Spaces of Play, Part 2

Washington Square Park in New York City. Courtesy of Vasilios Sfinarolakis.

By Stella Marren, Intern at Gehl Institute

For Part 2 of our “Spaces of Play” series, we spoke with George Vellonakis of the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation. Vellonakis was behind the 2007 redesign of Washington Square Park in New York City, and today serves as both Washington Square Park Administrator and Executive Director of the Washington Square Park Conservancy. We were curious to hear his thoughts on play experiences in New York City, both in specific parks and at the city scale.

You can read Part 1 of “Spaces of Play” — our interview with James Siegal of KaBOOM! — by clicking here.

Gehl Institute: To start, as someone who knows New York’s parks well, do you feel that NYC is a ‘playful’ city?

George Vellonakis: It is. There are a lot of diverse play experiences. Sometimes an open lawn is an experience; it allows your imagination to go free. I’ve been back and forth on my opinion of playgrounds in the city. Over programing a playground can be really bad because a lot of times less is more. Parents may not necessarily understand that — they want the play structure. I go back and forth about needing a combination of play space and open space, the simple element is crucial to a space.

What makes it playful? What factors discourage play?

I truly believe that discouraging play happens when you have too much of play structure. A child gets too familiar with a structure and they repeat behaviors in that environment. It shouldn’t be too over-designed. In terms of factors that discourage play, it needs to be accessible, otherwise people are discouraged. The perimeter should be very accessible. Safety is the most important factor in these spaces.

Given your role as both Architect and Administrator for Washington Square Park, as well as Executive Director of the Washington Square Park Conservancy, how have you ensured that this space remains not only a public space for the community, but a space that is inclusive to all?

I’ve always been a person that was never very pro-play structure, I didn’t want to pick something out of a catalogue. At Washington Square Park, we were thinking in terms of how to create a play feature. There is a seamless connection between the hills and the great lawn, which provides the first kind of experience where parents and children are interacting in a play space. Not the space where parents are sitting on a park bench and kids are playing, but the hills have become a place for sitting, having picnics, playing, etc. This allows for flexibility and for interactions that have no divide: no division between emotional experience and freedom of expression between the child and the parent. So how is that done? How is that accomplished? It was a challenge. Parks should be visible. They’re all about the flow; landscape architecture is meant to modify the land and then the land becomes the play value. We need to re-educate the public and re-educate landscape architects because this [Washington Square Park redesign] really worked.

What would you say is the most important aspect to keep in mind when designing spaces for all New Yorkers — across age, gender, class, race, country of origin, etc.?

It’s not about age group or nationality, but when you make a space that looks comfortable and creative, then it attracts a lot of different types of people. We get children from all over at Washington Square Park and a lot of that is because of word of mouth about the play experience, which people are attracted to. We didn’t realize it would be more of an interrelationship between child and parents. It’s magical to see.

Having worked with the Parks Department, what are some of the challenges you see in the outer boroughs as opposed to more central areas in Manhattan?

A majority of the parks in the parks department are playgrounds, and there is a focus on redesigning the play experience. There are always some challenges, however. Designers will look at the history of the community to make the park more familiar. You see more themed structures going up, asking for children to use their imagination more. A lot of the spaces in outer boroughs are very urban; they’re hardscapes. The aesthetic of a hardscape is very different from a park like Washington Square Park, so the design needs to be appropriate for that space. You also see artificial turf, like that of the hills in Washington Square Park, being incorporated into play spaces around NYC. There is a renaissance of the play experience throughout the boroughs.