Why cities rediscover play

Playable cities: a human-centered take on smart cities

Oct 4, 2017 · 7 min read

Climbing walls and swings in the streets of Copenhagen (DK), giants mikados and Kubb in a parisian neighbourhood (France), a tetris tournament on a building in Tel Aviv (Israel),… an unprecedented movement of playful interventions in the public realm is growing worldwide as a reaction to increased urbanisation. Back in the days, playful activities seemed to happen spontaneously in our big cities’ urban spaces. The image of kids gathering in the street after school to play football or other games made out of their own fantasy, was indeed not uncommon. Urban sprawl and car centric developments have however notably impacted this phenomenon. Today, cities, artists, architects and urban planners are rediscovering play and integrate it to various urban projects.

With the documentary “New York street games”, you can take trip back to the asphalt fields of New York City

Whether you find it fun (or not!) to climb your way to a restaurant or swing while eating your sandwich, the creators behind these projects have an agenda that surpasses a good laugh. The playful installations and activities are used as placemaking tools and are part of a movement that seeks to “reclaim” the streets and “give them back” to the people.

No great cities without great public spaces

As architect Richard Roger argues, several forces have eroded public spaces and paved a way for car centric urban planning. In way too many instances, public space has been transformed into road space, tremendously limiting the meeting places for people. Streets have been reduced to their moving function, forgetting about their role for urban living. But new tendencies are blooming and internationally respected urban planners are changing the discourse of urban planning, as Brent Toderian below:

Great streets are “sticky” streets which retain people

The values of public spaces are indeed manifold: impact on cities’ economic life and attractiveness, on people’s physical and mental health, on security, social cohesion and democracy. Movements such as the Arab revolution have reminded us that streets and public spaces are political spaces, where individuals can exert their rights as citizens. To put it bluntly, the economic and social vitality of cities largely depend on their ability to offer accessible, equitable and vibrant public spaces for people.

Play for reappropriation of public spaces

Barcelona’s superilles, which started a year ago, is a great example of a city seeking to “win the street back”, as Janet Sanz, city councillor for ecology, urbanism and mobility described this planning initiative. The superblocks’ strategy aims at moving away from car hegemony, reducing traffic by 21% and “filling the city with life”. Secondary, streets will be progressively transformed into “citizens spaces” for leisure, culture and local communities. By providing an environment that allows local appropriation of the space, city leaders hope to encourage people to develop their own initiatives.

In Paris, the project Les Grands Voisins, which has been running since 2015, is a temporary program that seeks to experiment ways to generate more generous, united and inclusive ways of living in an urban context. Access to games and playful activities is one of the triggers that is used to create a sense of togetherness and belonging in the neighbourhood’s common space. Whether it is giant mikados, twister or pétanque, the objects are used as conversation starters and become catalysts for social interactions.

Les Grands Voisins: a utopian village in the heart of Paris

At OurHub, we share the same vision and seek to use games as drivers for social dynamics in cities, in order to build stronger and more resilient communities. We add the power of technology to provide easy access, as well as it serves as a tool to monitor the usage of the games, a part of a strategy that can make the installation scalable. We integrate IoT to our games and have developed a social matchmaking app which nudges the users to play with new people in the nearby area.

Play for active and healthy communities

The qualities of play have long been recognized for their benefits on children’s development. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child stresses that they have the right to play, to access recreation as well as culture. Play is indeed crucial to develop social, physical and cognitive skills, to experiment and learn about losses and victories, it brings emotional challenges and teaches how to deal with confrontations and partnerships. Urban sprawl and car centric urban developments have however tremendously reduced opportunities for spontaneous and free outdoor play.

Well designed urban areas can contribute to fill this gap and provide kids with opportunities for play, outdoor exercise and learning from their natural environment. This is for example what KaBOOM! is doing in the United States. With a mission to ensure that “all kids get a childhood filled with play so they can thrive”, KaBOOM! adopts a bottom-up approach in order to build playgrounds and playscapes with local communities. In 2017 only, they have built 3,000 playgrounds with under-resourced communities all around the country.

