Imagining in the Urban Wild

From Stantec  by Stephen Plunkard

Example “adventure playground” (from Web Urbanist)

About a week ago I was in a discussion with some public officials about parks planning and design. I learned that their primary concerns were that the grounds could be mowed with a gang mower and that we select one of three certified playground manufacturers. The conversation prompted me to start thinking about places that I used to play as a child versus the many “manufactured” playgrounds of today. Could an interesting, creative and challenging outdoor experience be an alternative to video games? Would it encourage girls and boys to become planners, designers and engineers?

I grew up in three countries – in densely urban areas, fringe cities and suburban areas.  Wherever I lived my friends (boys and girls) and I would seek out wild areas to explore on both private and public lands. While never officially stated, I think we would seek out areas that were secluded with ready access to a dump or place that had scrap building materials. Finding an area close to a project under construction had some obvious benefits too. Our premium sites would be conducive to having fires and/or have access to a stream (fish, beavers, tadpoles, frogs, snakes, etc.). Thinking back some of the building materials might have actually been stolen. If another group of boys and girls were building another settlement nearby we would often create flags a variety of signs and other symbols that would clearly brand our operation.

Glamis Adventure Playground (courtesy of

We would normally start a construction project as soon as we were released from school for the summer. Projects were as simple as cutting a path through some high weeds to a secluded clearing or as complex as building tree forts and clubhouses. If we were close to a stream, we would build a stone and earthen dam to create a swimming hole, maybe with a wooden or rope bridge. In some cases we spoke different languages but we had a common interest using our collective imagination—building things, taking risks and changing our little corner of the world.  Out of the watchful eye of our parents and teachers, we were in control with no restrictions on our creativity. Our constructions would only last through the summer months but were sometimes revisited in the following year and modified by another group of young builders.

As I thought more about spaces for children in the urban wild, I reached out to former Louisiana State University professor Max Conrad, and he reminded me of the concept of “Adventure Playgrounds,” which was first formally introduced in the early 20th century. Doing a bit of research on the web, I learned that C. Th. Sørensen, a Danish landscape architect, noticed that children preferred to play everywhere but in the playgrounds that he built. He came up with a concept of essentially creating junk yards for kids to play in, from which the “adventure playground” movement was born.

The first adventure playground opened in Denmark in 1943, and the idea quickly spread into other parts of Europe. While today there are over 1,000 adventure playground across Europe and many in Japan, funding, land ownership, and liability issues have thwarted the spread of the idea across the US, where only three still exist, both in California.

The little adventurer, Stephen Plunkard

The whole concept has me asking a number of questions. Is it time to reintroduce, in a big way, the idea of “adventure playgrounds” in our urban wild areas in North America? Would childhood obesity and inactivity be less of a problem if our youth were given the opportunity to play their way? Are we leaving areas of urban wild in the communities we are planning and designing today? Do we need to program or plan everything, or can we set aside unplanned areas for creative young minds? Is land for this kind of use something developers could sell as an added value to their planned communities? Perhaps, most importantly, will young people have any interest in building real things or will they be content living in a virtual world?

As a young school boy growing up in England, building my little settlements, I had no idea that I was actually part of a worldwide movement. Perhaps I should rejoin!

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