Bright ideas - KaBOOM! News • page 5

October 19, 2010 KaBOOM!

Bright ideas: Get on my lawn!

PlayborhoodHow many people hang out in their front yard? While backyards are largely private affairs, secluded by high fences, front yards afford neighbors an opportunity to casually socialize outside. But as Mike Lanza, Founder and Chief Play Officer of, points out, “Front yards, by and large, are not designed for people to use.”

Mike has set about transforming his family’s front yard from a merely aesthetic landscape into a functional neighborhood hang-out spot. Says Mike:

In choosing the features for our front yard, I placed a priority on providing a wide range of activity options both to keep individual people coming back, and also to engage all members of groups who might stop by, from adults to teenagers to tweens to young children to babies.

Here are a few of the features he’s included:

  • A seating area: A picnic table and benches provide a central gathering space, where families can picnic, adults can chit-chat, and kids can do arts and crafts.
  • Sand and water elements: A fountain and sandbox attract younger kids who can occupy themselves for hours as they engage in child-directed imaginative play.
  • Concrete driveway: Mike actually tore out his driveway’s aesthetically pleasing "pavers" and laid concrete instead. Some people called him crazy, but he wanted a smooth surface where kids could skateboard and draw with sidewalk chalk. A basketball hoop helps keep the teenagers and tweens engaged as the younger kids romp in the sand.

Playborhood  Playborhood  Playborhood

If you build it, will they come? In Mike’s case, the answer is a resounding yes. His front yard has become the social hub of his neighborhood, where kids and families flock to while away sunny (and not-so-sunny) afternoons.

Get more ideas and tips for transforming your front yard into a neighborhood hang-out spot on

Hear it from the man himself! Learn how Mike encourages neighborhood play in our upcoming webinar, “Neighborhood Play, Everyday.” Join him as he explains the decline in neighborhood play, describes some inspiring neighborhoods that have vibrant play cultures, and provides a detailed set of recommendations for parents. Register now!

Photos courtesy of


PARKing DayFriday was a bad day to be looking for a parking space. That's because hundreds of them were transformed into temporary public parks as part of PARK(ing) Day, an annual global event. The event is organized by Rebar, a San Francisco art and design studio.

As Rebar points out, "Paying the meter of a parking space enables one to lease precious urban real estate on a short-term basis." The event evolved from a single PARK that Rebar erected in 2005 (pictured left), which consisted of sod, a bench, and a single tree. Rebar says:

Our original PARK stood in place for two hours – the term of the lease offered on the face of the parking meter. When the meter expired, we rolled up the sod, packed away the bench and the tree, and gave the block a good sweep, and left. A few weeks later, as a single iconic photo of the intervention... traveled across the web, Rebar began receiving requests to create the PARK(ing) project in other cities.

Since then, people around the world have added their own creative twists to the concept, using metered parking spaces to play hopscotch, breakdance, and hold chess tournaments, among other activities. See photos from Friday's event:


Learn more about PARK(ing) Day here.

Other bright ideas:


Los Angeles StreetWide streets send a clear message: We are for cars. Sidewalks seem to exist as an afterthought to the multiple lanes full of rushing, honking, exhaust-belching vehicles.

Narrow streets, by contrast, offer a more peaceful, intimate, and pedestrian-friendly atmosphere. By necessity, cars move more slowly. Proportionally, sidewalks are larger. A narrow street invites people to stroll, gather, and play.

Look at this striking contrast between a real Los Angeles street (left) and a digitally narrowed version of the same street (right):

Los Angeles Street Los Angeles Street

Which one would you rather walk on?

Real streets, unfortunately, cannot be altered in Photoshop. But narrowing a road is not as complex as you might think. Rebar, a San Francisco art and design collective, has created a bamboo-sheathed module that extends the sidewalk surface into the street and includes benches, planters, bike racks, or tables. Each module is about three feet wide and can be installed by two to four people, with minimal tools.

The project is currently in its pilot phase and is being tested on a San Francisco street for six months:


Learn more about Walklets and Rebar.

 Photo credits (top to bottom):

Other bright ideas:


July 14, 2010 KaBOOM!

Bright ideas: Ping pong for all!

Ping pong paddleComing this summer to the streets of London: 100 tables, 4,000 paddles, and 10,000 balls. A new initiative called Ping London, launched by the nonprofit arts organization, Sing London, is installing concrete ping pong tables in public spaces around the city, from Trafalgar Square to Heathrow Airport.

After all, who can resist the temptation of a playful ping pong volley? It’s amazing how something as simple as a concrete slab can lure people outdoors; unite strangers; and inspire kids, teenagers, and adults alike.

