The Annual International Berkeley Undergraduate Prize for Architectural Design Excellence
Berkeley Prize 2024

[ID:1905] Three Feet Off the Ground

United States

Walking from the house to the playground, children are full of energy and expectations to what will be encountered at the final destination. But the path holds encounters as well for them, being a great jungle for them filled with cars, stop signs, stores, traffic lights, noise, and hundreds of people as they head towards their destinations. This experience and process leave as stronger and sometimes more important impression than the final destination. The learning and social understanding of community happens not only in school, the park or at home, it also happens on the way to school, from the park and on their way home. These paths are extension of their destinations, leaving trails of evidence between each location so if a one were to find themselves in a new place, elements can be found to locate one. If this path can become a tactile path for children to understanding, this could become the mediator between children and the city. Children would be able to 'read' the signs from three feet off the ground and a relationship with the city can be established by connecting elements within the city with the city itself. Abstract playground objects in the path to the park become the connectors between children’s mind and the city environment.

Studies among children and their surrounding environment have emphasized the need for street design to be pedestrian and children friendly (Jacobs, 1962; Marcus, 1974; Abu-Ghazzeh, 1998). This can be understood and implemented in new construction. But when one begins to look at existing streets on urban cities, certain aspects cannot be easily implemented. This proposal intends to intervene with the existing structure of New York City that is inherently very difficult and almost unchangeable, to create a network that would guide children through this urban jungle. The proposal is based on the assumption that a sense of belonging and location are essential to a child’s understanding of their city. To connect child and city, a network of paths made of various play related objects will connect residential neighborhoods to parks, entertainment centers, museums, schools and other amenities the city has to offer. The objects would be simple and undefined placed along the pedestrian sidewalks to blend in to their immediate surroundings.

A child’s understanding of space mainly derives from their direct interaction with the environment (Marcus, 1974; Millar, 1974; Abu-Ghazzeh, 1998). Thus, children do a lot of tree climbing, or climbing of a fence, sitting on steps or getting dirty. It is in this direct contact that they begin to make sense of what it is around them. This direct contact is play. Play is a constant in a child's life. Games are used in elementary schools to teach children. Play can be implemented into the street as well so that children can understand their urban environment. It is an abstract continuity of learning through playing in the street through balancing on the steps, leapfrogging over giant concrete balls and cubes, walking on bench, climbing retaining walls, skipping across street cracks would enhance the relationship which we intend to create. Placed strategically, a series of objects designed to allow for interaction and play can becomes memorable spaces. By understanding and knowing one location, and then another, streets can begin to be linked to one another as a mental-map. And in this step-by-step process of relationships between child and object, object to location, location to a mental map, the objects of the path begins to be children’s street signs.

Perhaps, the best way in which to address what we are doing is to say what we are not trying to do. This proposal is not to create a space in which the child will be dominant. On the contrary the design and placement of these objects must relate to the surroundings and the main characteristics of the street. The city cannot have a space that gives all importance to children because that will neglect the other users of the street. In a worst-case scenario, adults, disliking the disruption caused by children's play, will discourage activities for children that should be promoted by the street. Children cannot be dominant on the sidewalk as they must learn and acknowledge this relationship of a shared path. Sharing is caring and the built environment must also reflect that.

We are not proposing to create spaces for adventure play. The residents recognize the street as a dirty space and most green spaces tend to be used by residents with dogs. Because of this, children are discouraged from playing in the dirt and remain mainly on the concrete. Instead, what is being introduced is another form of ‘adventure’ play. As these objects are to be the path between distant places for children, the objects should have characteristics of its destinations. If a child were to visit their cousin in another part of the city, they could theoretically read these objects and follow the path to a destination that's nearby.

Children up to age 6 are more at risk to traffic than older children because they are not yet aware of the dangers of street and their sense are not geared towards detecting these hazards (Sandels, 1968). Being unaware of traffic can be even more dangerous during play when they are caught up with the game. These objects will encourage play but only to a certain point, as we do not want children getting hurt by street traffic. This is part of the reasoning to restricting play to a smaller scale, perfect for everyday play but has the flexibility in the object to create other games.

This intervention is not meant to interfere with existing car traffic. As the authors recognizes the importance of the car and its already sparing space which it occupies on Streets and Commercial Strips, the need for residential parking and the diverting or further minimizing the flow of traffic could prove more dangerous at other parts of the city in the form of a tunnel affect. There are too many factors to adjusting car traffic that has lead to the decision to keeping the intervention of the objects mainly along the pedestrian sidewalk.

The proposed site is West Harlem in New York City, from 125th Street to 145th Street. The area can be described as strips or programs running north to south on the island of Manhattan. Along the Hudson River, is Riverside Park, and next to the river is the West-side Highway on a section where the highway is elevated above the site, which now houses abandoned industrial buildings. Adjunct is a strip of housing, one block in width. Next are Broadway and the subway line. The last portion houses another strip of housing, two blocks in width. There are clearly five highly active programs going through the site, denoted as follows: first Riverside Park. Second is the West-side Highway, third housing. Fourth Broadway/subway and fifth is housing.

There are two main types of streets in New York City. The first is the Residential Street, characterized by mostly residential housing and narrow width. The dimensions do vary, but on average are 10 feet wide for the paved concrete sidewalk. Of the 10 feet, about 4 feet are used for entrances to apartment complexes. Another 2-3 feet are used for tree plantings. This allows only 3 feet for pedestrians at some places. Sidewalk plantings are spaced approximately 20 feet apart. The length is much longer. Residents running errands, children playing, adult males socializing on stoops and corners and superintendents fixing apartments characterize daytime street use. The types of residences are townhouses (1-4 units), six story walk-ups (20-25 units) and large apartment complexes (35-55 units). Perpendicular to Streets is the second type of street, Commercial Strips.

