Children are being placed front and centre in the design of new public open spaces, with interactive water features to frolic in, sophisticated climbing equipment that mimics natural creeks and skateboard-friendly surfaces.
Whereas once they might have been shunted off to a separate playground area to the side, now it’s kids’ play all the way.
“As a parent, we’ve all had the experience of taking children to a park that hasn’t been well designed and just has a rusty old set of swings,” said Good Design Australia chief executive Dr Brandon Gien.
“Within 10 minutes, they’re bored, and it’s like they’ve been forgotten in the design.
“But now we’re seeing public spaces being designed through the lens of the children themselves, and incorporating the most wonderful things for them. And it’s not only for their enjoyment; watching kids loving being in these open spaces brings a real sense of happiness for families and adults too.”
Two new outdoor spaces in Australia have just won awards in the architectural design urban design and public spaces categories of the international 2020 Good Design Awards, which evaluated 835 design projects from around the world.
One is the public domain at the Shellharbour Civic Centre, south of Wollongong in NSW, while the other is Brisbane’s recently completed riverside Hercules Street Park at Northshore Hamilton, Queensland’s largest urban renewal project.
Plans for the $60 million Shellharbour project began 27 years ago, for a city hub or civic square to include new council chambers, a library, civic auditorium and administrative offices. Landscape architects Turf Design Studio were brought on board in 2013 to design the public open space.
“One of the things we’re focused on is making public spaces multi-purpose, so we’ll have features like water elements for kids to play in but which also cool the space down and give everyone a bit of relief from the urban surroundings,” said Turf Design Studio director Matt Coggan.
“All spaces need to cater for everyone, so teenage skateboarders are also encouraged to come and use the space, with a bunch of pro-skaters coming and holding a workshop there, too. Then for younger kids there’s the water and interactive elements, with a tree climb and plants that look like an urban creek.”
The civic square is also now being used for activities such as a “story trail” for families, youth markets and events such as The Big Draw. School groups touring the library and museum now also use one lower area nicknamed “The Backyard” as a break-out space.
The awards jury ruled that the public domain gave the city centre ”an iconic heart that the community can be proud of – a green, welcoming hub that is soft, informal and offers a place of both activity and respite”.
Collaborators on the design were DesignInc, and Lacoste and Stevenson, with public art by Kim Williams and Uncle Steven Russell. Director of DesignInc Richard Does said a major focus was community and children.
“We wanted to have furniture kids could climb and hide in, and immerse themselves in,” he said. “That really helps enliven the space.
“Then the wavy roof of the building is a sort of biophilic representation of the environment of the Illawarra, showing where the surf hits the sky, while the bluestone of the walls represents the escarpments and the timber used the Illawarra blackbutt forests.”
The other award-winner, the $10 million Hercules Street Park, was commissioned by Economic Development Queensland and designed again by Turf.
The jury said, “This project reminds us of the value of public parks and the need to include open space wherever there is a resident population needing exercise, recreation, play, and engagement with each other and with nature”.
The masterplan for the whole former industrial site began in 2012, with the park concept starting development in 2016. The two-hectare park now also has a major focus on children, with a series of playgrounds with climbs, slides and ropes, water features and interactive panels, in containers stacked on top of each other as a gesture to the area’s history.
Older kids have ping-pong tables, exercise equipment and multi-sports areas, and one of Brisbane’s biggest dog parks to test their pets’ agility with a 70-metre-long run.
“This is a new backyard for all the new residential and commercial developments popping up around the area,” said Turf associate Scott Jackson.
“There’s also a big spiral slide, which it’s exciting for kids to progress to as a reward at the end.
“The waterway is another fun and dynamic element that activates at night with lights and water shows at different times. It’s seeing kids’ reaction of such joy to such things that always makes you want to push the boundaries of design for their play.”
Dr Gien said such thoughtful design to prioritise the needs of children had become especially important during the COVID-19 pandemic. “It’s really hammered home how important well-designed open spaces are, now more than ever,” he said.
“These two projects are both incredibly impressive, with beautiful mixes of interactive elements, water features, and designed experiences which really work and help create a sense of community.”