The United Kingdom isn’t the first country to take ping pong to the streets—public ping pong tables are already staples in France, China, and Ethiopia, among other countries:

Ping pong in France

Paris, France. Photo by Erin and Lance Willett (cc). Top photo by Dave Bone (cc).


Pint pong in China

Beijing, China. Photo by saucy_pan (cc).

Ping pong in Ethiopia

Ambo, Ethiopia. Photo by bbcworldservice (cc).

Will the United States follow suit?


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June 24, 2010 KaBOOM!

Bright ideas: Play streets

Play street in New York CityIn New York City, 97 out of 188 neighborhoods do not provide enough play space for children. Meanwhile, one in four children is obese. In a city where space is at a premium and there simply isn’t enough room in some areas for new parks and playgrounds, how can we ensure that more children are able to play outside?

We have two words for you: Play streets. An initiative of Transportation Alternatives, in partnership with the Strategic Alliance for Health, play streets repurpose residential streets as spaces for communities to gather and play. Closed to cars at regularly scheduled times, a play street can be in operation for one day a week, or, as is the case with some play streets in front of schools, every school day.

More and more people are finding that the most effective way to combat childhood obesity is not by lecturing about good health, but by making healthy living a no-brainer. A play street makes it easy to let your child run around outside, just as a nearby farmer’s market makes it easy to buy fresh fruits and veggies.

Play streets also build community by providing neighbors with a regularly scheduled time to socialize. Three years ago, residents of Jackson Heights established a play street as a way to address their community’s lack of open spaces. They have enjoyed the experience so much that they recently transformed their play street from a once-a-week affair during the summer to a daily event during July and August. Over 200 people attended a meeting to show their support, including elected officials.

Some neighborhoods have used play streets to combat crime by overwhelming perceptions of danger with positive activities. One citizen advocate in Brooklyn directly asked neighborhood drug dealers and gang members if they could refrain from conducting their business on or near a play street—and to many residents’ surprise, they agreed. Currently, the Police Athletic League runs about 60 play streets during the summer, most in neighborhoods with high rates of crime.

Play streets are a brilliantly simple initiative to promote outdoor play, personal health, and community development—all in one fell swoop. We hope more cities follow suit!

Learn more about Transportation Alternatives.

Other Bright Ideas:


Photo courtesy of Transportation Alternatives.

Stop signRemoving traffic signs might make our streets… safer? Yes, according to the late Dutch engineer Hans Monderman. Behavioral psychologist John Staddon agrees. As he wrote in The Atlantic, “Attending to a sign competes with attending to the road. The more you look for signs, for police, and at your speedometer, the less attentive you will be to traffic conditions.”

It’s not just about attentiveness; it’s also about trust. The rules and regulations on our roadways breed resentment by placing no confidence in a driver’s own judgment. After all, with every rule comes the temptation to break it, and it’s estimated that drivers ignore about 70 percent of traffic signs.

Mondermon and Staddon have both advocated for “naked streets”—that is, streets stripped entirely of signage and signals. The idea is to encourage motorists to navigate amongst bikers, pedestrians, and other motorists by using eye contact, hand signals, and—gasp!—their own brains. Said Monderman to SPIEGEL International, "The many rules strip us of the most important thing: the ability to be considerate. We're losing our capacity for socially responsible behavior."

Have any cities been bold enough to enact this crazy idea? Quite a few, actually, and with positive results. Not only have traffic accidents declined dramatically, but the streets have become a much more welcoming place for bikers and pedestrians. As WIRED magazine reports,

“In the US, traffic engineers are beginning to rethink the dictum that the car is king and pedestrians are well advised to get the hell off the road. In West Palm Beach, Florida, planners have redesigned several major streets, removing traffic signals and turn lanes, narrowing the roadbed, and bringing people and cars into much closer contact.”

It’s a counter-intuitive approach, to be sure, but one that makes a lot of sense the more you think about it. What if our city streets also served as bike paths, walking trails, and play areas? For cash-strapped cities, this just might be the cheapest way to get more kids and families outside.

Photo by Bridget Ames (cc).

Other Bright Ideas:

Also of interest, from our CEO on the Huffington Post:

Girl on TrampolineGuest blogger Alex Gilliam, director of Public Workshop, shares ideas for how to make an entire city into one continuous playground. This is the second addition to our Bright Ideas series! Here's Alex:

"Playgrounds are prosthetics for society." - Herman Hertzberger

When we make a playground, we are often indicating that play is not welcome or able to happen elsewhere. But this notion of a singular place for play is simply not how children explore or learn. By centralizing our activities to such a degree, it is unsurprising that we have created landscapes of isolation and boredom, in which we have "lost" children to television and video games.

