: During an economic downturn, why is New York suddenly getting creative?

NPR's Robert Smith reports.

ROBERT SMITH: Kids today, they don't know how good they got it. This afternoon, Haga Celebi wasn't lined up waiting for some rusty swing. She was collecting these bright-blue blocks - some as big as she is - and making...

: I'm not exactly sure. I'm just going to try to build stuff and then see what happens.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SMITH: And then whatever it looks like, that's what it is, right?

: Yeah.

SMITH: There's no shortage of possibilities here.

: Because you can make your own playground. You can make your own kind of stuff, and you don't have to pull all the stuff that other people make.

SMITH: It was so much fun that the kids were ignoring the mayor of New York City on the other end of the playground, cutting the ribbon and bragging about the $7 and half million price tag.

: You betcha.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

SMITH: The Imagination Playground began - as do many things in New York City - with a cranky architect. David Rockwell has two young kids, and he lives in Lower Manhattan. And as he watched them play on the same set of swings and monkey bars, he thought there must be a better way.

: And I was obsessed with trying to figure it out.

SMITH: It turns out there is a theory of playgrounds that's been around for decades: Just get the big structures out of the way, and let kids be kids. So Rockwell designed the park as a large figure eight - with sand, water, pulleys, and those blue blocks.

: And as you'll see, there's hundreds of movable objects. Nothing is tied down, and the options are endless.

SMITH: It would be easy to dismiss the new Imagination Playground as a boutique project. But during a brutal recession, the city of New York has opened one sparkling new playground after another. And this is where the economics question comes in. Since when did playgrounds become the priority during a downturn?

: Playgrounds are all about avoiding risk.

SMITH: Susan Solomon is an architectural historian who wrote the book "American Playgrounds: Revitalizing Community Space." Even from the beginning, playgrounds were literally about playing it safe, designed in the early 1900s to keep poor, immigrant children from getting hurt in the street or drowning in the river. And you would have recognized those designs.

: Because by then, you're already dealing with the sandbox, the slide, the seesaw.

SMITH: And New York City was happy to clone those early playgrounds during the 1930s: cheap, cookie-cutter designs, easy to maintain, easy to clean. Solomon says there were a few playground innovators in the 1960s, like Richard Dattner, but when she asked him why he quit, he told Solomon:

: I don't want someone whose kid breaks their arm to sue me for all I'm worth.

SMITH: The threat of lawsuits became this huge disincentive for innovation. Even the old stuff disappeared: the seesaw, the spinning merry-go-rounds. Why take a chance? There was no upside to innovation.

Which brings us back to the Imagination Playground. There are still plenty of lawyers and lawsuits around. What changed? Well, first of all, New York did. The middle-class started to stay in the city to raise their families, and the city discovered something.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHILDREN PLAYING)

A: They could be built as economic development tools.

: And when you do that, that's when people say, you know, I'm going to stay in this neighborhood. I'm going to move to that neighborhood. I'm going to invest. I'm going to keep my business here, or expand my business.

SMITH: The Innovation Playground was paid for, in part, by economic development money to bring businesses back to Lower Manhattan after 9/11. The real measure of success won't just be in the delight of the children. It will be if we hear squeals of laughter from business owners and condo developers who suddenly have a unique, kid-packed amenity to help them sell.

Robert Smith, NPR News, New York.

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