Picnic re-imagines airport through play

We had perfect weather for the picnic in Clover park which was attended by a group of intrepid and playful park ‘visioners’, and led by internationally known urban planner James Rojas. Tarps were placed on the lawn for the creators, and another tarp contained our stash of building materials, thousands of small every day objects such as hair rollers, buttons, plastic bottle tops, game pieces and much more that were provided to promote creative thinking.


The first exercise tasked each participant to build a model of their favorite childhood memory, and then explain it to the group.  We each had twenty minutes to self-reflect and build by choosing from hundreds of small objects.  Clearly this was designed as an icebreaker, and after a few bewildered looks, the scene soon looked like a children’s play group as colorful, but to others unidentifiable, memories emerged.  We were given no constraints and quickly began choosing and assembling pieces.  Some went for a minimalist approach, others constructed complex scenes full of symbolism.


After ten minutes the flurry of activity slowed down as people became satisfied with their models. We began to talk and look around at the others dioramas created, pulling out our cell phones to take pictures of our masterpieces.  Shortly thereafter we were told to stop and the explanation phase began.

It turns out many of the participants were from the United Kingdom while others were natives of Santa Monica. We heard great stories of far off places, and local stories of places long gone.

  • One woman’s memory was an Australian beach where her family went camping every year for Christmas and opened their presents.
  • One man created a muddy Welsh beach where he and his friends would walk and get filthy.
  • Another man created a forest near his school in England that was littered with WW2 trenches and pillboxes.
  • One Santa Monica native created her walk to the beach and a place where she played volleyball.
  • One man created the marshy Santa Monica ball field were he played with some Dodger greats.
  • One man created an natural amphitheater in a Philadelphia park were he and his friends listened to free concerts.
  • One woman spoke about her car trip through Chicago and the strange contrasts between ugly tall buildings and the neighborhoods.
  • One man created a ditch covered by a door in a vacant lot were he would play, and at one point got trapped.
  • One man created a tree where he would sit for shade and hear the airplanes from the local airport.
  • One woman created a train where she went on trips with her dolls.
  • One man created a ravine in a Pasadena Park where he played as child.

We all listened with enthusiasm to each other’s stories and once we had all finished, Mr. Rojas pointed out that nearly everyone’s favorite memory involved the outdoors in some way, and that clearly this is why nearby park and open un-developed space is so critical to a community.  It seems many of the participants had ‘free range’ childhoods allowing them to roam around and discover the wonders of nature.

Next the participants were placed in teams and asked to create their ideal park together. Participants pulled together their best ideas compromising and building off each others inputs. Another twenty minutes of team activity building larger more complex park models based on the airport layout followed.  Once completed each group presented their concepts to everyone else.







Lessons Learned

  • People have an easier time building their ideal place rather than talking about it.
  • Park and open un-structured land is a critical part of favorite childhood memories.
  • Physically representing a park out of what is mostly junk, forces an abstract approach and avoids drowning in practical details.
  • Park building through play provides a visual language and breaks down typical barriers such as language, age, etc.
  • Hair rollers are not particularly useful building blocks for park building.
  • Playing and building with a pile of toys and junk in a public park definitely attracts attention.

Airport2park would like to thank James Rojas for organizing and running this exercise.  Hopefully he will come back and do it again some time so that others, particularly kids can enjoy it like we did.


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