Karen Heller: A park in an urban pocket

Two city neighbors saw a need for a park for all. FreePlay on the Parkway opens Saturday.

Catherine Barrett (left) and Christine Piven were inspired by Dutch architect Aldo van Eyck's concept of "play in-between." They envisioned FreePlay to attract all ages. (APRIL SAUL / Staff Photographer)

Outdoor play is an underrated activity. Most Americans spend far more time concerned with work and relationships, which can also be work, than with the pursuit of unstructured pleasure.

A few years ago, Christine Piven spent five weeks visiting Paris. She was "stunned by the number and variety of small, interesting playgrounds, not the traditional spaces we have here."

Sometimes the best ideas come from leaving the comfort of the familiar and borrowing from the best.

Her friend and Logan Square neighbor Catherine Barrett witnessed the same phenomenon, pocket parks for children and their parents, in her former home of Brooklyn, Borough of Strollers.

"American playgrounds aren't necessarily designed for children. They're often more about insurance," Barrett said, about what can't be done, with its emphasis on risk.

The friends were inspired by Dutch architect Aldo van Eyck's concept of "play in-between." From the 1950s to the '70s, he built 700 playgrounds in his homeland "woven into the neglected holes of the urban fabric," he noted, creating "an architecture of community" that allowed "people to physically come closer without having to overcome barriers." Van Eyck labeled them "in-between realms."

Piven and Barrett decided to build a playground on the south side of the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, between 21st and 22d, the former site of the Calder Sculpture Garden, and the location of the failed Calder Museum. Fairmount Park owns the site. The two women envisioned activities and programs to encourage play for all ages.

What did they know? Piven has a doctorate in history and Barrett is a writer. "But we are mothers raising kids," Barrett said (each has two). They knew what was missing. Piven said, "Our original concept was for a $1 million project."

Well, no.

"Scale it back," Fairmount Park Commission director Mark Focht told them. "Let's walk before we run."

And so they did. Raising money from private sources, FreePlay on the Parkway's final price tag was $70,000, the rare instance when a project borne of dreams and inexperience cost drastically less than the initial proposal. The plan was universally embraced. Focht said, "We've been working on ways to animate the Parkway."

FreePlay's grand opening is set for 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday. A kazoo band will play, and Mayor Nutter is expected at noon. It's a safe bet he'll attend. When not creating a playground, Piven works as his director of scheduling.

The play area incorporates blue foam blocks stored in a large box from Imagination Playground, which will encourage unstructured play; a reinforced concrete ping-pong table; and an octagonal sandbox holding 6,000 pounds of sand. (Alas, the sand, due to arrive midweek, comes in 50-pound bags.)

Taking a cue from Paris and from Manhattan's Bryant Park, FreePlay incorporates bistro tables and chairs to be stored in a shed built by Mural Arts Program's restorative justice program. The park will be staffed by two rec department "play associates" from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, and from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday.

Because the site is intended to be an active, intergenerational place for play, Piven and Barrett lined up ping-pong clinics with Drexel, art classes for seniors with Fleisher Art Memorial, outdoor readings with the Free Library, plus tai chi, composting, and ballroom dancing classes.

"Our hope is that we can do this in other places around the city in underutilized sites," Piven said. "It doesn't have to be the same combination of elements."

Her husband, Josh, noted: "The idea is that these parks don't have to cost a lot of money. That's one of the selling points. You create a public-private partnership."

A vital, inventive city needs projects like this, which took only 18 months to realize.

Of cities, van Eyck wrote: "If they are not meant for children, they are not meant for citizens either. If they are not meant for citizens - ourselves - they are not cities."


For more information and scheduling, consult www.playinbetween.com.

Contact columnist Karen Heller at kheller@phillynews.com or 215-854-2586. Read her blog posts on Blinq and her work at www.philly.com/KarenHeller. Follow her at Twitter @kheller.