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Playgrounds of the Liveable City

There is a James K. Baxter poem called The Bay, in which the writer laments his lost youth while revisiting his childhood beach. Until recently, Baxter’s inertia was simply a literary memory; a moment taught to me in high school. Finally, I have found my own bay. There’s no sand, water or thistle shrubs, but the distress between site and memory feels the same. A quick edit of Baxter’s title line, and the feeling is caught.

I remember the [playground] that never was

And stand like stone and cannot turn away.

My childhood playground – nestled in Myers Park – was humble as any, its construction was crude; wood and steel bound together on a bed of bark. A classic of the post-war generation, Myers Park playground allowed for few extravagances. It seems natural to attach the same reverie and nostalgia to a playground as Baxter does to a beach. After all, playgrounds are among our first interactions with the built environment. For young urbanites, these sites become a conditioning of youth, a system en-lieu of nature.

It was inevitable. A team of urban designers have done away with my childhood playpen, demolishing it in a flurry of ‘liveability’. The new playground – completed just in time for summer – resembles a sculpture park, and is filled with strange totems of contemporary urban living. Obviously I wasn’t paying attention, a revolution was underway in the world of playground architecture.

There is a kind of Alice in Wonderland quality to the scene. Squiggly steel monoliths, giant metal birds, and mushroom like umbrellas, seem to collectively represent new staples in the playground industry. Punctuating this surrealist scene are rows of redbrick, a colonial ode-to-England amongst the otherwise sight. There is a maniacal innocence to the new playground. Weird animals and neon hills might bring a smile here and there, but always with a demented edge.

Myers Park is a valley, and its contours have long been treated as suspicious. Last year, a fatal stabbing occurred fifty meters from the old playground. In tandem with improved lighting and the installation of CCTV, the new playground is part of an effort to revitalise Myers Park. In the context of Myers Park – a site branded with caution – the playground is a hallucinogenic cleansing.

It all reminds me of the first chapter of Kant after Duchamp, in which the writer is positioned as an outer-space anthropologist, newly descended to earth. It is through these imagined eyes that the writer looks for a pattern, trying to find some sense of social order. A product of my own society, surely I should some how be reflected in the playground? I fear an outer-space anthropologist would have more luck decoding the contents of Auckland’s art galleries, then these structures branded as a playground

James K. Baxter couldn’t reconcile the memory of his youth in the presence of the bays dangerous currents and poisonous spiders. Similarly, I too can no longer trace my belonging to this place. Something irreversible has shifted; the memories morphed into something unrecognisable, a set of abstractions, an iron bird, a steel web, and a neon hill.

Emil Dryburgh

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