What if our streets, sidewalks, and cities actually resembled video games?

Let’s face it, many of you would consider me quite out of my mind if I were to suggest that we turn our cities into big playgrounds by installing outdoor stair-climbing machines, slides, rock-climbing boulders, and in-ground trampolines at our bus stops, on our sidewalks, and in the unused spaces of our overly wide streets.

In short, all I’m suggesting we do is actually create an urban landscape that actually mimics how we played as children, making outdoor adventure, play, and exercise easy and alluring.

Sound challenging? Think again.

Perhaps one of my favorite things that I saw in Berlin last summer was a trampoline that had been built into a sidewalk in Kreuzberg. Made out of segments of recycled tire, it was incredibly durable and safe, offering a moment of joy and adventure to anyone who chose to take the challenge. It represented an incredibly simple step that any community might take toward transforming their city into a continuous landscape of play and adventure.

Sidewalk Trampoline Sidewalk trampoline

Berlin isn’t the only place we can look to for examples. Copy the Malaysians and Chinese by placing random exercise equipment along sidewalks and at bus stops. Mimic the city of Roubaix in France, narrowing roads to create small areas of easily accessible play or adventure on every street. Follow Japan’s lead, varying sections of sidewalk surface treatment to improve our joint strength and balance.

Bicycle Bench

Or why not incorporate slides into outdoor staircases?

Big slide

We can foster a new culture of use by linking these individual insertions of play and exercise as a part of a citywide play-and-adventure circuit, mimicking vitaparcours, the exercise trails in Switzerland that are sponsored by health insurance companies.

Skeptical that people might not use it? You shouldn’t be. Last summer in Berlin, I routinely saw children and adults clamoring throughout the day to use outdoor elliptical machines, big slides, and see-saw trampolines.

However, sometimes creating a new culture of play and exercise requires more than simply providing facilities. People often need a nudge to do something that is unfamiliar, no matter how fun it might be. To this end, we can adapt and take advantage of new technologies, such as the Freikometer, to further change attitudes about play, exercise, and mobility. By recording and then indirectly rewarding children who ride their bikes to school, this device has more than doubled youth bicycle ridership in Boulder, Colorado.

Or what about creating a downloadable app for smart phones that geo-locates a user at a particular adventure and automatically records the amount of time spent at that activity? Employing such strategies can not only help people rediscover fun, but can also help them understand that even spending just 10 minutes on a recumbent bicycle bench while waiting at the bus stop has benefits to one’s health.

This last point is critical, as this isn’t just about fun and games. The health and well-being of our cities depends on rethinking where play occurs. By creating streetscapes that are more challenging, inspiring, and just plain fun to traverse, we will lure children away from the television, increase our mobility, decrease our community healthcare costs, and create generally healthier cities.

Visit Alex's fascinating Public Workshop blog here.

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May 24, 2010 KaBOOM!

Bright ideas: Setting the pace

Washington DC Pace Car ProgramWe'll admit it: There are days when we feel a bit overwhelmed by the sheer scale of the problems we confront on a daily basis. Each new study declaring that neighborhoods are becoming more fragmented, kids are becoming less healthy, parents are becoming more fearful, and families are spending less time outside, can get us feeling kind of blue.

But just when our spirits start to sag, we inevitably come across an example of a community coming together to turn the tide. The problems are complex, but sometimes the solutions are startlingly simple. As part of our new "bright ideas" series, we'll be highlighting concrete, replicable actions you can take to bring your neighborhood together, make your streets more livable, and get more kids and parents outside.

First up is the Neighborhood Pace Car Program, an innovative citizen-based initiative that has already been implemented in a number of cities, including Reno, Nev., Davis, Calif., Greensboro, N.C., and our very own Washington, D.C. Residents who sign a pledge to drive within posted speed limits receive a sticker to display on their car and help calm traffic by setting the pace for other drivers. 

One of the main goals of the program is to rid drivers of the notion that cars "rule the road" and to promote courtesy toward pedestrians and cyclists. Ultimately the hope is that by fostering a more magnanimous spirit, more families will be inspired to walk and bike.

Does your town or city have a Pace Car Program? Check with your local police department or department of transportation. It's easy to implement—and even easier to participate in.

Australian traffic reduction expert, David Engwicht, who first helped implement the program in Boise, Idaho says, “I have been working for the past five years with cities world-wide to develop a process that would enable residents to solve traffic problems in their home street themselves... Boise is destined to be celebrated in history as the birthplace of the Neighborhood Pace Car, the program that bought back a vibrant street life and sense of community.”

Image courtesy of Washington Area Bicyclist Association.