Playing for keeps to better city life

Damien Puddle is the Invercargill City Council’s new "play advocate". PHOTO: SUPPLIED
Damien Puddle is the Invercargill City Council’s new "play advocate". PHOTO: SUPPLIED
Invercargill is on track to become a more play-friendly city thanks to the expertise of one of the country’s biggest names in parkour.

Damien Puddle is Invercargill City Council’s new ‘play advocate’ — a man tasked with helping the organisation better understand what recreation looks like beyond playgrounds and traditional sporting facilities.

"Play is an everywhere activity," Dr Puddle said, on a wet Friday morning in Invercargill.

"What Sport New Zealand has recognised is that play is the introduction to all those more formal activity experiences.

"If they’re not supporting what play looks like, then they’re kind of missing a piece in terms of what that looks like for community wellbeing."

The council created the role after identifying that its current strategy for play focused solely on playgrounds.

It also followed a strong message from Sport NZ — who Dr Puddle has worked with — about play being under threat across the country.

In a recent report prepared for council, Dr Puddle laid out some of those threats, including an increase in technology, a lack of appropriate spaces, stringent health and safety rules, and encroachment on free time.

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He also believed there had been an increase in unfounded concerns about the safety of the world, despite data not reflecting that assertion.

Tasked with helping the council transform the city’s streets from car-dominated spaces to places for people, Dr Puddle is ready to get the wheels spinning on two pieces of work: a city-wide play strategy and a centre-city urban play project.

The role is a good fit for Dr Puddle who is a big advocate of play outside of his paid work.

Growing up playing traditional sport and dabbling in breakdancing, his life changed forever once he discovered a passion for parkour — a sport that requires participants to get between two points in the most efficient way possible, often requiring acrobatic movements.

In 2019, he completed his PhD from the University of Waikato in parkour, and has held executive positions for the sport’s national and global bodies.

He is excited for what lies ahead in the South, despite a frosty reception from some elected members last month.

At a January 23 council meeting, Dr Puddle was challenged by some councillors about his role, with one saying the responsibility for play lay with parents.

There was also an inference that having Dr Puddle onboard was an unnecessary expense for the council.

"It’s new for council. A couple of challenging questions, but this is the first opportunity to speak with them and meet them," Dr Puddle said.

Meanwhile, council parks and recreation manager Caroline Rain is nothing but optimistic for what lies ahead.

"It’s just so exciting having Damien here working with us.

"The opportunities that we’re going to have both now and in the future through having his expertise and intelligence with us is awesome."

Prior to taking the role in Invercargill, Dr Puddle held a similar position at Hamilton City Council where he said he successfully imbedded play into strategic plans and policies.

Matthew Rosenberg, Local Democracy Reporter

LDR is local body journalism co-funded by RNZ and NZ On Air.