases self-confidence. Sure, there is a chance of a skinned knee but the opportunities outweigh the risk: better fitness; better judgment; increased confidence; and FUN. Most kids bore of a traditional playground (think: post and platform with a slide) after a few visits. By providing an element of safe or perceived risk, playgrounds still remain challenging and exciting to children on subsequent visits.
The designed environment may include steeper slopes, higher and more challenging climbing elements, and places for making decisions on a route. Should they make that jump from one rock to the next, balance on the log, or run up the ramp?
How to Include Perceived Risk in Your Park or Playground?
There are numerous ways to introduce more challenge into our designs. One simple method is to increase slopes where possible from the standard 2% slope (barely perceptible) to 4% in some areas. This still meets ADA accessibility requirements but provides a subtle element of challenge, increases heart rate slightly and uses calf muscles that are seldom used when walking in our urban and suburban environments. Pushing the slope even higher (up to 8% with handrails) also provides an increased element of fun. Kids love running up and down ramps and hills and will get more exercise than in a traditional playground.
Boulders and rope climbing elements, when designed with appropriate safety surfacing, also provide an element of challenge and “safe risk.” Many of the challenging rope climbing products available today look intimidating to kids, but are actually quite safe because of their inherent overlap of ropes within the element. Designed creeks with rocks to climb on may be slippery, but again, provide a way for kids and adults to use their reasoning and balancing skills.
We have designed several parks and playgrounds that include some of these “perceived risk” elements. At Mills Park, the playground includes a “parkour course” and large rope climbing element that will challenge older kids to stay on the ropes and platforms without falling off. If a fall happens, they might have a minor injury but the safety surfacing should protect them from major injury. We have created several hills and berms and covered them in safety surfacing and synthetic turf to encourage additional play by running up and down hills.
At a park we are designing in Carrboro, we are including “natural play” elements that allow kids to explore in the woods, climb up hillsides and slide down embankment slides. Water play will give kids a chance to have sensory, tactile play that encourages creativity. Finally, we are designing walking and hiking trails in existing parks that will push the limits on maximum slopes in order to provide a more challenging course and work with the existing terrain.
Can We Really Do This?
Of course, we all want to keep our children safe and reduce the amount of injury and risk for people of all ages. There are some rules that must be met, such as providing adequate safety surfacing and fall zone areas around play equipment and providing accessible routes for all people to enjoy the parks and amenities. However, as designers, we need to challenge ourselves to meet these rules while also creating innovative, unique, challenging play opportunities for adults and kids. We need to push the boundaries on traditional park and playground design by working with municipalities to determine the level of risk they are willing to handle. In many instances, it is simply a matter of helping owners understand the benefits of introducing perceived risk into their parks and explaining the low actual risk to the users.