Why Europe’s parks and playgrounds are so much more active than America’s

A Sidewalk Talk Q&A with Meghan Talarowski of Studio Ludo on the keys to more playable cities.

By Eric Jaffe

Pool's Playground in London

Pools Playground, in London, is an example of a park that has something for people of all ages. (Studio Ludo)

Meghan Talarowski started out designing urban parks for the Trust for Public Land, a U.S.-based nonprofit, and she was building a research arm for a landscape architecture firm when London came calling. Her husband had received a work opportunity too good to pass up, and Talarowski saw an opportunity of her own: to compare London’s parks and playgrounds with those made in the U.S. She even had a low-wage “research assistant” — in the form of their 1-year-old.

“Play is very different in Europe,” she says. “I wanted to figure out what was going on and how we can bring some of those ideas to the States.”

The result was the recently released London Study of Playgrounds. Talarowski conducted a thorough video study of 16 London parks, assessing the usage patterns of more than 18,000 people, and compared the findings to analogous parks in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York. She found a striking gap: London parks had 55 percent more visitors than their American counterparts, with far more physical activity and an equal number of kids and adults. They even cost, on average, one-third less per square foot to build.

The keys to London’s success include designing parks spaces for all ages (not just kids), spreading playful elements everywhere (rather than isolating them), and making structures that are riskier (yet still safe). Talarowski also realized that London’s culture of play was founded on an “ecosystem of research, funding, and advocacy” that’s lacking in the U.S. Upon her return, Talarowski opened Studio Ludo to share research insights, develop new methods of data-collection, and help cities create more efficient and cost-effective play spaces.

“Play doesn’t just have to live in the playground: It can live everywhere in the city,” she says. “It’s a way of connecting people to each other in the way they don’t necessarily in cities now.”

Talarowski spoke to Sidewalk Talk about play’s role in improving urban health and well-being — and technology’s role in improving play.

Do you think cities are starting to recognize play as something that’s critical to their development?

I think the tide is definitely turning. The conversation in the United States for a long time about playgrounds was just about keeping kids safe. As we are starting to see issues like child obesity and diabetes and even emotional disorders like depression in teenagers, people were starting to realize that the built environment is a way to impact that. Maybe playgrounds could be a health intervention: getting kids outside, more active, connected with their peers. A lot of other researchers are paying attention to that.

At the World Economic Forum this year, the Lego Foundation, IKEA, Unilever, and National Geographic formed the Real Play Coalition. They make the case that our world is changing so rapidly that the workers of tomorrow need a different skillset — one that’s based on the skills you learn through play. It’s confidence, creativity, and critical thinking.

In the London study, your main finding was that playgrounds there have far more visitors and physical activity than analogous parks here in the U.S. — and twice as many adults. What are the biggest factors in London’s success?

The playgrounds are much more open-ended. They also have riskier, more adventurous elements, like giant tree houses or huge slides. So they attract a much wider age-range. A lot of the playgrounds here are very small. You can’t get high up, which is something people like: giant swings, big spinners, tall slides. There’s a lot of physical stimulation in the environment there. I was seeing people 85 years old going down three-story tall slides. When Grandma is climbing three, four sets of stairs over and over again to go on these slides, you know there’s something special happening.

Is there a good example of a specific London playground that we just don’t see here in the U.S.?

Pools Playground, in Victoria Park, is the epitome of playgrounds. In the report, you’ll see that picture of the kid at the top of the giant slide, and all the kids down below in the sand. There’s grass nearby where all the parents and caregivers sit, picnic blankets, and no fences, so there’s a real fluidity between the park and the play space. It’s always packed with families and people of all ages. And it has a ton of risk, because it has this really huge mountain with several slides down it. Kids are scaling the front, and on backside it has this series of concrete steps, and that’s where the teenagers go to hang out. They really like hanging out on the edge, away from everybody else, because they’re cooler that way. It was really interesting to watch how one space that’s not that large can support so many different ages and activity types.

Your work was mentioned in a recent New York Times article about how play spaces in cities have become too safe and actually need more risk elements. How much risk is the right amount of risk?

I would say it’s about developmental appropriateness. When you’re 6 or 7 years old, you start seeking taller slides. That woo! sensation. As we grow we naturally seek those kinds of experiences out. If you don’t get them physically, and if you’re not getting them in your playgrounds, you go inside and get them on a tabloid or your phone. You’re still looking for the same stimulants.

Risk is one way to categorize it. I think it’s more about what’s developmentally appropriate. That’s really important when you start talking about tweens and teens. At that age, you’re setting the stage for adult behaviors. If you don’t set proper physical activity in that age-range, you’re setting the stage for later obesity or diabetes. In teen girls, especially, you see a huge drop-off in physical activity, and that really correlates to later health problems in life.

And for social and emotional health, thinking about the kinds of relationships that kids can have in spaces and in playgrounds, and the importance of that. There’s a lot of stats about the rise of depression and anxiety in tweens and teens, and the importance of social relationships to mitigate that.

You frequently emphasize that “play” in cities should not just be confined to playground areas. Is the whole city really fair game for playful elements?

Absolutely. We have very much limited ourselves in thinking that play is only something that happens from 0 to 12. That’s all we design for. If you look at playgrounds, they’re designed from 0–5 and 5–12. Apparently you stop playing when you’re 12.

