Neighborhood Plazas and the Power of Play
I recently went on a "Jane's Walk" of three public plazas in Queens to celebrate the legacy of Jane Jacobs. On the tour, organized by the Neighborhood Plaza Partnership, I was reminded of an important voice in the dialog about public space – children. While the need for thriving parks, playgrounds and recreational facilities in every neighborhood cannot be overstated, public plazas also play a unique role in the lives of children.
This was illustrated first hand while City Council Member Julissa Ferreras gave an inspiring talk to our group about turning her vision for Corona Plaza into reality. As she spoke, there was another important moment happening – behind the flower pots.
With adults discussing the process of relocating bus stops and truck traffic, children in the plaza steps away, played a serious game of hide and seek. The kids had proven that the large planters installed by DOT for greenery and as protective barriers, also serve as excellent hiding places.
As one boy hid, his friend, the "seeker" covered his eyes and wildly counted down in Spanish: "Diez! Nueve! Oche! Siete!…" This spirited game demonstrated the uniqueness of a child's perspective of a plaza. Experiencing the space from two or three feet from the ground, children can seamlessly transform a safe street of colorful, moveable chairs into a fantasy world where hiding in plain sight becomes the best hiding place ever.
The next stop at 78th Street Plaza in Jackson Heights, included a talk by Georgia Southworth of the Jackson Heights Green Alliance. Southworth began working with local parents in 2007 to provide more play space for neighborhood children. By successfully transforming 78th Street into a play street closed to car traffic, the Alliance has continued its advocacy resulting in a permanent public plaza.
A local father described how the 78th Street Plaza had become his daughter's preferred location for practicing the pogo stick. As a distinctive toy on the playground circuit, the pogo stick has garnered quite a following in this plaza. He explained: "Last Saturday my daughter counted 1000 consecutive jumps on the stick. That is her record and she is very proud." He described that over the course of a weekend, his daughter shared the pogo stick with at least 40 other children, most who had never seen one before. She was happy to teach each of them how to use it.
This story is an example of just how important physical activity is to addressing New York City's childhood obesity rates, which are exceedingly high in low-income neighborhoods. While the national rate of childhood obesity is 19.6%, in Corona Queens close to 50% of children are obese.
That same day in Diversity Plaza, games for all ages were brought outside by Friends of Diversity Plaza which included: Ludo (derived from the Indian game Pachisi), origami and sidewalk chalk for creating flowers with petals recycled from the local florist.
In additional to physical benefits, behavioral research suggests that free play in safe environments enhances creativity, social understanding, and cognitive control forming the basis for future learning.
With 66 public plazas are in the works across New York City, a diverse set of neighborhoods now use public space for these critical, unstructured, free form interactions with one another.
I am optimistic that New York is not only becoming a leader at reclaiming streets for people, but well on its way to becoming the hide and seek capital of the world.
Micaéla Birmingham is an urban planner specializing in public parks and open space. She is a consultant for the Neighborhood Plaza Partnership.
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