Australasian award for Margaret Mahy Family Playground

An iconic project that has bought laughter and joy into the heart of post-earthquake Christchurch has received recognition from Australia's leading municipal engineering body - the Institute of Public Works Engineering Australasia (IPWEA).
Tākaro ā Poi - Margaret Mahy Family Playground – was a key part of the Christchurch regeneration. It is the biggest play project undertaken in New Zealand and is the largest playground in the Southern Hemisphere.
Last week, at its biannual awards, IPWEA gave the project top honours in the Best Public Works Project over $5.0m section which had 14 finalists from across Australasia.
This is the latest in a long list of award wins for the remarkable project that infused the CBD with hope and life. Technical Principal - Landscape Architecture Catherine Hamilton was the Project Design Leader and says it was a privilege to work on the project that transformed an entire city block from ruins into a vibrant public space for play.
“The project site had been laid bare by the effect of the earthquakes and I started imagining what was involved in creating a new landscape. I wanted to represent the diverse landscapes of Canterbury - wetlands, plains, coastal edges and the Port Hills - and these are all reflected in the different play zones.”
Catherine, who has been involved in numerous playground and park projects in her career, says that in creating a place for children, play value needs to be central in design decisions.
“What are the things that will develop a child physically, cognitively and socially, and how can we create all of those stimuli within the site to build stronger, more confident children? How can we encourage children to reach and overcome their fears, and learn to manage risk? In every design decision that’s made we think about how children will interact, how it will challenge them physically, how it will stimulate their imaginations.”

Healing through community space
Catherine says the space caters for inter-generational play for people of all ages and abilities;  a community gathering space, an inner-city destination for locals and visitors alike to meet, connect and enjoy in multiple ways.

She acknowledges the need to create subspaces that allow people to escape for quiet moments.

“Places like Tākaro ā Poi are wonderful and create an incredible positive energy, but they can also be chaotic and overwhelming. Not all children need to let off steam or run headlong into risk, some like to quietly observe and require a safe space to do this, which is something we wanted to incorporate within the flow.”

At the heart of the park is a 130 m ‘story arc’ granite pathway that uses elements from the stories of local children’s writers Margaret Mahy and Elsie Locke, as well as narratives and imagery from the Ngai Tahu.

Catherine says the idea for this came through a belief from Margaret Mahy that when a story travels from a writer or speaker to the reader/listener it travels along an arc and is transformed through the power of imagination in that process. 

Economic regeneration
Its success was immediately palpable, and the Canterbury DHB 2016 wellbeing survey credits the project with around two fifths (42%) of greater Christchurch residents continuing to be positively impacted by the opportunity to experience public events and spaces as a result of the earthquakes.

Since opening more than 1.5 million people have visited the park. It has also attracted significant international interest from industry leaders, business owners and academics who have expressed an interest in learning more about the delivery of effective play programmes in child friendly cities.

Economic benefits have also flowed, and the park has brought a pulse back to the skeletal landscape of inner Christchurch.

It has provided developers the necessary magnet to attract people where over 2000 residents will live, work and play, demonstrating sustainability principles of compact cities. Residential housing developers, Fletcher Living, is marketing the Margaret Mahy Family Playground to buyers into the adjacent East Frame Housing Community as part of a high amenity lifestyle offering.

A broader vision
As one of the open spaces located along the 602-hectare Ōtākaro Avon River Corridor, the Margaret Mahy Family Playground was the first of many projects that support the regeneration of the land, river and communities.

“The vision for precinct is to create a healthy river, high quality public realm and a vibrant inner-city community, to encourage a more accessible, distinctive and prosperous place that engenders a sense of pride and belonging.”

The design was led by WSP Opus Landscape Architecture, and the result of close work with CERA along with its statutory partners, the Christchurch City Council and Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu.

We also collaborated with sub-consultants Tina Dyer, BDP, Landlab, Boffa Miskell, Colin Meurk, and play equipment suppliers Playrope Ltd. Our design was brought to life by contractors Citycare and John Fillmore who built the park.