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.

Wide pavement in Melbourne – space for walking, sitting, busking and tying up the bike.

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.

Placemaking Day 2019 – it is no coincidence we are in a slow traffic street and near an intersection

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.

Dancers take the floor but the majority hang out on the boundaries in Freyberg Place.

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!

The Auckland Art Gallery – the front threshold is one giant portal to another realm

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 bike, the cannon, and the unusual lighting at this festival in Albert Park all count as props!

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.

A fairy light-encased house brings life and play to the street

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:

Stevens, Q. Ludic City.

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  1. This is a very good and important story.
    I always enjoy my trips to the city. Usually weekly. Getting off at Britomart and feeling the buzz. The Art gallery. A show at the Auckland Town Hall or the Aotea Center. Lunch on the warf. Taking the ferry to Devonport. Watching the kids play in the water. Listening to the buskers. Hiring a scooter. Noting people chatting and laughing. Going to a business meeting on the 20th level and enjoying the views. Browsing in the library for a couple of hours. Watching the revival of K’Rd.
    We need to make Auckland city more desirable to encourage happiness, freedom and creativity.
    I enjoyed watching Maria Ressa on TV last night talking about press freedoms and HR being a force against far too many autocratic leaders.

  2. I was thinking about ‘urban play’ the other day, watching a pre-schooler on a little bike zig zag up and down over the slanted kerbs on the K Rd cycleway. Made my day. Spaces where a four year old can safely play have the potential to create a lot of joy!

  3. Thanks, Alex. Great post.

    A fond parenting memory I have from when my kids were young was Christmas Eve on Queen St. Playing something like, How Far Can You Leap or a complex version of Step on a Crack, Marry a Rat, I looked up to see a Hare Krishna fellow with cookery books standing there smiling at us. He said, “You’re the only relaxed people I’ve seen today. The only ones smiling and laughing.”

  4. Great post and insightful. Loves street with many things happening. Like attractive shopfronts, attractive products to shop, people sitting enjoying cafe, watching and cheering sport screen with fine beers. Busker having great performance, beautiful pathway with good architecture to look at. Children playing on streets. Young people hanging out with each others with milktea and having good jokes. Couples with pretty girl and handsome guys dating. At night sexy girls and muscle guys having good night out.

    We need streets with many things going on.

  5. We have had a local create an ” Enchanted Forest trail” here in Te Atatu. Pictures of fairy tale characters adorn trees creating a path to follow and explore corners of a park often neglected – it has been interesting hear locals talk about it on social media and how they are discovering other elements; remains of a brickworks, a guerilla mountain bike course, new views of the city etc.
    How about giant Etch a sketch type canvas in the city for impromptu art.

  6. There is also an “anti” aspect of it:

    Street with dirty concrete. Dirty roads, uneven surfaces. Sometimes narrow and unsafe to walk.

    Noisy cars pass by and forced to walk across driveways with cars speeding in and out.

    The street has nothing to look at, just big parking lot, dirty concrete and poorly maintained buildings with few rundown shops.

    The shopfronts are poorly maintained, dirty, with broken windows, and selling low quality junk nobody wants

    Streets full of foul smells, used cigarettes, and rubbish.

    Homeless and angry looking antisocial people sitting on empty shopfronts and looks like he is going to rob you.

    Children are non existence and people walking on streets looks unhappy.

      1. You do have a point. This place is very “playful”

        As a gang member with drug addiction. This is the ideal playful place for doing drugs, smashing things, and killing each other.

  7. Allowing some little bits of payfulness in can take the edge of some of those nasty spaces. I like the idea of ‘ten things’ – make sure that every space has variety. Surprise and enjoyment are necessary to make walking and cycling journeys work (though not too playful for people with cognitive and other sensory needs).

  8. Cities need to attract play in all forms, at all levels, at all ages. A dull city is never attractive. The PPS Power of Ten is a good approach – more reasons to be in a place mean that it is livelier and safer.

    I did enjoy reading your book Alex 🙂

  9. It is an interesting post, although a bit demotivational if you live in Auckland.

    The problem with our streets, it turns out game developers have a name for it. Areas like this are known as liminal space — the space that you are forced to traverse to go somewhere, but that feels kind of unsettling and uncomfortable. Ever walked on Hobson Street?

    1. Still the motorway on ramp. Hard to find ten things in the whole length of it yet. Albert Street may be coming back a bit. Federal Street is getting better – or some of it, like the curate’s egg. It does take an effort to make or even just leave spaces for just something or anything to make a place fun to be in.

    2. Some of the “anti” aspect also applies too.

      Look at upper queen st to see how many anti social people, St james worksite, vacant carpark lands, and empty shops.

      It seems to get worse over time. Eventually become another “Clendon Mall”

  10. GA & Alex, thanks for this post. It was nice to read something around the framework of building a ‘Greater Auckland’ rather than another version of “OMG another epic fail from … (fill in the public service organisation of your choice)”. Sure, shining light on the latter are important but we are a bit of an echoy bubble here on GA so pushing apart the bouncy walls of our echo chamber is good for us all.

  11. Excellent and informative article. Loves busy streets with plenty of activity. Like beautiful shopfronts, appealing things to purchase, and people sitting in cafes, watching and applauding on sport screens with great beers. Busker doing well, nice route with interesting buildings. On the streets, children are playing. Young folks drinking milk tea and cracking jokes with one another. Couples dating that have a lovely female and an attractive man. At night, gorgeous chicks and muscular men are having a nice time.

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