Playable cities

Well-designed and well-maintained public spaces stimulate social encounters, physical exercise, a sense of community, cultural and economic development. Also for children public spaces are of great importance. Playing outside improves their health, enriches social skills (sharing, collaborate) and puts their brains at work (cognitive development). But how to make a playable city? There are a lot of checklist with do's and don'ts that can guide you. But the most important things for playable cities are studying public life, committing different parties and simplicity.

!!! This article is a forerunner of an extensive study I did from 2017 untill 2018. The result is a new handy model and toolkit for realizing playable cities. These can be found on !!!

A few weeks ago I was invited by the municipality of The Hague (The Netherlands) to give a presentation about how to make inviting and attractive public spaces. The theme of the symposium was playful areas. A lot of the success factors from my top 10 for public spaces also apply to this theme, such as enough activities, accessibility, comfort and diversity. But there are also specific factors that determine whether a public space attracts or rejects kids from playing.

As an urban geographer it is hard not to observe. So, when I was visiting some playgrounds a few years ago with my daughter I wrote down some aspects that made the kids and me (as a father) enthusiastic. I came to this - not exhaustive or scientifically determined - list:
  • Clean
  • Comfort (toilet, drinking/eating facilities)
  • Context (numbers of families living at a close distance)
  • Diversity in things to do (quantity, but also for different ages)
  • Diversity in things to learn (long-term attractiveness/challenges)
  • Greenery
  • Safety (relative to traffic)
  • Size
  • Sitting facilities (quantity, but also field of view)
  • Social safety (light, number of blank/dead walls, windows and doors)
  • Surface (material, color, safety)
  • Unbroken
By scoring the playgrounds on each aspect (1 or 5 stars) I created a simple model to predict which playgrounds are probably more used and loved.

Diversity in things to do
One of the other speakers at the symposium, from the consultancy firm OBB (specialized in playable public spaces) had an interesting list for checking the diversity in things to do. In their opinion a playground should have at least 50 possibilities to play (De Spikkel). Choosing from these activities:
  • Ball games: basketball, just playing with a ball, soccer, volleyball
  • Body Work: climb, crawl, fall & rise, float, hang, hide, jump, lie, lifting, pulling, roll, run
  • Creativity: acrobatics, build, chalk, make, music, painting, performing arts, sand
  • Interactive: digital, generate energy, reactive, you need each other
  • Movements: balance, seesaw, skate slide, swing, trampoline, waggle, wobble
  • Nature: animal care/spotting, building huts, collecting leaves and branches, dig, picking berries/flowers, playing with sand, rummage, searching for insects, sledging, sunbath
  • Nearby residents: lending toys/bikes/go-kart, room for picnic/tents/barbecue
  • Playing: hide-and-seek, jumping rope, kite flying, maze, playing tag, slalom, throw games, quest
  • Senses: hear (sounds), sight (colors), smell, taste, touch (feel)
  • Water: adjusting water streams, fishing, mud games, slide/skate (ice), splashing, swimming, paddling, wade, water fight 
  • Weather elements: playing with wind, fire, light, sun

More checklists
Getting more interested in the subject after the symposium I browsed the internet and found some more checklists to measure the qualities and actual use of play areas. Guiding principles that are comparable, but all with a slightly different angle. In for example the Netherlands we have (GGD, 2014):

The Toolbox Healthy Design with design issues for (green) public spaces. Divided into three themes:
-    Natural ambiance: take care of alternation and pleasant sounds and smells
-    Terms of use: accessibility, diversity, safety, quality visibility
-    Context: identity/recognisability, noise/air pollution, uniqueness.

The PlayScan measures the use - by observation - of playgrounds for kids up to 12 years. The scan looks at the use of different target groups, the construction/facilities, the diversity of equipment (challenging), the maintenance and the security (social and traffic).

The Inventory Use Public Space (In Dutch abbreviated in 'IGOR') investigates the actual usage of a place at different times by counting the different age classes, sexes and their activity. The activities are divided into sitting/standing, walking, running, biking, soccer, other sport/game, playing on sport/game device, transport (no stay) and inactive. Besides observations the users are interviewed about their visit frequency, visit duration, distance to their house and their wishes.     