The local community gathers to build a new playground with KaBOOM!

But play is not only for kids. Recent research has documented the effects the built environment can have in supporting playful and active lifestyles for children and adults. Architect and researcher René Kural has analysed how outdoor urban areas have evolved since the mid 80’s in order to support outdoor activities. The growing political focus on people’s health and well-being plays a major role there. “Konditaget”, which is a combination of a playground, an outdoor fitness area and a gathering place for active people, is somehow an icon for this line of thought in Copenhagen. The fact that it is built on the rooftop of a huge parking facility enhances its symbolic value. Also, it is worth highlighting that some of the installations you find there, such as swinging benches or trampolines, have a specific value, as they attract segments of the population which are difficult to engage in physical activities, such as teenage girls.

On the top of this parking facility, you can train while your kids hop on a trampoline

Play to start conversations and make people connect to their environment

When Pokémon Go started, several analyses focussed on this very aspect: the virtual reality game made people walk more and incentivised them to interact with their surroundings. The game has indeed had physical repercussions in different urban settings: surge of people in different parks, locations which got rediscovered, etc.

Stop Smile Stroll, an intervention created by the technology consultancy Hirsch & Mann, won the Playable City Award in 2016 with a comparable intention. The idea behind the project is to bring strangers together for serendipitous shared moments, while waiting to cross the street. When the traffic light turns red for pedestrians, music erupts with light projections and disco balls.

Those conceptual ideas of using play as a tool to both make people connect with their surroundings and trigger conversations, have been used by canadian urban catalysts Frida & Frank as a placemaking tool. Their project “Pop-up Ping-Pong: The Tables Have Turned” can be seen as a metaphor for their vision: “public space is a playground for people”. By offering people the possibility to build their own table tennis tables in a specific place, they create a sense of belonging and ownership for those involved. Then, when people start playing they do not only laugh, hit balls and scored points, they also share an experience. By facilitating those pop up events, Frida and Frank contribute to building local communities through play.

A ping-pong pop-up event that triggers conversations about the neighbourhood

Gaming the real world

Gaming the real world is a recent documentary, which asks how video games can be harnessed to help residents — and especially young people — visualise changes in their cities and take an active part in proposing new developments and fixing existing problems. The main thesis in the film is, that the gap between reality and simulation is getting rapidly smaller, and that virtual games have a power that can be harnessed in order to serve concrete problems in urban areas.

What if gaming could help improve our cities?

In the documentary, we follow different gaming companies investigating, how urban planning and gaming can meet. Thanks to partnerships with UN Habitat and tests with clear challenges in Africa and India, the documentary shows how games can help individuals visualise opportunities in their local area, much more detailed than through traditional mapping. The very intuitive and simple tools help them create very tangible solutions, which they can localise precisely and implement quite quick. Sharing ideas for future urban developments through games, can also be a way to build a common vision and a shared identity for one’s urban future.

Playable cities: a human centered take on smart cities

Whether through interventions, new equipments or alternative methods for citizens’ involvements, cities are rediscovering play. Far from simply going back to a seemingly golden age, where kids were playing in the streets under the scrutiny of their neighbours, new experiments often combine digital technologies and analog solutions. This hybridation opens up for new possibilities, which still need to be fully explored. But the significant point is that this hybrid playable city offers itself as human centered counterpoint to the purely technical and more sterile smart city.


Say hi: caroline@ourhub.dk


Based in Copenhagen, Sharing.Lab is a non profit organisation exploring and experimenting with ways to strengthen social resilience.


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Based in Copenhagen, Sharing.Lab is a non profit organisation exploring and experimenting with ways to strengthen social resilience.


Based in Copenhagen, Sharing.Lab is a non profit organisation exploring and experimenting with ways to strengthen social resilience.