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Drexel Team Evaluates Urban Play Space Installations

A plan for an urban play installation

January 27, 2023

By Douglas Whitmire

Through collaborative neighborhood partnerships, Dornsife School of Public Health is working to mitigate historical inequities in neighborhood resources. These collaborative efforts with community organizations focus on childhood learning and urban success. Our team, led by Jana Hirsch, MES, PhD and Yvonne Michael, ScD, SM, (both from Dornsife’s Urban Health Collaborative), worked to evaluate play space installations while also gaining an understanding of factors that increase installation use, as these have been indicated to be major needs for further development of enrichment spaces.



Tackling learning and educational gaps, health inequities, and various other urban-specific issues requires complex teams of individuals with varying skills and knowledge. Our team consisted of various disciplines (community health, design, epidemiology, medical education) coming together to provide inter-disciplinary insights into problems facing installation use and construction as well as solutions to these issues that may otherwise go unnoticed by others. 


Support from the William Penn Foundation allowed us to engage in active in-field data collection to gain a better understanding of the intricacies at play when allocating resources to accessible learning spaces in low-income neighborhoods. We evaluated each site for one morning, one afternoon, and one evening, three hours each, during one weekday and one weekend day to complete observations equating to two days. The goal of this data collection and analysis was to ascertain both the frequency of presence/use at these observation sites, in addition to the community views and feelings towards the sites. Coupled with this observational data, we used additional GIS data collected for the area around the sites to create a picture of the types of neighborhood factors that may facilitate or inhibit use. This overarching picture of advantageous/inhibitory factors that affect site use has the potential to influence future policies and investments in community land use and development, and as we know, this may lead to enhancements in STEM and literacy in interactions between children and their caregivers.  


The report makes several points clear. Installations were at sites with diverse neighborhood populations, having a lower mean percentage of non-Hispanic White residents nearby than the city average. Installations with more children living nearby had substantially higher engagement. Each site had its own strengths and challenges. Sites with poor conditions (i.e. cleanliness and maintenance) had the lowest number of visitors and engagement. Sites that were more active/kinetic drew more visitors. Many sites needed additional shade, programming, signage, or maintenance to increase engagement. Most visitors surveyed were repeat visitors. While a large proportion passed through, of those who stopped, 70% spent at least 30 minutes on the sites. Visitors often use the space for recreation and socialization in addition to child activities. Over half made new friends or met people while at the sites and all visitors agreed play space changes were an improvement. 


With its rich past, Philadelphia sits at the intersection of historicity and innovation. That long history, like all major cities in the United States, is rife with systemic racial inequality through disenfranchisement and disinvestment in low-income, historically black neighborhoods. Using pre-existing community sites and landmarks, our team and partners hope to highlight the ease with which urban communities can enhance spaces for learning and enrichment. Investments in partnerships like Kaboom!, William Penn Foundation, and Dornsife’s Urban Health Collaborative have the potential to shape Philadelphia into an educational model for embedded learning and play spaces.