Quick look: The fitness park is a poor substitution for a playground, and an insult to our teenage and adult populations. Reflections on the Fitness Park in NYC.
In 2012 NYC opened its first official ‘adult playground’ and has plans to build two dozen more by the end of 2014 (3). However, calling them playgrounds is a gross exaggeration. That ‘adult playground’ is nothing more than an outdoor gym, with isolated stations and plastic signs telling you what you should be doing and where and how. Pull-ups here, situps there, balance on this one beam and this one beam alone. No problem solving required, no creativity needed, no room for exploration or collaboration… no fun, no freedom. The only two benefits I see is that it is free to use and smells significantly better than a box gym.
Teenagers are faring a little better, but just barely. There is the development of a playground at Hudson Yards, but its completion is set way out in 2015, and what it ends up offering is yet to be seen. For those who enjoy skateboarding, there are numerous skateparks open to the public, though it should be noted that their use is contingent upon the signature of a waiver and specific equipment requirements. But if skating isn’t you’re thing, then you’re as well off as the rest of the adult population.
Thus there is no denying that in the City and Society today, there is a unacceptable and near complete lack of designed and designated opportunity for teenagers and adults to engage in free, unstructured, creative play.
When you go to a park, your free options are to walk, on this path or that one, or to sit on a bench, in the shade or the sun, or to people watch. You can also roll around in the grass (some of the time). Pull out your wallet, and there are tons of bike paths if you’re able to afford a bike, or you could throw a ball in the field, assuming you have the equipment, so long as you don’t disturb your neighbors. If you wanted to organize a game of soccer or tennis, you have to compete with the hundreds of others looking to use that space, or possibly even purchase a permit.
And, well, with those as your best options, it should be no surprise to hear that in NYC more than 1/2 the adult population is either overweight or obese(4)(5). One could easily link obesity to the fact that the opportunities that are available to get moving are too expensive, difficult, competitive, or, to put it plainly, not a whole lot of fun.
Fitness & play needs to be more than gym workouts, expensive specialty classes, long walks in the park, and competitive team sports. And, even if there WERE opportunities for play that met this criteria, there would additionally need to be guidance and support, as we as a society and population have been conditioned into systems thinking and to be fearful of 'play'.
To put the long story short–we don’t need more gyms and classes in our city; we need more playful, adult infrastructure. We need infrastructure that is complex, inter-generational, and flexible, that both guides and allows for adults & teenagers to develop and explore their own open-ended challenges. We need a place that is safe, welcoming, accessible, and fun. …And We need to stop looking at play as a distraction or diversion from reality, but rather as an integral element of our continual, healthful development.
3 “New York Introduces Its First Adult Playground.” New York Times. Winnie Hu. Web. 20 Mar 2014. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/01/nyregion/new-york-introduces-its-first-adult-playground.html?pagewanted=all
4 “Obesity.” New York City Department of Health. Web. 20 Mar 2014. http://www.nyc.gov/html/doh/html/living/obesity.shtml
5 “BRFSS Brief: Overweight and Obesity, NYS Adults 2011.” New York State Department of Health. Web. 20 Mar 2014. http://www.health.ny.gov/statistics/brfss/reports/docs/1304_overweight_and_obesity.pdf