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mhp_120Last summer the Lansing community built a children's playground in Myers Park.  The community provided input to on what elements would be included, raised funds, and volunteers built the playground in an intensive week-long build session.  A new Ithaca company seeks to provide the same thing, but with a twist -- Must Have Play seeks to build community playgrounds for seniors.

"I know from years of helping to build playgrounds for kids that they make a huge difference to a community," says Must Have Play owner Michael Cohen.  "A good community playground will not just be great for kids, but beyond that it's a place where parents can meet, where children can meet one another and get outdoor exercise.  I don't see why that should stop at one's teenage years."

The idea is to build indoor/outdoor spaces where seniors can exercise and socialize in public, free, easily accessible playgrounds.  Such spaces can include low intensity, self directed exercise machines, both manufactured and one-of-a-kind machines built on site.  Gardens, water features, soundscapes, conversational seating, nooks, shelters, pathways with ramps, steps, and arches included are all possible elements of a senior playground.  Cohen says his preferred site for senior playgrounds would be public parks because they are public, free, and accessible.  Assisted living facilities are also a natural fit for adult playgrounds.

After working for the Lansing-based Leathers & Associates which was responsible for last year's playground project in Myers Park, Cohen says he prefers the 'community build' model.  Hoowever, if a client just wants it built he also works with contractors.  The community build model offers unique benefits, though, including significantly lower cost.  Communities get to tell what elements they would like in a space, and there is significant community buy-in to a playground residents have created themselves.  Cohen says parks and assisted living facilities such as Kendal are a natural fit.

"With a small investment and some creativity they can embellish their parks to serve older generations," he says.  "Assisted living facilities underutilize their space.  I don't think they recognize that for a relatively small investment they could provide a wonderful, additional service for their residents.  I'm hoping to change that."

Cohen was born in Hove on the south coast of England.  He went to City University in London, then moved to Middlesex University there.  He began studying engineering, then went back to earn a Bachelor's degree in Society and Technology.   In between he travelled in the United States.

"I was always interested in politics and community organizing as an engineering student," he says.  "That was a strong current for me in my early 20s.  I suppose I thought I'd be a generalist, a team leader who could bring multiple disciplines to bear on solving problems."

After earning his degree in 1980 he came back to the States to settle in West Danby.  Like many he was attracted to Ithaca by the mixture of college town and rural landscape.  And he wanted to be in America.

"There's an excitement about the U.S.," he says.  "There is a youthfulness that engenders 'why don't we do this.'   That appealed to me.  I thought I might build a house, which I finally did 20 years later."

He began selling baked goods at the Ithaca Farmer's Market.  Then he was hired by a crew that builds log houses, something he wanted to learn to do.  That began his love of carpentry.  He worked with that crew for about three years, then entered a master's program at the cornell School of Industrial and Labor Relations. 

Children's Playground designer Bob Leathers hired Cohen in 1989.  He began as a playground construction supervisor.  He traveled around the country supervising the community builds.

"We built world class playgrounds," Cohen says.  "Bob is a very talented genius in playground design.  He was a trailblazer.  The process was mind blowing.  A barn-raising on such a scale in five days is mind blowing.  I was almost stunned and paralyzed by it!  but it was a great fit.  it was very energizing and rewarding to help people accomplish something so dramatic and profound themselves, from scratch, wildly exceeding their own dreams."

About a year ago Cohen left Leathers to follow his own dream.  He started his company in May of 2010.  At that time he was thinking of building playgrounds for children.  But around January he stumbled on the idea of creating playgrounds for seniors when he saw an ABC News report about a new outdoor exercise area for elders in Manchester, England.

"It showed folks having fun and enjoying themselves and getting a little bit of exercise in a happy and friendly way," Cohen recalls.  "It was inspiring, so I started looking into this.  I love to build.  I love to design.  Maybe it's also because I'm from England where parks are more developed, perhaps.  My vision is really a beautiful garden in many ways, with opportunities to exercise.  Something just clicked and made me want to do it."

mhp_michaelMichael Cohen

Today he lives north of Ithaca with his wife Carol Grumbach in the house that he built.  The couple met while both were studying at Cornell.  His new company is unique in the United States, but Cohen says the precedent comes from China.

"In the 1990s before they started planning for the summer Olympics they launched a five year plan for a national physical fitness program," he says.  "They set a target for including spaces for seniors.  In Shanghai one traveller said every housing facility had an outdoor space for seniors to exercise.  So China is leading the world in that, closely followed by Japan.  It didn't come to Europe until the early 21st century, and they looked a little like outdoor gyms.  North america is late to recognize the need for this.  Canada, and Vancouver in particular, has led the way there."

Fitness trails with exercise stations along the path came to the United States in the late '70s and early '80s.  In Ithaca the remains of one is part of Cass Park.  But Cohen says they lost popularity and many have fallen into disrepair.  His concept expands that idea and tailors it uniquely for elders.

"My favorite part so far has to be the novelty of the idea," he says.  "The open sort of niche that I can walk into.  It's a blank slate.  Even though there are precedents nobody is doing it the way I want to do it.  I enjoy the entrepreneurial part of creating my own business, too.  Developing relationships with other professionals, and reconnecting with my community."

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