I use to think Calgary had a lot of playgrounds, but not anymore. Berlin seems to have playgrounds on almost every block, sometimes two and three, especially in the Kreuzberg district. Then I learned there are over 2,000 public playgrounds in the city, but that doesn’t include all the school and daycare playgrounds, which also seemed to on every block.
Staying in Kreuzberg for a month was a unique urban experience given the multitude of children of all ages everywhere, every day. One day kept track and I couldn't go a half a block without encountering a stroller. But what made the experience most unique were the vintage playgrounds.
Busy Busy Busy
Not only are there a lot of playgrounds but also they are very busy. I initially thought it was because most people live in apartments with no backyards. However, the more I explored I discovered many of the apartment blocks actually have their own playgrounds and courtyards, although they didn’t seem to get as much use as the local playground. I even encountered several places where there were sandboxes and/or a play area in the tiny front yards of ground level apartments.
And when I say busy, I am not talking about two or three families I am talking dozens. It is like a mini festival with all of the shrieks of fun especially on weekends and after work on the weekdays.
Berlin’s playgrounds are also very different from North America’s as there is none of the Crayola meets Fisher Price, Ikea-looking playgrounds. Most of the playgrounds are pretty much void of any colour, which is totally the opposite of other elements of the city’s urban fabric, which is full of colour.
In fact most of the playgrounds have vintage look, as the equipment and benches are all still made of wood, with twisted tree limb shapes as if they just cut off a few limbs and stuck them in the ground. And while there are still some traces of the original paint, they haven’t been painted in decades, creating a grey weathered look.
Berlin’s playgrounds are like one mega sand box (no pea gravel or rubberized surfaces here), with strange looking forts, ships and other structures (by North American standards) that families are invited to climb, jump, bounce and play on. The most intriguing element are the mysterious carved animal heads on springs to rock back and forth on.
They look like they belong in an anthropology museum – there are probably thousands of them.
All playgrounds have a low fence that keeps the kids and balls in the area encloses all the playgrounds. As well, many playgrounds will also have a high fenced-in hard surface nearby that can be used as both a place to play dodge ball, soccer and basketball. The high fence that encloses the courts gives them a strange cage-fighting ring look, at least to this North American. These multi-use courts were well used by older children and adults.
Shade, Sit & Skate
Berlin’s urban trees are amazing. Huge six story trees line many of the streets and dominate the parks, creating lovely shade in the summer but letting in the sun in during late fall to early spring. I was also impressed by the abundant places to just sit, and how Berliners have mastered the art of sitting.
And we are not talking about fancy benches and seats; again they are usually old wooden benches that you would rarely see in North American cities.
The number of small neighborhood skate parks was also impressive. Sometimes I wonder if Calgary made a mistake building a mega skate park at downtown’s Millennium Park instead of creating several smaller neighborhood skate parks.
While Berlin’s playgrounds and parks are not pristine by any standards, they are well used. There is little to no grass in most of the parks, that is either because it is hard to grow grass in the sandy soil, or the parks and playgrounds are so heavily used the grass just gets worn out. I believe it is the latter.
And while many of the playgrounds look old and dreary by North American standards, the kids don’t mind and the little ones love playing in the sand.
It is a reminder to me we don’t necessarily need to always have the newest, brightest, cleanest public spaces to make them successful.
Note: Most of my time was spent in the hipster, bohemian areas of Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg, Mitte, Neukolin districts of Berlin, so these observations may not be indicative of all of Berlin. It should also be noted these communities seem to be home to a disproportionate number of young adults who have young children. Berlin’s sidewalk ballet is a kaleidoscope of pedestrians, buggies, striders, scooters and bikes of all shapes and sizes weaving in and out trying to avoid each other. It is chaos but it seems to work, we didn't see a single collision.