What downtown Seattle needs is a really kick-ass playground: a huge, outrageous, eye-popping, jaw-dropping, joy-inspiring, whimsical, indoor/outdoor play area. We're not talking about a couple of climbing toys and a seesaw here, but a world-class family-friendly fun-zone that would prove a destination in itself.
Think big. Think fun. Think different. Think the "rainbow nest dome" at Takino Hillside Park in Sapporo, Japan, a sprawling, psychedelic installation of stretchy, multicolor fiber art that just begs children to climb and crawl all over it. Or the Fruit and Scent Park in Liljeholmen, Sweden, strewn with giant, fruit-shaped-and-scented climbing, swinging, and sliding toys. Or the Imagination Playground Park in New York City, an interactive play area that prompts children to create their own play space using sand, water, and giant movable foam blocks.
In fact, don't get too caught up in the word "playground" at all—a word that unfortunately evokes cliché images of the tattered equipment and decaying wood chips at your typical neighborhood school yard. No, Seattle needs to approach its kick-ass playground with the same imagination and ambition with which it approached our kick-ass downtown library and our kick-ass sculpture park. What we need is a playground that doesn't just inspire joy in children, but inspires awe and envy in the hearts of out-of-towners.
So why do we need such a kick-ass playground? Well, obviously, to meet the needs of families with young children who, let's be honest, have gotten the short end of the stick when it comes to downtown amenities: no school, no playfield, no playground, no nothing. Sure, there's the aquarium. That can be fun in a calm, educational kinda way. But try to think of another fun attraction to draw young kids downtown. Bet you can't.
Which brings us to the other reason to build a really kick-ass playground: It would be great for business! And that's not just me talking: "We want more play spaces for kids, absolutely," insists Jon Scholes, the vice president for advocacy and economic development at the Downtown Seattle Association (DSA), an organization that represents the interests of downtown businesses.
In fact, the DSA is so enthusiastic about downtown play spaces that it funded a temporary, 800-square-foot playground in Westlake Park. And just a year and a half into this two-year trial project, Scholes is ready to declare it an unqualified success.
"It's been a tremendous hit," says Scholes. "The evidence is that it is drawing people in."
That's important to downtown retailers competing with suburban malls that have increasingly turned toward kid-friendly amenities to draw in and retain customers. And if a couple of climbing toys in Westlake Park can draw in customers, just imagine what a really kick-ass playground would do for all downtown retailers.
How much would it cost? New York's groundbreaking Imagination Playground cost $7.4 million; twice that might buy us something truly kick-ass. Local businesses might chip in, since they're the ones who would benefit from the increased foot traffic—the sculpture park was funded by a public-private partnership. Or, like the downtown library, Seattle taxpayers might foot the bill—less then $10 on your annual property tax bill (say, through a parks levy) would raise about $15 million over the course of a six-year levy.
There's plenty of available rooftop space within the downtown retail core that could support a playground like the widely acclaimed Yerba Buena Gardens playground atop the Moscone Center in San Francisco. The perpetually troubled Freeway Park is ripe for redevelopment, as well as an underused lot at Second Avenue and Pike Street. Scholes also suggests that the soon-to-be-redeveloped waterfront presents an ideal opportunity to serve the needs of young families.
Victor Steinbrueck Park at the north end of the Pike Place Market is also slated for a face-lift, and while small (only 0.8 of an acre), it would offer a unique setting. "Where else do you get a view like that from a playground?" asks Scholes.
Nowhere but Seattle. It would be kick-ass.
And it would come none too soon. According to US Census data, Seattle's under-18 population has grown by 8 percent since 2007. And yet we've done little to address our growing need for kid-friendly amenities. A really kick-ass playground wouldn't solve all of downtown's problems, but it sure would be a fun way to start.