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People power parks

By Jackie Bourke

City parks designed in collaboration with residents have become a global phenomenon in the last decade. Re-inventing disused railway lines seems to be a feature and perhaps one of the best known example is the Highline in New York. In this instance a chunk of overhead railway which had become wild and overgrown was transformed into a mile-and-a-half long linear park following an intense campaign by local residents.

In Berlin the Park at Gleisdreieck was also developed as a result of intense local campaigning – in this case following a forty year process arising from objections to the development of a motorway. It was originally the meeting point for three railway lines but as they slowly fell out of use the area fell into decline and by the mid-20th century it had deteriorated into an unsightly dumping ground. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, the area was recolonised by nature and became a source of considerable biodiversity. The potential for the park was recognised by residents who fought to maintain the space as a green lung in the midst of the city. In 2006 the city officials finally put forward plans to develop a park. Following an extensive consultation process during which proposals and criticisms from residents of Berlin were incorporated into the design, the first section of the park opened in 2011.

It is now a vast wonderland of carefully planned playful features and wilderness zones which extends to some sixty-four acres. Some of the railway lines are still in use and are incorporated into the park design. A section runs overhead, but hanging out and playing underneath is encouraged by both seating and curved metal structures to hang off and swing out of.

The western section of the park is like a vast meadow punctured with supersized swings for all age groups – adults included. There is a small enclosed playground with nice wooden play equipment. But a contoured soft surface area is a particular attraction where tiny kids on scooters play alongside teenagers and adults on roller blades. An ingenious series of trampolines set into the ground here adds a frisson of tension for the skaters and scooters who deftly dodge the bouncing babies.

The mix of age groups and activities is a particularly appealing feature of the park. Much of the usual oppressive signage with ‘dos and don’ts’ seems absent and adult cyclists and teen skaters share the pathways with toddlers, parents pushing buggies and elderly couples out for a stroll.

Heading over towards the east side of the park there is a pretty decent skateboarding facility. It seems to be well used by teenagers and older fogies alike. Just beside it is a neat little café on the ground floor of the signalling tower serving snacks and coffee. This section is also where you’ll find parent Mecca – clean toilets and nappy changing facilities.

Along a path through overgrown scrubland you reach railway tracks which are still in use. First timers step across a bit gingerly, frantically looking left and right.  This leads to the east of the park which has a series of playgrounds both open and enclosed. But the highlight of this section of the park is the ‘naturerfahrungsraum’, a wild space where city children can let their imaginations run free and mess around. It is quite a unique space with no play equipment other than suggested possibilities from 10 foot long stripped down tree branches which have clearly been deliberately left lying around.

Such civic initiatives are not an accident. They reflect the democratic, participative and innovative essence of this pioneering cosmopolis. After unification the magnificent Albert Speer-influenced Tempelhof airport, focus for the 1948 Berlin airlift,  became redundant and environmentalists promoted its closure. A 2008 city referendum failed to scupper this but only because the turnout was insufficient.

Tempelhof which a hundred years ago was used as a park and parade ground  was reopened in 2010 as a 386-acre city park with a budget of €60 million for development up to 2017. It boasts a six-kilometre cycling, skating and jogging trail, a 2.5-hectare BBQ area, three dog-runs covering around four hectares, allotments and an enormous picnic area for all visitors. There are areas for baseball and kiting and an important habitat for several protected birds, plants and insects.

The kind of magical parks that can be created when you engage the citizens of the city is quite impressive.  Closer to home, in Dublin 7, a campaign to transform the old Broadstone to Broombridge railway line has been underway for several years. Desireland, an environmental and health-care consultancy founded by Kaethe Burt-O’Dea has proposed initiating a participative planning process with residents to turn this space into a linear park called The Lifeline. If examples in other cities are anything to go by, this proposal would be of enormous benefit to the citizens of Dublin. •

Jackie Bourke is an urban researcher and founder of Playtime.ie