Playful Cities are Free Cities

Heckscher Playground, Central Park, New York | Photo: www.centralparknyc.org

Cities are designed and centered around certain underlying goals, which along with their needs and aspirations evolve as per the socio-cultural changes of the time. Due to which cities are constantly restructuring their core developmental goals which range from addressing mobility, to business, to education, healthcare etc. However, over time we tend to see that instead of being holistically approached, as advertised, planning strategies are directed towards accumulation of capital, and consequently pro-mobility/accessibility ends up meaning car centric, and pro-business translates to hubs for multinational corporations.

The last century of city planning and development has seen a significant reduction of public spaces, particularly public spaces fostering play. Big community parks shrunk into smaller parks, which shrunk further into designated play areas in corners of high-rise apartment complexes. The lack of accessible play areas is especially striking in non first world countries which are coping with severe space and resource shortage in manners detrimental to the environment and the people in it.

Smaller parks accommodate fewer people, and consequently lesser kinds of play, more so due to the staple industrial play equipment seen in parks which leave no space for unstructured free play. Mass produced template solutions for play and recreation restrict children from having the range of experiences necessary to fully nurture human instincts of exploration and imagination. Growing inactivity, physical/mental health issues in children and adults aren’t isolated phenomena, but the result of the laws and policies implemented over the years without keeping communities at the crux of the decision making about the spaces they inhabit. We should be able to decide the kind of environment we want to live in, given that we’re constantly absorbing environmental stimuli and constructing ourselves outside-in.

“The need of the hour isn’t necessarily more playgrounds, but more opportunities to play in our communities.”

Donna Hiebert’s Wave Sculpture, Halifax, Canada | Photo: Adrien Veczan for National Post

The need of the hour isn’t necessarily more playgrounds, but more opportunities to play in our communities. Our experiences, freedoms and beliefs are shaped by the places we live in, and play deficient spaces house myopic perspectives of being. However, regardless of the kind of environment they are in, children inevitably and eventually engage in acts of play. This spontaneity comes from humans being hardwired to learn through curious playful exploration, playfulness is after-all one of our most natural states.

The Land (2015) was a short documentary film about the nature of play, risk and hazard set in The Land, a Welsh “adventure” playground, which is rooted in the belief that kids are capable to assess possible risks and are empowered when they learn to manage risks on their own. Something that we in the age of competitive helicopter parenting do not give children enough credit for.

On a similar note, play:ground NYC, which calls itself a place for and by children is designed for adventurous free play, where young people test themselves and develop a sense of ownership and belonging which fosters long-term responsibility to their community and world. It encourages mixed age players to create and play together, which is something missing in many modern urban play spaces, that are increasingly located far away from residential areas, requiring parents to ferry their children across cities, if they do happen to have the time and resources to do so in the first place.

“Sharing Memories of Adventure Playgrounds” research project carried out by University of Gloucestershire

SMAP worked with adventure playgrounds in Bristol and Gloucester and gathered the memories of those involved with the spaces as children, staff, families and communities, over their history, in order to explore their value. A glimpse into the rich shared histories of people at play captured what these playgrounds meant to them, how it being inclusive and safe apart from being a place of adventure contributed to their experiences and growth. Such free community spaces where unstructured play is nurtured are important places of cultural heritage, that not only benefit the children playing but work towards strengthening the whole community.

In an act of public space reclamation, the children of Greisheim, South Hesse, Germany managed to convince their mayor to make their town a playable one, as they conveyed their displeasure about mundane routes to-from school. Children mapped their paths with chalk on the school routes, as well as routes to other vital spaces, such as sports grounds, supermarkets etc, and 101 play objects were installed along the routes so that the children “can play their way through Greisheim”. This move to tackle the islandisation of children’s play spaces, as Prof. Bernhard Meyers puts it, was complemented by temporary play streets, i.e. various streets alternatively transform into car-free play zones during afternoons. As inclusive child friendly spaces are innately elderly and disabled friendly too, appropriately placed benches near the play areas along pavements has made it easier for people to safely walk, sit and relax too.

Community well being requires the state to take responsibility while also allowing and encouraging community participation in the creation of spaces they occupy. Community play spaces are vital spaces for a community to thrive. As adults we often overlook the necessity of playful spaces since we’re conditioned into not being playful to perform adulthood. Mary Ann Glynn and Jane Webster’s 1992 paper linked playfulness in adults to creative and innovative thinking. Something that the world needs more of, now than ever before. Play is slowly being re-accepted and recognized as a heterogeneous category of behavior with diverse causal mechanisms, developmental and experiential trajectories.

The prerequisites for a place to be playful are that it be safe, accessible and inclusive. Thus a universally playful city, is inherently welcoming to all, affording opportunities that span the entire spectrum of play, devoid of the unceasing exclusionism that is prevailing in modern cities, and therefore fostering healthy, secure and engaged citizenship. Cities designed to elicit playful behavior can be the key to a happier, healthier and free-er future.

As play advocate Bernard De Koven puts it “ The challenge isn’t to become playful. It is to remain playful. In other games. In other settings. Harder times.”

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