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Christchurch’s Margaret Mahy Playground has taken playground design to the next level. PHOTO:...
Christchurch’s Margaret Mahy Playground has taken playground design to the next level. PHOTO: STEPHEN JAQUIERY
A playground upgrade for Dunedin creates a unique opportunity, writes Steve King.

When reading about the planned upgrades to some playgrounds, if you asked "Where is Marlow Park?" you would not be alone. That is because, for many Dunedinites, it is better known as "the dinosaur park". Ah, I hear you say.

"The dinosaur park" is aguably Dunedin’s most iconic playground. For as long as I can remember, which is now an uncomfortably long time, this playground has been a favourite for thousands of Dunedin tamariki. Never mind the niggly little wind, the dinosaur slide and the whale and the swingy things and climby things have consistently provided entertainment for bored or active kids. The park is right beside the beach, adding to its attractiveness as a destination.

Recent improvements have been made to the cycling/scooting road safety circuit and this is now attracting greater numbers to the playground. However, historically, there doesn’t appear to have been much long-term thinking about how to maximise the appeal, and experience, of this much-loved playground.

One improvement badly needed is more shade. We all know how harsh the New Zealand sunshine can be. And to be fair, shade cloths are strung up over summer but the park is large, and the shade cloths only cover a tiny fraction of the area. Once upon a time, there were many trees around the perimeter. But over the years, these have steadily been removed, without any replanting taking place. Again, the long-term thinking about planting trees strategically for shade seems to have been absent.

As well as providing shade, trees planted to a plan will also break up the wind and provide shelter. They help to make a place look nice, and of course kids love to play in them.

Beyond shade, is there another way to imagine the future of Marlow Park? The announcement of the planned upgrades presents an opportunity for some creative thinking, and perhaps some big dreams. What might be possible for an improved Marlow Park? Two examples spring to mind. Well, to my mind, at least.

Hands up who has travelled an hour and a-half north to Oamaru, and stopped off at the magnificent waterfront playground at Friendly Bay? All ages are catered for, from very young to adults, if they are so inclined. With a steampunk themed set of swings and rocketship slide, it also embraces environmental subjects in a wondrous juxtaposition of ideas. Sculptures of marine mammals and birdlife rise out of colonial-era macrocarpa stumps, appealing to the artistic soul who might have also just had a really good time on the rocket slide.

Further north, the devastation in Christchurch wreaked by the earthquakes has resulted in the creation of the Margaret Mahy Playground. This innovative inner-city gem covers a very large area, over 16,000sqm, and has taken playground design to well beyond the next level. It is a triumph of design.

Play equipment caters for all ages and all abilities. As well as inventive climbing options, a great flying fox, multiple slides and the requisite swings, other features set it apart. Throughout, places for people to sit have been arranged, and there is ample shade. Free electrical barbecues are provided and there is a covered picnic area.

Thematically, the playground is inspired by the natural environment of the Canterbury Plains and Port Hills. In places, it evokes tales from Mahy’s books.

A major feature is the large water play area. This contains sprinklers and fountains, and utilises hand-powered cranks and handles to allow children to interact and play with running water. I observed children completely absorbed in this activity, for a sustained period.

Additional features are the changing rooms, bike racks, drinking fountains, and lighting. Needless to say, there are numerous toilet facilities.

The Margaret Mahy playground, and the Oamaru Friendly Bay playground, did not come cheap. But the fact that they were created also means that money can be found for such projects. Anyway, the benefits for communities are hard to measure, and harder to value. How much are fun and connection worth?

Yes, let’s upgrade Marlow Park. But let’s also go beyond. Longer term. Can we have some dreaming, and some possibility thinking? Can we have a reimagined dinosaur park, retaining the best features, but adding in some developments that allow for new play experiences, better facilities, family-friendly equipment and shade?

The result could be a themed playground that, as well as being a community and city asset, provides a cultural and artistic expression of our unique southern environment and history — our story.

 - Steve King grew up in South Dunedin and is involved in several community initiatives.

Comments

If you want at template for a kids play park and community space look no further than the Woodhaugh Gardens.
Lots of trees, semi secluded grasses areas, free electric BBQs, toilets, simple play equipment, ducks, geese, walking tracks to others areas of interest, shops close at hand and it's open all the time.
Come up with a landscape design and then get the community to plant it
Make it part of school projects. There is enough in the area to provide all the labour you'd need
You don't need million $ budgets, just some imagination and organisational skills
No contractors with their heavy equipment (unless they will work for free) or consultants from far off lands
Have the community build their own space
There might even be an interest in a community garden that could be a point of interest for the retired or anyone else
Think small and local but on a grand scale

I went to the City Council with prints of the Masterton Queen Elizabeth park playground about 2 decades back now. A community initiative, easy to do, lots of imaginative play, wooden structures (including big x's and o's), metal chimes and mirrors, small maze like areas where parents could easily still see and access children while they explore, safe and challenging climbing for all ages, great swings (again, for all ages), plenty of seats and rubbish bins - it is still a great place we could easily create here. The council were keen, then ended up shelving their participation despite having offers from community to drive it, as OSH requirements meant their whole budget and time had to go on extending the black padding under all existing playground areas around Dunedin by I believe a metre. At that point, they were looking at the idea being installed in the Botanic Gardens existing play area, or Woodhaugh. The Dinosaur Park would also work, but perhaps a bit small! It would also be easy and beneficial to install adult play/fitness in it too. Look up images for the park online, no longer need my photos to see it all!

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