Humane cities center around the relationships between people and places. Communities thrive on shared resources, public spaces, and a collective vision for their locality. To nurture happy and healthy cities, designers and the public apply methods of placemaking to the urban setting. Placemaking—the creation of meaningful places—strongly relies on community-based participation to effectively produce magnetic public spaces.
One way people can participate in place-making is through play, a form of active engagement with the city. Through play, one can sense, move and act with the built environment, fabricating sustained mental links with the place. Playful urban spaces are more relatable, allowing people to connect with them on a human scale. Playful public activity is an indicator of an energized urban space and successful placemaking.
Spurred by the Industrial Revolution, cities have been designed as productivity machines that prioritize profit before people. This capitalistic approach has neglected vital life practices like play in the urban setting. Areas of work and play are strictly separated, the latter rarely available to adults. Community assets like playgrounds provide predictable opportunities for play and recreation. However, play often ends at the gates of these loci, limited to specifically demarcated zones in the city.
Standard template spaces for play confine human impulses of exploration and imagination. The urban environment presents plenty of opportunities to experience multigenerational play beyond playgrounds. Integrating recreation within the built environment enables it to feed amusement, surprise, humor, and adventure to people's natural state of play. Partaking in playful activities in public space is the first step in reclaiming the city for the people.
For urban play to flourish, spaces need to accommodate actions beyond a predetermined program. Structures and surfaces should encourage users to explore interplay and exercise freedom of movement. Urban play relies on co-creation and entices connections between those sharing the recreational experience. Play areas that blend into the urban fabric can create environments for social inclusion, intergenerational participation, and cultural diversity.
Urban play forges equitable environments that improve the chances of diverse people interacting with each other. An intervention in New York City's Garment District featured light-emitting seesaws that a pair of strangers could illuminate by coordinating movements. The temporary installation formed a site of placemaking, where citizens would remember their unique experience shared with someone new.
Animated encounters break the monotony of daily routines and enhance positive associations with the city. Pedestrians in Copenhagen, Denmark, are surprised by trampolines embedded into plazas, inviting them to bounce along their regular routes. In Changsha, China, passers-by are captivated by changing perspectives of the city along the Lucky Knot Bridge designed by NEXT Architects. These urban interventions succeed in making urban life creative and unpredictable.
Color and form also inspire movement and immerse users in enjoyment, leading to social activation of the city. They also provide strong visual cues to support artistic and creative placemaking strategies. The Playground by Architensions incorporates a spirit of playfulness and freedom in its design, rousing innovative forms of interaction with it. Artistic and imaginative elements bring out people's innate childlike nature—the self that is curious, creative, and alive.
Pockets of delights now dot global cities and encourage radical imagination amongst architects and urban designers. "Any space can be made more enjoyable", the creatives at AZC Architects believe. Their project titled 'Trampoline Bridge' envisions Parisians bouncing across the Siene river on an inflated donut-shaped walkway. The concept was developed for a competition brief for a bridge design in Paris by ArchTriumph in 2012. A similar thought process provoked French urban interventionist The Wa to turn a street sign into a Basket Bin, bringing joy to mundane tasks like taking out the trash. The projects explore how urban environments can be more conducive to play in adults.
A system of open-ended interventions that promote exploration within the urban realm shape a playful city. Moments of joy that interrupt daily life contribute to the spirit of the city, especially when shared with others. Play is a necessity of life, and when cities encourage it, people are rewarded with physical, emotional, and mental well-being. Urban design researcher Quentin Stevens believes in the importance of embedding play in the city, going as far as to state "fun follows form, fun follows ‘function".