“What I'm designing are social spaces,” says Michael Cohen. After 21 years of designing and building playgrounds around the world with Bob Leathers, Cohen struck out on his own after Leathers retired. With a background in community organizing, and a knack for carpentry, Cohen had found his perfect fit in the volunteer-built playgrounds that were Leathers' specialty.
He set up a company, Must Have Play (musthaveplay.com) for designing children's playgrounds, but one day he was struck by a new idea. A news clip from Manchester, England, showed a playground, of sorts, for senior citizens. In the clip, two older women are face-to-face on a device that allows them to swing their legs back and forth; their hands are resting on a bar (and their purses are hanging off the end) and the two of them are flexing their ankles, gently stretching their leg muscles, while they chat.
“The Chinese have been building such places for twenty years,” says Cohen. “Apparently the Japanese are a close second; in some places they've actually been taking down playgrounds for children and putting up playgrounds for seniors.” In these two cultures, a tradition of outdoor exercise, such as T'ai Chi in the parks, runs strong; they may also have a stronger tradition of using the healing properties of Nature. However, once Cohen's interest was piqued, he started to find the idea in different places. “I was immediately intrigued and saw how valuable it could be. I knew how important play is for children, their health and well-being, and I could see how important it was for seniors to get out and get some exercise.”
“Then I found the same thing happening in Europe, but of a different tradition. In Europe, Austria, Germany, there is a new phenomenon of designing outdoor spaces specifically intended to provide outdoor recreation opportunities for seniors.” In the 80s a popular phenomenon in the U.S. was Fitness Trails, with workout stations but the fitness trails moldered after a few years. With his background, Cohen could easily see why. Trying to do sit-ups or pull-ups in a public setting is acutely uncomfortable for most people, unless you're that one in a million guy that's happy with his abs at the moment. “If it looks like an outdoors gym, it's intimidating. It's embarassing. You think, I can't do that. What if I can't do that?”
He wanted to set up places that were comfortable for people to spend time and relax, like the Leathers playgrounds: “Kids never wanted to leave. Our playgrounds are a social setting as well as a playground; that's what I bring.”
Beth Farr, the coordinator of activities at Bridges Cornell Heights and a recreation therapist, spends most of her days involved in recreation for the older people at Bridges. “We incorporate a variety of personal preferences in traditional and non-traditional, yet dignified, venues,” says Farr. Bridges, the brainchild of Elizabeth Classen Ambrose, has a multitude of innovations to make life comfortable and fun for the people living there, and getting out and about is key; a van to take people where they want to go is always available. “Recreation and the pursuit of meaningful diversions entails lifelong involvement,” says Farr. One of the things they do at Bridges, she points out, is get out and walk around the neighborhood, which helps people feel connected to the community they're in. “It's all with a sense of purpose and encouraging a sense of personal enjoyment and appreciation of the moment.” She could see the value of Cohen's playground vision: “It's duofold; exercise, and it makes them feel comfortable in the neighborhood.”
“Again and again what came up for seniors was social interaction,” says Cohen. “Loneliness and isolation become very problematic. What I'm designing are spaces that encouage face to face interaction. For instance, you can have a bench that's straight, and you sit parallel to each other, and you both look in front of you. Or you can design a curved bench, that encourages eye contact.”
Along with exercise and getting outdoors, says Cohen, “There's equal value in the giggle effect. Whether you meet a friend, or go with a friend, or make a friend, that's got value. I'm designing to encourage that.”
His playgrounds, which for now are a vision he's working to make reality, will include structures and spaces that assist people to stretch and exercise without making that the whole point. “There are several things you can put in place to promote balance, for instance. There are reflexology paths, very simple to build and very effective.” As he describes them, these would be pathways with uneven surfaces, such as cobblestones, with handrails above them. Another idea is benches with an arched pipe, just arm's length above, that allows people to reach up and use the pipe to stretch: “You can walk your hands along the pipe,” he demonstrates.
As people get older, safety and security become more important, so the spaces Cohen designs serve those needs, too. “You're vulnerable as you get older. It's got to be safe, not too remote. You want it to be a space that is within the mainstream.” Comfort can be achieved with landscaping: “Gardens, game tables, raised beds. Musical spaces, just a little bit of acoustics and you can decide whether to play or to listen. There are a number of familiar elements that can be combined to encourage people to go to these places. With a little more thought and planning they could be places we would all like to spend some time.”
The structures for working out would be quite different from the usual playground, too. “A lot of things are completely self controlled, nor is it going to be so strenuous it takes you a week to recover. It will be low-intensity but nevertheless designed to help you work your upper body and lower body, and always, as much as I can make it, socially interactive. At least you can make eye contact with someone in a pleasant setting.”
What about dignity? Although the women in the newsclip look like they're having fun, going to a playground in your senior years seems like it would require some courage. “There's nothing infantilizing about this,” Cohen responds. “That doesn't mean it can't be fun.” He also points out that, unlike kids, who are going to eat dirt one way or another, grown-ups want a place that is clean; a place that's easy to get to, as well. If you could comfortably walk there in your neighborhood, that would be ideal. There are a few spaces in Ithaca that might serve, and Cohen wants to bring his idea to city planners and interested groups.
If he succeeds, Ithaca will have the first playground for senior citizens in the United States- but definitely not the last. “It's nice to re-enter Ithaca with this,” he muses. After two decades of peripatetic playground building (Leathers playgrounds are all over the world) he's glad to be working on something closer to home. “It's reconnecting with why I came to Ithaca in the first place.” He loves the excitement and the coming together that characterize the community-built playgrounds, when dozens or hundreds of volunteers show up and build a place to play within the space of a few days. “It's mindblowing... I can't wait until I build my first.”