Auckland’s rapid population growth means more children are being brought up in apartments, and for those living in traditional homes, sections are getting smaller. So where do the children play? Turns out there’s a plan for that.

Playtime is being taken seriously at Auckland Council. In the midst of the housing boom, with the city seeing more and more apartments spreading further into the suburbs, the council last year bought land for 13 new playgrounds at a cost of $29.7 million. A total of $43.7 million was spent on open space, including more sport fields at Hobsonville and land at Monte Cecilia Park. It also acquired five new parks or open spaces from development contributions and a massive gift from iwi of 180 hectares at Te Arai South, which is prime beachfront land.  

The council’s eager to convey those figures – it’s worried about getting flak for plans to dispose of open space land for housing. 

Over the next 10 years $700 million has been put aside for the acquisition of new parks. And far from being the three-swings-and-a-slide standard, they all get individual treatment that doesn’t just include plastic playground equipment. Aucklanders say they want their kids to be more challenged, so the council is taking a few risks. Benign risks – not hazardous ones. 

The move away from standard play equipment is a major change backed by international research on child development. Council policy analyst William Brydon says there was a worldwide push in the 70s and 80s towards safety that led to international standards, that in turn produced standard model plastic playgrounds. “After that a generation of parents said ‘This is boring. This is not the exciting playground I want for my child’. They questioned the need to always stick with set infrastructure.” Brydon points out that when you look fondly back on your childhood few people would point to traditional playgrounds and say it was a golden era – they’re more likely to have revelled in playing in long grass or swinging from trees. 

“It’s a generational shift. People want to try new things. They want more opportunities to be challenged.”

Brydon also says the council’s trying to dispel some perceptions about play, that people might not be allowed to climb trees or play in dry stormwater culverts. “They’re restrictions that don’t exist,” he says. The council is not about cleaning hop scotch squares off footpaths, stopping kids from playing pooh-sticks in drains, or, contrary to one famous example, removing swings from trees

So ‘play’ now looks different. While some parks stick to the adventure playground equipment, others will include other experiences – mini-road systems for trike riders, areas of comparative wilderness, trees to climb, water to splash in, animals to interact with. Parks look different – some could be just a strip with a basketball backboard, some will integrate with the natural surrounds of bush or beach, some could be space for kicking a ball around, and others accessible playgrounds safely fenced. There’s a concerted move to make sure neighbourhoods have a bit of everything. 

“On a regional level we’re trying to work out what ‘good’ looks like,” says Brydon. 

The  Toia Recreation Precinct in Ōtāhuhu – not just swings and slides. Photo: Auckland Council 

Aiding in that is a plan in the works called Tākaro: Investing in Play, which was drawn up in 2016, has now incorporated public feedback and should be in place early next year. It sets out guidelines for local boards which make decisions on what form parks and playgrounds will take.

Aucklanders who provided feedback to the plan asked that the council got better at distinguishing between positive and negative risk, and let children and parents take greater personal responsibility for their own safety. At the same time it wants the council to protect the public from hidden hazards, provide shade, fencing, and tap water. They wanted parks to become more diverse – and to cater for a wider age group including places for the elderly. They didn’t want ‘cookie-cutter’ facilities. It was suggested that existing facilities are “too structured, generic and sanitised”.

With the development of intensified housing areas the council has to be ahead of the game when it comes to marking out public space, but Parks and Recreation senior policy manager Paul Marriott-Lloyd says carving out new space is not a problem. “We tend to get in very early to talk to developers.” He says those developers are often keen to put parks in place early as they see the benefits of using them as a selling point, with people getting a sense of what their future community is going to look like. Long Bay is an example of that. 

Marriott-Lloyd says the aim is to deliver parks close to the population – within 400m in high density areas and 600m in low density. Play spaces are ideally flat, with room for kicking a ball, socialising, sitting, and with some trees. Larger areas have walking trails, barbecue areas, skate parks and hard courts. 

Parks manager Martin van Jaarsveld says providing play spaces is part of the council’s core business, and the turning point for change has been understanding how important play is for a child’s development. 

“It’s well-documented now … the importance of learning where their physical boundaries are and taking small risks,” he says. “It’s absolutely critical that these spaces are provided.” 

He says in the last 10 to 15 years the council has moved from off-the-shelf modular equipment to play that’s more integrated into the landscape. “They still have their place … but a swing and slide is not necessarily going to give you that satisfaction and the kids will soon look around for something else to do.” He gives as a good example – Onepoto Domain in Northcote where kids can learn to ride a bike, watch model boats on the lake and use an adventure playground that winds through a wilderness. 

Takapuna playground is one of the most popular parks on the North Shore, but it was fought against initially by a community that felt it wasn’t the right place for a big playground. Van Jaarsveld says it sits nicely in the landscape and has been well designed. It also integrates well with the beach so the play spaces are inter-connected. Silo Park in the city is also highly used, and it is also an example of appropriating play space. The Wind Tree sculpture, moved from a windy downtown location, has become a paddling pool. 

In Manukau, the development of Hayman Park near the train station is next in the pipeline, and the council is promising an exciting facility that will become a destination, with bike tracks and walkways. It’s still in the design phase but will include a number of playgrounds catering for different age groups. The park is walking distance from the Barrowcliffe development where 300 new low-cost homes are being built. 

“We had to find ways to respond to growth and work out the best value for money,” van Jaarsveld says. Once you get those growth pressures, that’s quite often the trigger for improvement. There has been constant growth in Auckland in the last decade.”

Marriott-Lloyd says with growth creates a number of challenges but it also presents opportunities. “What we hear from new people coming into Auckland is they’re somewhat astounded by the number of parks we have, and how close they are to where they live. They can see those changes happening.”  

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