In the United States the national non-profit organization KaBOOM! gives six guiding principles for "turning everyday spaces into PLAYces":

Source: 'Play everywhere playbook'

Children (and fools) tell the truth
It is important to keep in mind that there is no universal blueprint for an attractive public space, because every person reacts differently in certain social and physical environments. That's why the criteria in the above checklists do not give any guarantees. They should be seen as points of attention that can influence - not determine - the potential success or failure of a place.
Eventually, the success depends on the local context and the interaction between the public space and its users. Important aspects that sometimes are forgotten. My plea at the symposium (and in general) was to involve the user’s perspective more in the analysis, design, redevelopment, programming and maintenance of public spaces. The reason why this has been sidelined to often is that professionals are trained and used to work with theories and expert knowledge. But as we know there is mostly a tension between vision and practice. Between design and user experience. Between the 'the way a city is planned, designed and made by professionals' and 'the way a city is experienced, practiced and filled in by its users'. The planned city versus the lived city. To fill this gap it is extremely important that we study public life. In this way professionals can anticipate on the current use, behaviour and wishes of the users. By observing and conversations a professional can find out the actual and potential use of a public space, instead of using its own assumptions or gut feeling as a starting point. In other words a place-driven (instead of project-driven), organic process: 'build' on what exists, create/organize a site-specific composition/programme, put people’s needs and aspirations first and test your own ideas with kids and families (interactive and iterative).

One thing that the symposium also made clear was the need for collaboration between the many professionals that are concerned with public spaces within a municipality. Such as landscape architects, city planners, urban designers, engineers, welfare workers, politicians, representatives of districts and of city management. Varying from strategic level to operational level and everything in between. So, the task is not only to connect the world of systems with the living world, but also the people within the institutions. They all have a small piece of the puzzle. They must work together - or at least tune in to each other - to connect the long and short term, the physical and social domains and the urban and neighborhood level. To achieve this a joint vision or framework can help. Or embrace and give room to persons in the organization with an overview, working as connectors by crossing borders and building bridges. If you don’t organize this connection, there is a big change that one only create playgrounds by picking some playing elements from design catalogues of play equipment companies. 

Besides the attention for more collaboration and studying public life (observation, conversations) it is also of great concern that you keep it simple. Kids are easily impressed. My daughter had the most beautiful and expensive toys when she was a baby, but in the end she always wanted to play with some coasters. As a five year old the same happens in public space. Walking home from school with her friend she always runs from manhole cover to manhole cover. The small ones are five points and the bigger are ten points. That's all it takes to entertain children.

That also means that we have to look beyond playgrounds. There are much more public spaces where children (and adults) can play. See how skateboarders and freerunners spontaneously twist public space into their image. Watch how children use broad sidewalks by chalking (sidewalk as canvas), jumping rope (sidewalk as sport field) or hopscotching (sidewalk as playing field).
Professionals can stimulate this playability of public space in different ways. A few examples:
  • A sidewalk with some different tiles, numbers, letters, arrows, dots, footprints or assignments, put the child's brain and body at work;
  • A painted pathway or lawn with board game-like activities (tic tac toe, twister, goose board, snakes and ladders) makes kids go play outside;
  • Ground markings on public squares makes them dance or go crazy on their bike (tricycle track);
  • A passable path within bushes makes kids go on safari, searching for insects;
  • Put down a ping-pong table somewhere and kids (and adults) will excercise and interact with eachother;
  • A lawn with a few poles/posts turns kids into athletes or soccer players;
  • A public space with some fitness furniture, such as a balance beam and bars, turns kids into gymnasts;
  • A jump rope station near a bus stop gives kids some extra exercise and an opportunity to pass away the time;
  • Transform a blank/dead wall into a white-board or chalkboard and kids can exercise their writing and drawing skills.
The point of this story: don't make it unnecessarily complicated. Recognize the enormous opportunities that are staring in your face. It doesn't have to be expensive or huge. It is often a matter of small interventions that can lead to huge improvement. It's the little things that make the big things happen!

!!! This article is a forerunner of an extensive study I did from 2017 untill 2018. The result is a new handy model and toolkit for realizing playable cities. These can be found on !!!

All photos by (c) Gerben Helleman

Jan Gehl & Birgitte Svarre (2013) How to study public life. Island Press.

GGD (2014) Instrumenten voor de beoordeling van de gebruikswaarde van gemeentelijke groene/speelplekken. Amsterdam. 

Gerben Helleman (2017) How to make inviting and attractive public spaces? A top 10. Blog Urban Springtime.

Anna van Lingen & Denisa Kollarova (2016) Aldo van Eyck - seventeen playgrounds. Lecturis.

KaBOOM! (2016) Play everywhere playbook. Washington.

Stroom (2017)  CĂ©line Condorelli: Proposals for a Qualitative Society (Spinning). Den Haag.

OBB speelruimte specialisten (2017) De Spikkel. Deventer.


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