As we get into teen and adult years, the role of play shifts into a more social sphere. We’re still playing, we’re just in soccer leagues or going to the movies with our friends. Just thinking about playing in a different way. How it can support health and happiness for everybody. It’s not always just in a playground.

The London study relied on video collection of data, and some of your subsequent projects have used sensors, accelerometers, and wearables. Why do you see technology as such an important tool for this type of work?

Social observation is a tough field because it’s so resource-intensive, so people-intensive. I’ve been experimenting with different ways of getting the same quality of data, but faster and more efficiently. A lot of times the data-collection protocols we use try to turn human beings into robots — they try to take bias out of your observation. Instead of turning me into a robot, I’d rather just use tools to collect the data as efficiently and effectively as possible, then I can use my mind and eyes where the data tells me there’s interesting things happening. Then I can go look at the environment and assess it, and see what it is that makes a particular space so compelling.

Was that the idea behind the Smarter Play project?

I spent all that time collecting the data in London and thought maybe there’s a smarter way to do it. So I reached out to Dr. Bon Ku, who’s a medical doctor at Jefferson University. He has this great health and design lab. He’s very interested in figuring out how tech can support health. He loves this idea that playgrounds can be health interventions. He was all for it. He put us in touch with a company called Quuppa. They were doing indoor positioning. The technology has the potential of locating people, within a few centimeters, using localized antenna and these sensor bracelets. And it creates heat maps and paths of travel.

We coded the paths of travel for energy expenditure. So we were able to say, on that path of travel, how sedentary, moderate, or vigorous a person was. That helps us to understand where physical activity is happening, how we can report it, and then also what was attracting people to certain areas.

When you do something like use heat maps to code the paths of travel, how does that translate into a potentially different design for play spaces?

An average playground in an urban area will cost at least $1 million. If you’re spending $1 million, you should pick equipment that is working.

One of the first playgrounds I helped design while at the Trust for Public Land, in San Francisco, is called Boeddeker Park, in the Tenderloin. It’s my first built park that I went back and spent a lot of time in. We had to fit little toddlers and big kids in the same space, which you generally don’t do, so we created this depression in the rubber surfacing and these funny little mounds that look like ripples that didn’t cost very much. Next to it is this really expensive climbing structure. It does get used, but it doesn’t get nearly the use of this little indentation and these ripples. I have so many images of kids doing all kinds of stuff. They’re curled up in it. They’re using it for tag. Some kids are laying in it while other kids are leaping over them.

I was totally blown away. I realized that just because you design it a certain way, does not at all mean that’s how it’s going to be used. If you don’t go back and watch how it’s being used, or whether or not people actually like it, are you designing the right thing or are you spending money in the most effective way? Hey, that pricey climber might not have been the best choice. Maybe it’s just little bumps in the surfacing.

Can you give me an example of some data you’ve collected with technology that you would never have been able to gather with more traditional observation means?

For the London study, in order to get into a lot of the playgrounds I was at, I had to have my daughter with me. I did that entire study holding her! Which is insane in hindsight. But without my phone I could not have done the observational sweeps. I didn’t have a giant video camera. I wasn’t an obtrusive part of the scene. I was just part of the scene. That was incredibly helpful. There’s absolutely no way I could have collected that amount of data in the traditional method of literally marking it down on a clipboard or using a clicker.

Also, I wasn’t sure at the beginning what I was going to find. So being able to go back to the videos and watch them over and over again was helpful. I learned so much by going back.

For urbanists, this approach calls to mind Holly Whyte’s famous explorations.

I’m obsessed with him. He’s my favorite. I remember the day I watched his movie. It changed my life. The more we can figure out how to collect data effectively, the better off we are.

With some of the methods you use, and even just iPhone videos, I have to imagine you get some privacy concerns. What steps do you take to address them?

All of our information is always anonymous. You’re part of a larger dataset.

In London, I carried a sheet of paper that said who I was, what I was doing, and why I was there. I actually only ended up giving out two. I explained to people: This is part of a research study. We’re not using children’s faces. We’re just using it to count, then the videos would be deleted. It’s really a judge-the-scenario thing. If it’s just me and one other family, obviously I’m going to talk to that other family before I go take a video of that child. In the U.K., you are allowed to take images of individuals in public space. Still you have to do what feels right in the moment.

How do you draw the line in terms of the competing tensions around collecting more data but not being too invasive?

I don’t think people feel uncomfortable with you saying: you’re a senior, you’re a baby. When you bring in things like: you’re white, you’re black, you’re Indian, and I’ve decided that for you — that’s uncomfortable for people.

Now, sometimes that information is helpful. Researchers I work with have found, for African Americans, a huge drop-off in physical activity statistically in girls. That means you’d want to have more programs that target that demographic. Sometimes it’s helpful, but it’s hard to draw the line. I think just continuing to have an open dialogue about: what’s the purpose of this data? Why are you collecting it? When you say you’re collecting this information to try to figure out how to make better playgrounds for people — you can’t argue too much with that.

What does play look like to you in a neighborhood of the future?

Play is everywhere. It’s easily accessible. It’s in my home. We have play happening in the public courtyard of the building. We step away and we’re out the door and we go to a little local pop-up park. I can read a book and my kids can build some sort of crazy contraption. There are maker spaces where we design and build our own climbing structures. There’s lots of adult play, with whitewater parks on the river. There’s climbing across bridges — I’m a climber — and falling in the water, and doing it over and over again. All the varied ways we’ve thought about play. It infuses the whole neighborhood and all the experiences you have in it.