Bringing Play to Public Spaces

“The opposite of play is not work. It’s depression.”

Ira Sanyal
5 min readOct 24, 2016


Vernie, an interactive playful art installation in São Miguel inspired by the sea life around the Portuguese island.

Our ideas of playful public spaces have long been restricted to playgrounds and parks. Due to the notions of adulthood that have been perpetuated, we fail to even expect playful environments around us, especially so in cities.

Regardless of typology, any place offering opportunities to play, is playful. Playfulness is something society has associated with childhood and immaturity, even though studies affirm that it is an essential ingredient for a long and healthy life. As play theorist Brian Sutton Smith said “The opposite of play is not work. It’s depression.”, which in recent times, has been labelled by many as the disease of modernity, due to its increased prevalence.

Author of Warped Space, Anthony Vidler says that fear, anxiety, estrangement, and their psychological counterparts, have been intimately linked to the aesthetics of space throughout the modern period. UK based app Mappiness, polled users daily about when, where and with whom they were happy, and also asked them their levels of happiness and the results of the study undertaken by them to understand how people’s happiness is affected by their local environment, suggested that people had lower levels of happiness in urban built environments as compared to natural surroundings.

Installation by Department of Play a Boston based collective that creates temporary play zones in public spaces

Most cities have lesser and lesser green spaces, and lesser places to play, which only further erode our withering social capital. In a society that has come to consider leisure as something to be earned rather than a right, cities demonstrably lack places that are universally playful, appealing to citizens across ages, classes and abilities. While amusement parks are definitely one of the answers to this issue, they are not the best examples of accessible play. Cities need more public spaces that are accessible, inclusive and conducive to play.

We need more interventions in the public realm that prompt play without overt external facilitation, allowing people to slow down, engage with the spaces and rejuvenate themselves. As a response to the grayness of urban life, initiatives to make places playful and celebrate play have gained momentum in recent years.

Whether it is city centric organized events like Come Out and Play, an annual festival of street games that turns New York City and San Francisco into giant playgrounds that bring together innovative games, experiences and people eager to interact and play, or international festivals like CounterPlay which aim at making the world more playful. Play is becoming a part of many public space initiatives. #SparkYourCity was one such initiative to engage female creatives all over the world to transform cities into vibrant playful spaces.

L: Rainbow paved London Bridge by Gemma Cairney ; R: Giant Kaleidoscope in Sutton Walk/London by Helen Skelton Both a part of ‘Spark Your City’ project

Efforts to make our experiences in the city more playful aren’t necessarily large scale interventions anymore. Smart devices have allowed us to create simple products like twitter bot autoflâneur, born at a game jam between theatre makers, game designers and developers.

Using incentives and opportunities to play as tools to liven up public spaces is not new, but technology, long seen as an impediment to civic engagement is slowly taking the center stage in this scenario, especially by tapping into the power of collaboration.

A lovely example of collaborative play in public space is the musical installation 21 Swings in Montreal, by Daily Tous Les Jours which played notes on being used and encouraged people to swing more to create more music.

Often in public spaces, the public art in those spaces lend character to it, which is an aspect THE HEAVY PROJECTS toyed with, and successfully brought mixed reality in public arts transforming interactions by creating many a playful ambiance.

Every year, the Playable City Award by Bristol based Playable City invites and works with smart city technologies used to build people centric playful cities. Their creative interactive installations and applications coax people to engage with their city in new and fun ways. And their universal appeal leads to them being commissioned in various parts of the world. One of the winning projects of Playable City Award 2013, Hello Lampost by Pan Studio called people to interact with inanimate objects of the city which they pass by everyday.

While 2015 Playable City Award winner Urbanimals by Laboratory for Architectural Experiments was an interactive visual installation displayed on empty surfaces in various parts of the city inviting people to stop and play.

Both were efforts to make people spare a moment for the cityscape, engage with it and look at it differently.

Speaking of engaging with the cityscape, one cannot not mention the wildly popular worldwide phenomenon, Pokémon GO. Marketed as an augmented reality (AR) game that encourages physical activity, it has been appreciated for raising the general spatial awareness of players through interactions with people and places in cities all over the world, positively contributing to virtual placemaking. As with Niantic’s previous AR game Ingress, many people who would not have stepped outdoors otherwise, have confessed that the game has given them a reason to get out, wander, play and socialize.

Augmented reality is being explored in many other fun ways too. A spinoff from Aalto University Game Research in Finland, Augmented Climbing Wall is an example of how technology and gamification can merge to result in unprecedented playful experiences in spaces.

Play is being ushered into urban lives in all forms and scales, and now the welcoming of play back into the civic realm is spilling beyond livening up cities to building them as well. Initiatives like Playbourhood and Play Streets are proof of play being a successful placemaking aid, as it empowers people with the agency to actively challenge the status quo. Since play has always helped break the ice among children regardless of where they come from, it isn’t much of a stretch to expect the same effect on adults.

Amsterdam based Play the City designs games for collaborative decision making and conflict resolution, by inviting all the diverse stakeholders to find solutions through play and avoid more cities being built solely based on top-down decision making. Bangalore based Fields of View does similar work designing games and simulations to enable dialogue among diverse stakeholders of cities to make better policies. Play is being used as a mediation tool to understand each others needs.

With our innate sense of play, whether repressed or not, inadvertently scouring for signs in the urban environment, it is a pragmatic approach to not only build cities that foster play but also use play as a means to efficiently plan the resilient urban public spaces of tomorrow, which are more green, more inclusive and more playful.



Ira Sanyal

Parkitect | Studying Play