According to Robert Parks, cities are "man’s most successful attempt to remake the world he lives in more after his heart’s desire". This definition may also go some way to illuminating a city's continued draw. In 2006, 50% of the world’s population lived in a city, however 68% of the population are projected to live in cities by 2050. In no small way, we all succumb to their bright lights. We hope to remake them, and in return, we hope that they will remake us.
If we are to remake, and be remade, we must ask ourselves what makes a city creative? Is it opulent bars and clubs posing as "literary salons" of the 20s, while charging a small fortune for some liquor and ice; is it through classification – labelling areas of a city as ‘creative’ for no reason other than its central location and abundance of overpriced shops and restaurants; or, is it something deeper, something harder won and, most dishearteningly, easily lost.
In Henri Lefevbre’s Right to the City, the author argues for the role of play and creativity in the face of work; positioning the place of play as belonging squarely in a city’s streets and public spaces where disorder, spectacle, and interaction abide . I would propose that we should begin to harness our streets and public spaces for the latent power that they hold, and would suggest that the way to do this is through play. By reclaiming play as a right for everyone, adults and children alike, we may begin to reclaim our cities.
My inspiration for this article began in 2019 on a trip to Solingen in Germany. On this trip, I found myself walking through its Brückenpark. As well as appreciating this park for its natural beauty, I was drawn in by one particular and unique feature – a trail of ten riddles, designed and conceived for the park in 2006 by the artist Ulrike Böhme . These riddles lie inscribed onto steel plates which are dotted and hidden around the park's expanse. They can be solved by stepping onto the metal plate and awaiting answer – told to you by a mysterious and disembodied voice. The act of stepping not only elicits a knowing nod and satisfied smile from the visitor, but also newfound knowledge of the location itself. Each panel contains not just a riddle, but also a story of connection to the area. They stand as an ode to time gone by, inviting thought, presence and, more than a little, intellectual challenge to current inhabitants.
This park, and the time I spent there with my friends and the playful challenges that it offered, have stayed with me for the four years that followed. Why this longstanding memory? The answer, I would contend, is play. Play that brings togetherness, slows, re-connects, and makes. Play that connects people to themselves, each other, and what is around them.
We can recognise numerous examples of play and its potential in a city’s fabric. It may exist in humorous incongruity, like a public living room found by a blustery pier , or it could be its wilful subversion of the mundane, whereby even the blandest objects become a game. In Marseilles, rubbish bins invite passers-by to "slam dunk" their drinks cans as they walk past . Drawing attention to local examples of engagement with the creative benefits of play, it would be impossible not to mention the Irish not-for-profit organisation, A Playful City, whose focus lies in creating ore playful, healthy, and inclusive public spaces. Their work has included musical benches, or Beat Seats, in Hanover Quay in 2019, colourful zig-zag seating areas in Spencer dock, and ‘playful streets’ in Dublin’s inner city. The resounding feature of their methods is the level of community consultation. For play space, if inserted into an area and a community without consultation on the needs and desires of that community, is not play at all – it is a form of coercion, to be creative in a singular, expected way.
Dublin City Council’s Everywhere, any day, you can play! is a document full of hope. It outlines Dublin’s intention to develop a citywide play infrastructure in order to ensure that streets, places, and things are interwoven into children and young people’s everyday lives. My challenge for the strategy is this – why is this just for children? The strategy defines play as "any behaviour, activity or process, initiated, controlled or structured by children themselves, that takes place whenever and wherever opportunities arise". If the intention is to develop a citywide infrastructure of play, I believe it should have the intention of ensuring that play, and its numerous creative and sociological benefits, is accessible to everyone.
Technology has been harnessed to this end by London-based experience designers Pan Studios, who effectively co-opted its mediated engagement properties for more spontaneous ends. Their interactive 2013 initiative, Hello Lamp Post, invited a city’s walkers to engage in "conversation" with a city’s everyday objects and furniture, including lamp posts, post boxes, and parking metres. By texting a number with the objects’ unique codes, a user was "awoken" prompting questions and observations for the speaker to reply to – with future activations built into each reply. Hello Lamp Post debuted in Bristol and has since been seen in Austin, Texas, and Tokyo .
The answer, however, does not lie solely in technology. It lies in a willingness to think outside the box and to embrace the city as a space of potential for all. In the words of Jen Harvie, "everything means more than one thing – a nondescript doorway, invisible for some, is for others the gate to a magical garden, a place of work, worship or otherwise". For stronger communities, more creative cities, and happier citizens – let us play.