Samantha Wittchen

If you build it, they will play.

And if you build it on the grounds of a turn-of-the-20th-century playground located in one of the world’s largest urban parks, they’ll do so much more. 

They’ll engage with nature in a way that’s often difficult in the concrete jungle of a city. They’ll use their imagination to explore their natural environment. They’ll be self-directed, and most importantly, they'll have fun. 

They are the hundreds of thousands of children that annually visit Smith Playground, an urban gem located in Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park that has provided generations of the city’s children with a safe place to play.

Smith Playground is also the site of this year’s Greebuild Legacy Project, an “Adventure Playground.” Anchored by a stately old maple tree, the playground’s deck path connects a series of play spaces with free-form materials for kids to create and imagine themselves in a different world while engaging with the environment surrounding them. 

Turn a 7-year-old loose on this playground, and she’ll likely run around the “whirlpool,” weave through the “jungle,” explore the “forest” or just take a break on the reclaimed tree stump chair.

The design/build process was unique and inclusive, as it was led by Public Workshop, an organization that works with youth and their communities to shape the design of their neighborhoods. Children and families from the surrounding neighborhood designed the “Build Your Own Adventure” concept for the project, and a core of young adults from Public Workshop’s Building Heroes program led construction. They prototyped concepts full-scale on site, using a mixture of reclaimed materials and new, durable, low-impact materials. Legions of urban middle-schoolers, green building mentors and professional contractors volunteered to help dig, drill, saw and paint.

This project has encouraged people of all ages and backgrounds—many with no prior exposure to sustainability—to consider the question of how we relate to our natural environment and create structures that act in harmony with the world around us. 

“One of the challenges with sustainability is that it’s invisible, but when you make and build with green building materials, you’re able to more deeply understand and relate to that concept of sustainability,” says Alex Gilliam, director of Public Workshop. 

Adds Fern Gookin, Delaware Valley Green Building Council’s volunteer Legacy Project Committee chair, “It’s a way to extend sustainability into a diverse set of audiences, as well as the next generation.”

To that next generation, the 2013 Greenbuild Legacy Project says, “Play on!”