Assessing the balance of risk to challenge in playground design is an ever evolving conversation within our office. A task force was assembled earlier this year to devise the perfect strategy to assess the spectrum of our clients' risk-challenge tolerance for playground designs. My personal favorite idea was a Buzzfeed-esque quiz titled "What playground are you?"
During these conversations, I scoffed at those who thought a 1/4" grade differential in landscape materials to be a trip hazard. I (the one without kids) thought all parents must be over-zealous helicopters and all caregivers were on the brink of wrapping their students in bubble-wrap. I decried the U.S. playground litigation history as the downfall of all things fun, beautiful and creative.
Then I went to Mexico City.
I traveled to Mexico City on an architectural and foodie pilgrimage and it exceeded my every expectation. Seriously, go - it's fantastic. Along with my skeleton posters and Luis Barragán books, I came back to the States with a newfound appreciation for injury-related litigation.
What a luxury to worry about 1/4" trip hazards! On the block of my Airbnb apartment in the beautiful expat Condesa neighborhood, there was an uncovered water main access - we're talking a gaping 3' deep hole on a poorly lit sidewalk. "No stumbling home drunk on this side of the street," my partner joked. Later, in the middle of the Centro neighborhood, I found myself within a construction site. Sure I had missed some barrier somewhere, I turned around embarrassed. I quickly realized that not only was it acceptable for me to be there, it was the only way to get to the museum. At first I waited for the sledge hammer man to stop swinging at the concrete. I wrongly assumed that he would see me and politely stop throwing around 40lb of metal at eye level. Wrong again. So we carefully sidled by. This was day one.
Over the ten days I was there, I saw people running into traffic to jump onto the franchised buses without doors; I and other tourists walked all over the barrel vaults of a crumbling 1600's cathedral, and I stumbled upon an un-gated playground in the median of a thoroughfare. I was slowly coming to the conclusion that I'm actually a complete risk-intolerant prude!
I'm not trying to portray Mexico City as a city to be entered at your own risk - far from it. They had tons of signs for avoiding personal injury (the "do not lean" being my favorite) and have extensive earthquake evacuation signage. Perhaps Mexico City just imagines that its inhabitants are more aware of their surroundings than our United States cities give us credit for. Or, in the United States, it is known that almost any personal injury could result in litigation. Likely, it's the latter.
It's easy, perhaps lazy, to vilify our litigation culture. I may have rolled my eyes at the McDonald's "Coffee is Hot" lawsuit, yet the complexities and reasoning behind the litigation are there. I live in a country safe enough that I can be glued to my smartphone while walking down the sidewalk without worrying about holes or sledge hammers. Maybe it's less exciting, but I have a newfound appreciation for its comforting boringness. Now I fall a bit more centered on the risk-challenge scale than I originally claimed. This being the U.S., a bed of rubber surfacing is there to soften the fall.