Built to Play Impact Assessment

Project information
Michigan & New York, USA
Ralph C. Wilson Jr, The Skatepark Project, KABOOM!

Five years into its creation, the Built to Play program is already demonstrating how play does much more than entertain kids.

Eamon O'Connor
Associate at Gehl
The Challenge

A case for play investment

Play is one of the most important things children can do. When play takes root in a community, it brings outsized benefits for children, from their well-being to safety and beyond.

From Aspen Institute’s State of Play and extensive regional research initiatives set in motion by the Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Foundation, we know that play is essential to a child’s healthy development. However, the scarcity of places conducive to unstructured play has restricted access for many kids, particularly those from lower-income, rural, and Black and Brown communities, limiting their ability to participate in these vital experiences.

The Built to Play program has deployed $16.9M in Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Foundation funds through KABOOM! and The Skatepark Project — established national leaders — to grantees. The result? Greater access to quality play spaces and skateparks in Western New York and Southeast Michigan communities that need them most. Gehl was asked to assess the impact of the Built to Play projects to better understand their role in children’s daily lives, community development, and broader public space design.

Photo courtesy of Howell Main Street Inc.

Built to Play Projects

[Super Slide] has definitely spurred other projects... I’ve got the mayor saying words like ‘free play,’ without [RCWJF] support, things like this wouldn’t happen.

Nancy Winzer
Project Lead, Palmer Park Super Slide
The Impact

Seizing the potential of play

Gehl conducted a multi-method study to explore how the Built to Play program impacted play space and skatepark access. There were three core goals: understand the program’s outcomes, improve program design and process, and generate new insights from play for kids and communities.

The study began with assessing the 90 sites in the Built to Play portfolio, including a deeper dive into nine representative areas identified by the Built to Play team. The assessment included intercept surveys, project lead surveys, interviews, public life observation, spatial analysis, focus groups, and more to provide insight into the life and impact of Built to Play projects. 

Gehl observed that Built to Play projects generate outcomes across four scales: individual, site (project site), community, and system (development of play spaces). It was found that Built to Play projects increase the consistency of physical exercise in kids’ everyday lives and spur economic development locally. Overall, they provide a new model of grant-making in the play space and skatepark development world.

The team’s findings affirm that play is a unique platform for connecting people, places, communities, and systems. From setting up a similar program to building the case for recreation, the Built to Play impact assessment identifies lessons for people working at all stages of play-space development, expanding access and opportunity for building community.

25 local kids in Chandler Park, Detroit participated in summer skating lessons in the skatepark’s first year — a critical platform for inviting local youth to the space. Photo: courtesy of Chandler Park Conservancy.

Gehl conducted interviews in Salamanca. Press photo by Deb Everts.

Focus group response in Highland Ave Park Playground.

Photo: courtesy of Advancing Macomb

Photo: courtesy of Chandler Park Conversancy.

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Partner, Team Director US Cities
Julia D Day
Eamon O’Connor
Marina Recio Rodriguez
Clara Bitter
Candice Ji
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Urban Strategy is the foundation upon which form, function and behaviour are created. Our holistic approach always starts with asking what life should exist in place, what spaces invite for that life, and what buildings and facilities support this. People and life first, always.