Copenhagen is home to the world’s first, and oldest surviving, children’s junk playground – a place of escape for the city’s youngest inhabitants in the northern suburb of Emdrup. Junk playgrounds were first proposed in 1931 by the Danish landscape architect Carl Theodor Sørensen, after he had observed children playing on construction sites and junkyards. However, Sørensen had to wait 12 years before he was able to build one on the Emdrupvænge housing estate (despite the fact that the city was then occupied by the German army). A six-foot high bank of mud and vegetation was built to keep noise levels down and to hide the playground from the surrounding housing estate. Emdrup’s first play leader, Jon Bertelsen, supervised the hundreds of children of all ages and social classes who visited to site each day in its early years.
As recounted by Bertlesen in his diaries, the Emdrup playground started with just a heap of waste building materials and mounds of earth constituting the first play materials. The children began by digging caves into the earth and assembling their own houses from the assorted junk on offer. Over time, these makeshift shacks marked the territories of individual groups of children while, at the same time, communal structures – for example, a police station, hospital and shared wigwam – were constructed to provide places for monitoring the evolution of the site and for intervening in disputes. No individual structure lasted for long – the huts were intermittently demolished and rebuilt for different owners and to new designs. As Bertlesen put it, ‘in children’s play activities the process of construction, the completed result and the eventual pulling down are all stages of equal importance’. One of Bertlesen’s last acts as director of Emrup in 1947 was to participate in the demolition of the 20m-high wooden tower built by the children, after it was reported by concerned locals that children kept falling off it.
Initially, the idea of junk playgrounds failed to gain much traction but, after British landscape architect and playground campaigner Lady Allen of Hurtwood visited Emdrup in 1945 and published an article on the site in Picture Post in 1946, a whole range of projects were implemented across Europe. In Britain, Allen had observed children playing on the many bomb-sites that scarred British towns and cities in the 1940s; she argued that, rather than bar children from these sites, they should simply be made safe for play activities. The numerous playgrounds that opened in Britain in the 1950s, the earliest ones in Camberwell (1948) and Clydesdale (1952) in south London, were simply junk playgrounds by another name – Lady Allen simply substituting the term ‘adventure’ in response to criticism of the word ‘junk’ as symptomatic of bad behaviour.
Lady Allen’s passion for adventure playgrounds formed part of wider debates on the best ways to rebuild and renew British cities after the destruction of the Second World War. The playground in Lollard Street (begun in 1955 and still in operation today) was built on a bomb-site within view of the Palace of Westminster – a demonstration to government officials as to what participatory rebuilding might actually look like. In direct contrast to most architects and urban planners, Lady Allen held the radical view that reconstruction should be carried out with the participation of the general population. Indeed, many of the adventure playgrounds she inspired derived from local initiatives by parents, the playgrounds themselves supervised by volunteers. This might be read as a prescriptive form of participation that was, on the one hand, designed to prevent delinquency in children; and, on the other, an antidote to the otherwise totalitarian dominance of urban planning in the post-war period. Yet, in photographs of playgrounds, such as those taken by Swedish play leader Svane Frode in the 1970s, the extraordinary juxtaposition of the anarchic structures built by children with the rational geometries of modernist housing blocks, offer a powerful visual testimony of the radically subversive methods of design that might be brought to bear on cities.
Colin Ward argued in 1961 that adventure playgrounds represented a potent example of a ‘free society in miniature’, offering, as they do, concrete examples of both built and social structures created entirely from the bottom up. Drawing on accounts by play leaders, Ward argued that the apparent disorder of the playground was in fact a product of its organic evolution. As play leader Jack Lambert recounted, the structures made by children often began their lives as jealously guarded territories – signs of a tribal mentality; but quickly evolved into constituent parts of a fledgling community. Ward celebrated the messy aesthetic of these makeshift structures as evidence of a deeper form of beauty – a beauty of process rather than of product, of the coming together of a ‘multitude of varied forces and influences of every kind, following their own course’. He saw the spontaneity and creativity of children as qualities that lie dormant in the adult world – a world that is ‘devoted to competition and acquisitiveness’. In short, the adventure playground was a potent model for an altogether different kind of city.
Of course, Ward’s anticipated anarchist society has never materialised out of these examples set by children. In seizing on the adventure playground as a model of freedom, he underplayed its crucial role in reigning in potential delinquency – as much a form of control as any other; and also the fact that many of the original playgrounds were only meant as temporary stop-gaps before more conventional development took over. And successive rounds of Health and Safety legislation have meant that the ones that remain, such as Lollard Street in Lambeth, have had to make compromises between free and structured play. Whilst the emphasis is still on freedom, the play structures are now provided by specialist companies rather than built by the children themselves, even as the junk that surrounds them still speaks more of a ‘loose parts’ approach than the the ritualised play of swings, climbing frames and roundabouts. In Lambeth and many other urban areas, playgrounds have seen their local authority funding taken away, meaning they’re now largely run as charities. But the adventure playground has also seen something of a revival in the USA, where the benefits of spontaneous outdoor play are being celebrated as an antidote to childhoods cut short by new media and parental paranoia. Yet, even as the oldest adventure playground at Emdrup remains committed to the principles on which it was founded, today it is a very tame version of what it once was. The children who play there now are forbidden to build new shelters for themselves; instead, they’re allocated one of the few remaining self-built structures from the 1980s that survive as reminders of a different age.