Christchurch playground a hit with all ages

From Nine To Noon, 11:27 am on 9 February 2017

One of the designers of the Margaret Mahy Playground is surprised and delighted that the space is attracting all ages.

The playground, which takes up almost a full city block, is the biggest in the southern hemisphere.

Landscape architect Catherine Hamilton tells Kathryn Ryan that she recently visited the park at 10pm and it was packed.

In 2015 more than 6,000 Canterbury schoolchildren took part in a competition to design the ‘world’s best playground’.

The winning group’s designs were inspired by Christchurch author Margaret Mahy – hence the park’s name.

The park’s landscape reflects those of the Canterbury region, says Hamilton – a four-metre mound (the Port Hills), a peninsula zone (Banks Peninsula) a sandpit (the coast) and a wet play area (the Canterbury wetlands) and a plains zone (the Canterbury plains).

And the design acknowledges risk as part of a child’s development, Hamilton says. Which is a relatively new approach to playgrounds in New Zealand.

The standards adopted for playground equipment in 1986 – which became the rule book for councils, schools and kindergartens and the brief for playground manufacturers – were designed to minimise risk, she says.

“From the 1980s to about 2004 we saw our cities and towns and public open spaces filled with these catalogue playgrounds that were in some ways exciting, but also quite boring often.”

In 2004, New Zealand adopted European standards, which enable higher, more challenging play spaces – and focus on managing risk rather than preventing it.

While the Margaret Mahy Playground was originally designed for children and their families it has become a kind of all-ages community space – a delightful surprise to Hamilton.

“When the kids and their caregivers leave the park, the younger adults come in and there’s whole second life that goes on in the evening. And it’s all good, clean fun – it’s amazing to witness.”

She says the park was packed on a recent summer’s night.

“There was a man teaching his children gymnastics on the three in-ground trampolines, then there was a group of young women listening to The Commodores – old ‘70s love songs – and singing that out on the birds nest swing, and a bunch of boys watching them from a distance… All this wonderful social interaction going on.”