This is a guest post by Alex Bonham. Alex is doing a PhD on the playful city at the University of Auckland in which she melds urban theory with play and performance theory. Her book Play and the City was published in July this year. She is also Deputy Chair and planning lead of the Waitematā Local Board.
When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life, said Samuel Johnson.
Cities bring people together and wherever there are people, there are pleasures. Paris means romance, Babylon, gardens that are a wonder of the world, Kyoto, the refined arts of geisha. But while cities bring pleasure, only some cities manage to be playful. Why is this? And how can a city become playful?
Play is often pleasurable but there is more to it than that. Play has an element of challenge, uncertainty, novelty, excitement and risk: through play we learn what we are capable of. Roger Caillois is a French sociologist who wrote about play. In his influential 1961 book, Man, Play and Games, he describes what he thinks are the four types of play:
competition, chance, simulation and vertigo
This last – vertigo – is the thrilling sense of almost falling – slipping, sliding, swinging, speeding or looking down from a great height. The risk is just enough to make the activity enticing.
Quentin Stevens is an urban designer who has written about designing cities for play. In his 2007 book Ludic City he identified the sorts of urban forms and structures that are particularly conducive to play. Considering these familiar urban elements through a new lens – playfulness – is a great start to build a frame for urban play:
pathways, intersections, boundaries and thresholds.
Pathways are essential to get around but they are also sites of play in themselves. The play can be a form of vertigo, the thrill of speed: separate cycling lanes allow people to whizz. Or the play can be incorporated in the variety of things on offer in a place, like a high street or a High Line. In these places traffic should be slow, or non-existent. This is the current thinking around Queen Street. Very wide pathways on waterfronts ensure room not just for walking but for scooters, rollerbladers, buskers competing for your attention, and mucking about. Auckland’s waterfront is great for this. Wellington’s waterfront is even better.
Intersections are fun because at every corner there is an opportunity for SURPRISE. Melbourne’s finely grained laneways means lots of different ways to cross the city, and all the more opportunities to find that perfect dress, hip new restaurant, or crazy bit of graffiti. Auckland has the area North East of Queen Street, that stretches from Takutai, and Britomart, up High St with all the lanes in between. There is something about laneways that is conducive to human connection – particularly hole-in-the-wall bars with drinks and snacks.
Boundaries. A firm boundary that encloses space makes it a place, and most people stay on the edge. Cafes and seating enable people to linger and a potential audience encourages performers to put on a show. Conversely, a performance in the middle encourages people to linger on the edge. To draw a diversity of people, some non-commercial lingering space is desirable, like steps! London’s Covent Garden and Auckland’s Freyberg Place are both successful in creating a space with active edges and things going on in between. These might be officially organized, like singers or photo exhibitions; or spontaneous, like kids dancing to K-Pop. As architect and urban designer Jan Gehl noticed, we can be happy watching people just be themselves. A walled garden with grass in the middle is the exception to the rule and draws people inside.
Thresholds are portals to other worlds. Grand entrances to theatres or stations take you on journeys to other places, while the arches that lead the way to shrines in Asia hint at spiritual realms. Shop windows, particularly department stores, suggest how you might go places if you just wear this, buy that. I love small specialist shops with experts behind the counter who can take you down cultural rabbit holes where you may find your tribe. In Karangahape Road there has been a series of art installations in empty shops so that there is always something for passersby to see and wonder about. The Urban Dream Brokerage in Dunedin and Wellington have also used empty shops to present a different way of living entirely – a threshold to a better future perhaps!
Stevens uses the word props to include all the other bits and pieces that transform the urban realm: street furniture, steps, signage. In many ways these are the easiest to deliver. The Auckland council walking team have used stickers to point the way to shortcuts across the central city. I love public art with some humour, such as the bronze statues of birds under cardboard boxes near Myers Park kindergarten. It is a good thing that Aotea Square has been designed with robust street furniture and ledges to enable parkour and skateboarding. If only trees could be left in parks with sufficient lower limbs that people could climb them.
The Project for Public Space (PPS) in New York has produced a concept they’ve called the Power of Ten. The idea is that each space should have ten things going for it:
These might include a place to sit, playgrounds to enjoy, art to touch, music to hear, food to eat, history to experience, and people to meet. Ideally, some of these activities will be unique to that particular place, reflecting the culture and history of the surrounding community.
Frith Walker, Head of Placemaking at Panuku Development Auckland, and a former theatre stage manager, encourages taking a theatrical approach. She recommends designers consider lighting and set-dressing that can transform an open space in multiple ways – an al fresco yoga room, a music festival, a cinema, a pump track, an exhibition space, a marathon route.
But one doesn’t have to try too hard. Play often flourishes in the left-over spaces, the basements that could become video game hubs, the space under a concrete terrace in London’s Southbank that has become a skate pit. If one is designing somewhere and there is a bit of annoying space you don’t know how to use, don’t worry, teenagers will work it out for you. In fact, intentionally leaving some space over is an act of generosity.
What is needed is a general tolerance of play. This means ensuring that our urban landscape is robust enough for people to sit or stand on or do things that they are not supposed to do (but probably will). It means signage that focuses on the dos, rather than the don’ts. It means at an individual level being a bit more relaxed about play. While occasionally people do get hurt, these figures are small and a tiny fraction of those hurt on the roads.
Our cultural attitude towards play is mixed. New Zealanders are tolerant of play unless perhaps it gets in the way of their play (which may well involve the need for speed). However, outside sport, we perhaps don’t really push cultural play as much as we might. Imagine if all kids learned how to play musical instruments, to sing and dance? We could have bars and street carnivals to rival those of New Orleans or Havana! Again, the answer may be to not force one type of play but to create the space and time and resources for people to play just the way they want to.
Caillois, R. Man, Play and Games.
The Project for Public Spaces: https://www.pps.org/
Stevens, Q. Ludic City.