The city will be redesigning the East River Park, including the little outdoor calisthenics area near the 6th Street overpass. The Parks Department has in the past made a variety of missteps and poor choices in buying and installing outdoor equipment. It's hard to fault them -- the only people who have genuine expertise in outdoor equipment are the people who use it a lot. Indirect research, statistical analysis, for example, is likely to mislead unless the right questions are being asked, and knowing what to ask again requires hands-on experience. There's no Ph.D. in outdoor equipment, so consultants will be just as likely to ask the wrong questions. The unfortunate results are evident in too many parks across the city. In the case of outdoor fitness equipment, there really is no substitute for experience.
The city has an opportunity to create a world-class calisthenics area and I am confident that the Parks Department is fully capable of rising to the challenge -- if it has good information and advice. I sent the Parks Department a presentation on how to design the new area for maximum public value. I've posted it below (it starts with the "Quick summary"). If the Department follows four basic principles, they can't go wrong:
1. A calisthenics park is not a gym!!
2. Optimize functionality and versatility.
3. Versatility requires simplicity.
4. Height matters.
In other words, outdoor equipment fails when it mimics gym equipment by being too complex and specific -- or too low -- to accommodate free, innovative, imaginative movement, which is exactly what distinguishes outdoor fitness from a gym. Low bars have their place, especially for those with disabilities, but low bars are no replacement for high ones.
1. OUTDOOR FITNESS IS NOT A GYM!! A calisthenics park couldn't be more unlike a gym. Gyms are unpleasant spaces for discipline, primarily in the service of narcissistic goals of body image, focusing on repetitive training for individual body parts. The equipment is mostly one-use one-user.
Outdoor calisthenics areas are fun, open, social spaces for imaginative, innovative movement and the sharing of innovations with others. A gym stands to an outdoor calisthenics area as an office cubicle does to a basketball game. Much of gym equipment is complexly engineered to fit some single purpose. Outdoor equipment must be maximally simple to allow multiple, imaginative, innovative movements.
2. All elements should be functional. For example, the supports of a high bar should be poles that people -- including and especially kids -- can climb and grasp for a variety of movements. If the supports are squared posts, they can't be grasped, so they are non functional.
3. Keep it simple. There is no end to the list of possible movements on a simple high bar. The more complicated the equipment, the fewer the possible movements. Here's what the Parks Department installed this year at McCarren Park -- high bars with handles that restrict any movement over the bar. It looks new and cool and 'improved', but it limits the possibilities of movement, in other words, it's largely non functional.
Notice also that both sets of the parallel bars are too low for an adult. These are great for the disabled and anyone who has trouble walking. The Parks Department should be applauded for serving the alternatively abled and the infirm. It's wonderful and inclusive and simply right. We should all be pleased about that. But the Parks Department did not include a functional set of high bars for those who want to try the dozens and dozens of moves that cannot be done on these low bars. There's no excuse for leaving out ordinary adults. Equipment is not a zero sum game. We can have both high and low. Including only low and lower makes no sense at all.
That brings us to the fourth principle:
4. Height matters. Most of the high bars in city parks are too low for most adults. I hear this complaint constantly. Since the high bar is the most used outdoor equipment, the Department should include as many high bars of as many heights as they can. There are a lot of ways to set up high bars, but the right-angle set-up at McCarren is inefficient. Using the fourth pole, we could have had four high bars with two sets facing each other which would have allowed four different heights and swinging from one bar to the facing one.
These basic principles have been employed all over the world -- except in the US, of course.
Here's the presentation:
More -- much more -- after the jump