A Playful City is a collaborative project aiming to create inclusive, child-friendly, and playful spaces in Dublin City. Coordinated by co-creation wizards Connect the Dots with sustainable play heads Upon a Tree (they met on north inner city temporary park project, Granby Park), the project is part consultation, part conference / hackaton and part urban intervention. The goal is putting people and play back into the urban landscape. Caitriona Devery spoke to organisers and some of the partners involved to find out more.
Quality and inclusive public space is vital to community and individual well-being. A Playful City focuses on the role of play spaces and playfulness in the design of the urban environment. The benefits of valuing playful public spaces are huge for children and young people, but beyond that for everyone in the city.
While we may have one of the largest European urban parks in Phoenix Park, not every neighbourhood in the city has suitable public spaces for play or leisure. Obvious health benefits of good public space like access to exercise and fresh air go hand in hand with social, identity and community aspects.
The organisers of A Playful City believe that bringing qualities of spontaneity, adventure, and curiosity into the urban fabric bring more joy to everyone. Still, it’s a serious business and draws on expertise from diverse areas such as architecture, design, children’s rights, environmental and sustainability studies, play work, psychology, urban planning among others.
Marisa Denker of Connect the Dots explains, ”our vision is a city where the streets and public spaces engage and interact with its people – of all ages and abilities. Cities can be daunting places, flows of people speedily usher through the many concrete avenues that crisscross it. Some find themselves constantly drowned out by the consuming hum of daily life within it. Adults and children alike can find themselves lost within the urban environment. We wish to make Dublin a more child friendly city and more playful for all.”
Partner on the project, Dr Niamh Moore-Cherry from UCD’s school of Geography, says Dublin’s public spaces are a mixed bag, “in recent years, some interesting new public spaces have been provided in the city as part of major regeneration programmes.
However many of them lack activity and use – thinking of Smithfield Square for example unless there is an event on, or Mayor Square in the Docklands. Others are better such as the new square at Grand Canal Dock in front of the theatre which is vibrant quite a lot of the time and designed for multiple users, with an interesting and stimulating design”.
Certain parts of the city fare worse than others, and some areas sorely need large open public spaces. Inner city areas in particular can suffer when it is more profitable to build premium private housing than use land for a park or other type of public space. This can affect the quality of space available to communities.
Niamh says, “many public spaces in the city are not all that welcoming – they appear highly regulated and increasingly privatised and large parts of the city are without open public spaces, such as for example the north inner city. Indeed when the pop-up Granby Park was located on Dominick Street in 2013, a key comment from users was that there was nowhere else like it in that part of the city”.
The council’s role is crucial. She says, “the challenge for Dublin is to provide safe and open public spaces, that are free of charge and easily accessible”.
Bottom up and participatory design processes are key – involving all stakeholders from an early stage (something that Connect the Dots in particular are expert in). Dr Jackie Bourke, a researcher on urban issues and children’s rights, believes that young people aren’t always factored into the design of public spaces.
“Children, teenagers in particular, are not always very welcome in public space and I think we need to address that. We should give more recognition to children and teenagers in the design of the public realm, and use innovative participatory methods to engage them in how we design public space in Dublin. Any urban design decision impacts on children and teenagers, so we need to actively seek out and include the voices of children and teenagers in all design decisions.”
She points to a lack of creativity and engagement in the overall picture, “overall public spaces in Dublin could be better managed, with more creative and social activities – particularly small local events with a lot of local community input”.
Children’s rights are protected via the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child which has a number of clauses that should impact the design of public spaces.
Jackie explains, “That would include, the right to a say in all matters which affect children and teenagers (Art.12), the right to freedom of association (Art. 15), and of course, the right to play, leisure, recreation and cultural activities (Art.31). In relation to that, public space is a particularly important site for teenagers; somewhere to hangout for free, away from adult control. It is a site of important sociability, through which they develop a collective, and individual identity. They are sometimes seen as a threat hanging out together, so firstly, we need to change those perceptions a bit and rethink their presence”.
For Jackie actual and perceived safety is a huge issue. The role of the built and natural environment -public space at large – on the ability of young people (and everyone) to live their lives in healthy and happy ways is huge.
As she says, “children and teenagers need to be able to move through these spaces to live their everyday lives; to walk or cycle to and from school, to meet friends, go to the shops, to hang out, and to play. All of this is of huge value for their social, physical and mental well being. And in turn, the presence of children and young people in the urban public domain adds social capital and an important youthful energy to the city.”
So what can creative, artistic, or child-centred approaches bring to the table? Can they have an impact?
Dr Moore-Cherry believes creative interventions are highly valuable and can combat social exclusion, “their primary value to me is in getting people to think differently about the city. Very often we think about the city in ‘development’ terms, meaning bricks and mortar. What such interventions do is show an alternative form of urbanism and help to raise questions about what, and who, cities are for? I strongly believe they can be a driver of more social justice in cities as they help to highlight issues in terms of how we think and plan, and for whom? Who are we privileging and who are we excluding, albeit perhaps not consciously? Very often these types of debates remain under the radar; creative interventions such as A Playful City promote and permit engagement in these debates by a much wider range of urban users than the formal participation system and in a more accessible way”.
This view is echoed by Dr Bourke, “something like the Playful City initiative brings together people who might not normally meet and supports a great synergy of ideas. It also raises awareness of the needs of children and teenagers among people who have a lot of influence over the design and management of the city, such as road traffic engineers. This kind of initiative gets people talking, sharing knowledge and ideas. It inspires a sense of new possibilities, shifts expectations, and empowers people to look for change in their communities”.
Small and simple things can make a big difference, “it doesn’t have to be a big design statement and it doesn’t have to cost anything. Literally just taking a chair and sitting on the footpath outside your home gives a human presence which is reassuring and helps create important social interactions. These small things help create community, make somewhere feel safer, and encourages people to allow their children play out. There are also parents throughout the city who take turns to calm the traffic on their streets, using various means, so their children can play together”.
So far the project has had an open consultation event, met with key stakeholders all over the city, and now will host their big interactive, participatory-focussed ‘Design Meets Play’ event at the Point Village on October 17th. There will be a range of local and international speakers including architects, childrens’ rights experts, designers, academics, and play workers. The conference will have a ‘hackathon’ bringing together lots of types of people to ‘hack’ play and design playful interventions to be prototyped around Dublin.
Alongside the open and targeted public consultations, there’s also a competition to which anyone can enter ideas for playful installations. The final stage is to create real-life interventions into the city, design-led playful creations inserted into the urban fabric. A Playful City have already been working with the Community on Sheriff Street, and there are plans to do some of the final creative interventions around Grand Canal Dock and Hanover Quay. If you’re interested, get involved.
A Playful City have lots of information online here including details of the conference on October 17th which is open to everyone.