The playful city

The playful city

When was the last time you went outside and played?

Water slide in Bristol, UK

The intersection between play and our urban environment is an emerging topic, and one that holds a whole host of benefits for our mental health and physical wellbeing. However, the integration of play outside of conventional play centric areas (ie. playgrounds, parks, sports fields) has not only been ignored in the design and planning of our cities, but these areas tend to be segregated in their location, and primarily intended for use through age or situation-specific means.

While play is fundamental to the growth and development of children, it’s role beyond childhood is not taken too seriously, so its no surprise that urban design has missed out on the benefits a playful city can have for all ages.

A city which encourages play is inherently human-centered as it enhances our physical, emotional, and mental wellbeing, and reinforces ways to interact and connect socially.

Jenny Rose and Layla McCay in their book “Restorative Cities” expand on a few different approaches from reimagining ‘playable’ contexts, to building more playful infrastructure that allows for opportunities to stimulate playful attitudes (meaning the stance or mindset toward play).

Encouraging more flexible, and unstructured play is one way to reimagine traditional playable contexts. Open streets, green spaces, water elements, and vacant land are all areas in a city that can be appropriated for spontaneous play that is centered around discovery and freedom. This type of play, which is undefined and limitless, means spaces can be transformed into a wide range of uses. It also relies heavily on co-creation and strengthens bonds between those sharing in the experience.

Transforming existing public spaces that may not otherwise be seen as somewhere to play is an innovative example of multi-functional design. This playground on top of a parking garage in Copenhagen, Denmark is doing just that. It not only has structures designed for children like swings and climbing bars, but it also has areas for training fitness and ample seating for adults.

Parking garage in Denmark with a playground on top.
Park’n’Play Rooftop — Copenhagen, Denmark

Another way to reimagine playable contexts is through embodiment. Harnessing artistic and creative installations for the purpose of interactive and dynamic urban play ensures accessibility and all age fun.

One UK artist copied the style of a Victorian home from the Second World War, and reflected the design in four large vertical mirrors so when you lay down on the floor you can see yourself in fun, even crazy positions, you’ll see one guy appearing to hang off the window in the mirror above.

People laying on the floor of an art exhibit  of victorian home
Dalston House — East London, UK

This next photo is another example of urban play. In Atlanta, Georgia an open street space brings together people taking part in a human sized scrabble. Games are excellent ways to stir up friendly competition even amongst strangers you stumble upon while walking through your city.

People around a human sized scrabble game
Game Exhibition — Moda, Atlanta

Part of the Garment District Art street program in New York City, this next installation showcases a group of seesaws that light up and produce sounds when people sit on either end of the plank and grab onto the handle. When the seesaws are not in use they still remain lit, and are a playful addition to the street.

Two people sitting on a light up seesaw in New York
Light up Seesaw— New York City

What if throwing out your trash was a way to show off your dunk? Revamping an ordinary task into something fun is what the French urban interventionist The Wa did with this street sign turned Basket Bin in Marseille, France.

Person dunking trash into a garabge can attached to a sign
Basket Bin — Marseille, France

Designing playful cities should also account for play that is not activity based. Murals, colorful buildings, and interesting pathways around a city are all ways to engage our curiosity and foster contemplation and daydreaming. A textured sidewalk, or a uniquely shaped building are ways to look at play as mental stimulation, and can be enjoyed both individually or with others.

Thinking of play as purposeful ways of experiencing our urban realm presents new ways to imagine the environment around us.

In China, the architect office NEXT Architects designed the Lucky Knot Bridge, as seen below, offering a unique walking experience from the river banks to the higher-placed park, and sparking a playful journey between destinations that would normally be rather mundane and plain.

People on orange bridge
Lucky Knot Bridge — Changsha, China

For Dutch Design Week in 2017, a hotel called (W)ego was created where guests are met with a colorful 9 story building design illustrating a variety of dense, competing spaces full of ladders, hammocks, and other playful elements.

Colorful building with 9 rooms
(W)ego — Dutch Design Week

A city with more play is full of visual, creative, and immersive enjoyment, and offers up new opportunities to embody ourselves as playful beings, even past our former childlike selves. It reminds us what it’s like to feel energetic, curious, and alive.

But we still have a long way to go to achieve truly playful cities. Addressing the geographical, cultural, and social factors is vital when coming up with ways to integrate play that is appropriate and best fitted for a particular city or neighborhood. Along with this, citizen led participatory design is a necessary step to ensure the needs, and desires of the people who actually live and experience their environment are being met. But if the design examples above are any indication of a way forward, I’m optimistic that the future looks fun.

Want more?

Topics to go even deeper: intergenerational play (what does it really mean to get all ages together to play); the role of new technologies and digital landscapes for play; the potential risks and challenges for safety around free forms of play; accessibility and inclusivity for a playful city

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Written by Emilie Isch

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