Identifying the topic
In 2014, the Community Design Collaborative began to consider topics for the next phase of Infill Philadelphia, its proactive community-engaged design initiative. “Because our Design Grants are responsive to the needs of communities, especially low- and moderate income communities, we are able to identify issues as they emerge,” says Beth Miller, executive director of the Collaborative. “We began to see more and more applications from community based nonprofits targeting improvements for public open spaces—rec centers, parks and schoolyards. At the same time, advocates at the state and local levels were advancing new policy and funding initiatives to improve the quality of child care and early childhood education.”
These two trends led the Collaborative’s board to make the connection between open space and early childhood education. They saw that access to quality play spaces could support early childhood learning.
Finding Philly’s play space gaps
With play space identified as a potential focus for Infill Philadelphia it sought out data to confirm and support its instincts. In the summer of 2014, the Collaborative was able to do that through a Summer of Maps grant from Azavea. Azavea’s innovative Summer of Maps program matches graduate students with nonprofits to provide hands-on experience with urban Geographic information Systems (GIS) research projects. Tim St. Onge worked with the Collaborative to identify Philly’s play space gaps with guidance from Daniel McGlone, a GIS analyst at Azavea.
After learning about the factors the Collaborative wanted to target, Daniel McGlone of Azavea explains, “We decided to use both demographic data and built environment data to score areas of the city for their level of suitability as a design competition site.” Azavea used five factors to predict the need for play space—access to high quality childcare; families with children living in poverty; the amount of impervious surface (paving); a long walk or stroller ride to a park, playground, or schoolyard; youth population; and vacant housing—and created a suitability map.
A suitability map is created through a multi-factored geographical analysis of different data to create an optimal ‘score’ for a certain area,” says McGlone. “For example, various layers of geographic data are overlaid in GIS. These layers are given numerical scores based on their appropriateness, or suitability. The scores for each layer are then literally added to get a total suitability score for each part of the city.
“Using a data-driven approach means you can better understand the landscape of need across the city.”
He adds, “Weights can also be applied to one layer more important than another in the addition. We can use this suitability map to build a model of level of need using multiple data sources, rather than looking at each factor in isolation. Using a data-driven approach means you can better understand the landscape of need across the city."
The research was instrumental in securing a grant from the William Penn Foundation to launch Play Space as the Collaborative’s sixth phase of Infill Philadelphia.
Adding in the human factor
Play Space is a partnership between the Collaborative and the Delaware Valley Association for the Education of Young Children (DVAEYC) and is guided by a 33-member ad hoc committee that includes educators, designers, community development, city agencies, play advocates/experts, and site owners.
The Collaborative, DVAEYC, and the ad hoc committee used Azavea’s work to assess and hone in on Play Space competition sites. Beth Miller explains, “We used the initial list of 25 play spaces from the Azavea study to jump start conversations with our ad hoc committee and site owners—Philadelphia Parks and Recreation, the Free Library of Philadelphia, and the School District of Philadelphia.”
“Azavea provided the algorithm to locate places where innovative outdoor play space could have the most impact. It began our exploration for the sites that eventually rose to the top,” says Alexa Bosse, Program Manager for the Play Space initiative. “All three design competition sites are located within a bright red area of the map.”
The Collaborative also drew on its nearly 25 years of working knowledge of Philadelphia’s neighborhoods to help identify community-based organizations to partner with us. “We knew we’d need their help to gather information, host a community meeting, get feedback on the finalists, and advocate for implementing the play spaces,” says Alexa.
Meeting with the stakeholders
The ad hoc committee helped the Collaborative expand the Azavea list and, eventually, winnow down candidate sites form 30 to 6. Six site visits were made, at the invitation of the communities. At the end of the day, the three sites the Collaborative selected reflected a local need for play space, realities on the ground, and satisfied the needs of the agencies and site owners.
Once the three sites were selected, meeting and talking with community task forces composed of the people who currently use (or will use) the play spaces revealed each site in a new light.
Waterloo Recreation Center was adopted by Men in Motion in the Community (MIMIC) only three months before, but their impact was striking. “We showed up, the gates were locked, and we wondered… does anyone really use this rec center? But then one of MIMIC’s members came and unlocked the gate, school let out, and all the kids showed up,” Alexa recalls. “Some stopped and introduced themselves to us. You could tell there was a lot of engagement going on. Police officers and other adults just came to hang out with them. The adults were all volunteers. They all had day jobs. One volunteer drove a bread truck every night until 6 a.m. and yet he was there to unlock the gates every day.”
At the Blanche A. Nixon/Cobbs Creek Branch of the Free Library of Philadelphia, the enthusiasm of children who flock to the library every afternoon was the spark. Alexa says, “I went to meet with the kids after school. They were climbing trees, showing me crazy back flips over the bike rack. And they were so eager to draw what the playground should look like.”
At Haverford Bright Futures, the high point was the community meeting. “It was a foul-weather night and a small, dedicated group of people, mostly retirees, came out,” says Alexa, “They were grandparents and the neighbors of families with children. They said, ‘there’s just no community space here’ even though the immediate blocks actually have a lot of open space.
“If we can develop designs for three very different sites, we will have prototypes that can work in many places.”
The three sites reflect the diversity of the public open spaces found in Philadelphia and other cities. “We were looking for geographic diversity—and site diversity too. We wanted sites that were large and small, paved and not paved, with a tree canopy and without,” says Alexa. “If competition teams develop innovative designs for three very different sites, we will have prototypes that can work in many places.”
See nine finalists present their designs for these sites at the Play Space Design Awards on Wednesday, March 16!