Commercial Strips are avenues, which can be labeled as the main arteries of the city. The strips are densely populated by storefronts, and rarely an entrance to residential housing is found. Entrances to the major subway lines can be found along these Avenues. The sidewalks of Strips are approximately 20 feet wide. Occasionally businesses extend their territory onto the sidewalk, appropriating 5 feet. There is less tree planting on the strips, but other activities take up space on the sidewalk like bus stops, entrances to subways, loading and delivery of goods, street vendors and litter receptacles. Day time Strip use is made up of students coming and going to school, residents running errands, people going to and from work, adult socializing with acquaintances, street vendors and people going to lunch.

On the site, children have been not involved in the dynamics of the city and street. They adapt themselves to the existing conditions and use it to the extent of what the site has allowed. The street must be their continuous reference of the learning process and the process should not stop at boundaries. The process of learning and familiarizing with the environment should be a constant, just as the street signs are constant to the adults. These objects found on both streets must be design to be desirable to interact with, in its size, shape and scale. It is essential that children use the objects because without the factor of use/play, the objects would not develop another level of meaning that is essential to our proposal. And when the objects take on new meaning then they will be recognized along the streets of New York. Once the objects are recognizable, then location of place has been established because relationships are being established. Mapping is a representation of space (Hart, 1974), a language in which to communicate with others a concept of space. So when a particular street crack becomes the limit of a safety zone, then a form of mapping is created. The objects introduced being used and played on by the children, can then be recognized and represented. So even though a child might not be able to read a street sign, they can read the objects and know their locations. The objects have become location of place.

As we mentioned earlier, objects are meant for small-scale play. They should also be designed for spontaneous and casual events to take place. Children's travels are limited to certain distance away from home. This is due to but not limited to their age, amount of schoolwork, and parental constraints. Objects located on children's home street will be the most frequented and used in spontaneous intervals, either between school and when a parent may come home, or after homework and before dinner. But sometimes, children like to sit outside to see what is happening. Flexibility and malleability in use is what is being stressed. Objects must perform a function (a seat) but can still be flexible for other use (a platform to jump, stand or conquer). Environmental factors must be considered in the design. The urban heat Island phenomenon, where the large amount of concrete in cities acts as a huge heat retainer thus expansive use of concrete should be avoided. Water recharge, water that is returned to sustain a healthy water table level, should be taken into account. Lastly, although objects must be recognized as being part of the path, they cannot create another layer of monotonous terrain of concrete on the existing urban structure. Some other qualities that could be considered for variety in the objects are lighting, texture, vegetation as objects and color. Lighting on city streets are used for pedestrian’s paths and drivers. The intention here is to use lighting as the shadow of children’s presence from the day so their absence will not be seen at night.

Objects must also differ between Streets and Strips. On Residential Streets, objects are intended for smaller scale play, play resulting from casual encounters with friends from the neighborhood in spontaneous intervals. Objects are locations, giving children a sense of place in their neighborhood. This also distinguishes one street from the next. Strip objects should focus on occupying the child’s attention to their surroundings making them more aware of what is going on. As these streets tend to have more people, traffic, movement and activities, putting things that could distract children from what is going on can also be dangerous as well. Objects for play may be not placed on Strips and instead the objects, more clearly seen as paths, should be placed here to guide children towards their destination. As the Path, objects begin to reflect the proximity to the destinations, like the park as the children approach it, mediating the relationship between the child and their neighborhood street to the park, or even to larger institutions of the city such as museums. And when a child leaves the park, the objects as she reaches her home begins to reflect the unique characteristics of the neighborhoods.

We ultimately want to create as many opportunities for children to remember their childhood. If we can possibly give a piece of the city streets to the imagination of children, then at least there would be more moments for play and memories. The streets of New York can be relatively monotonous, but there are so many streets and places as well that are capable of igniting an imagination fire in a child's mind, like Time Square, Central Park, West 4th, the Met and so forth. But let's make the in between an experience as well, an in between that can be used in the everyday and on the special occasions. The objects can be used when the children are coming from school, while the objects can then be read as a path leading them to some of their favorite weekend destinations. We do not want to make children independent and be able to cross the city by themselves. Children should have a sense of place, as they should not feel strange in their own city. They should also be encouraged to what they do best: playing and learning. If this proposal were to be taken beyond NYC, cultural, environmental and social factors would have to be taken into consideration. But it’s safe to say that no matter where, kids will be kids and will always try to play.

Abu-Ghazzeh, T. Children's Use of the Street as Playground In Abu-Nuseir, Jordan "Environment and Behavior" November, 1998

Hart, Roger The Genesis of Landscaping: Two Years of Discovery In a Vermont Town "Landscape Architecture" October, 1974

Marcus, C. Children In Residential Areas: Guidelines for Designers "Landscape Architecture" October, 1974

McKendrick, J. Not Just a Playground: Rethinking Children's Place In the Built Environment "Built Environment" 1999, vol. 25, no. 1

Millar, S. Psychology of Play January, 1977

Moore, R. Childhood's Domain: Play and Place In Child Development London, 1986

Sandels, S. Children In Traffic London, 1968

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