Playable Cities – in Search of the New ‘Happy Hour’ 1

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Thursday, February 19th, 2015
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Much is written about the densification of our Australian cities.

For the first time we have apartment approvals exceeding those of detached dwellings in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane.

A statistic like this either means we have embraced the convenience of living in diverse vertical communities, or that the provision of social and transport infrastructure across the often vast distances in our ‘big brown land’ is no longer feasible.

Truth be told, it’s most likely a bit of both. Let’s assume for a moment, however, that our Australian cities will produce more integrated vertical communities closer to established infrastructure.  There are countless components of this new community typology we could focus on, but I would like to hone in on the opportunities provided for “adult play” in the city.

As adults, our need to play became apparent to me on a recent excursion to Hong Kong, where I had the pleasure of visiting Disneyland with my family. I hugged Mickey, shared a deep stare of terror with my son as we sped backwards on the Grizzly Gulch, and laughed as we took photos with Woody from Toy Story. I dedicated 12 straight hours to being a child again, a rare indulgence in a life where work routinely takes up 13 hours of each day.

Why do we need play in our lives? Essentially, play allows us to engage our creative sides and interact with other like-minded adults in a low-pressure environment. Importantly, it also allows us to be active. You are free, as play should really have no serious consequences. From a city function proposition, play can be used to interrupt the utilitarian efficiency of the urban environment and encourage people to pause and think about what fun can be had in the oh-so-serious big city.

To make this point, Pearlfisher (a London creative agency) this month opened an ‘adults only’ ball pit – both an art installation and an area for adults to play in. It is called ‘Jump In’ and features minimalistic white plastic balls instead of the traditional technicolour orbs associated with children’s ball pits.

In Bristol in the United Kingdom, you could have plunged down a 300-foot water slide on one of the city’s main shopping streets, had a text message conversation with a lamp post, or joined a pack of zombies in the city centre.  In Portland in the US, meanwhile, there is a regular game of adult hide-and-seek. Whether these activities appeal to you or not, it is important to recognise that these are all crowd-sourced initiatives that reflect a pent-up need for adults to embrace new ways to socialise and engage with community in our cityscapes.

In downtown Sydney – my home town – the only interconnected adult play opportunities are the various “happy hours” scattered across our many squares and laneways. The theatre of skateboarding and freestyle BMX bike riding has long been banned, and our cycle ways are programmed within an inch of their life with the commuter in mind.  Granted, we do have the Powerhouse and Sydney Museums, and our kids are now well provided for thanks to the water play opportunities at Darling Park. However, these opportunities really are rare in a city that is projected to house over six million people in coming decades.

The importance of programmed play opportunities becomes increasingly more important with increasing city populations living in vertical high rise communities.  Jan Gehl argues that, above four storeys, one is totally disconnected from the street and less likely to experience propinquity (physical connection or kinship between people). Gehl goes on to propose that high rise towers become socioeconomic silos, and for a thriving community with ownership over streets and public spaces, this is not an ideal aspiration.

My reason for drawing on Sydney as an example is that it is a city that is currently experiencing an upswing in the property investment cycle. There exists a huge opportunity to capitalise on this and develop world class open spaces which draw people out of their silos, onto the streets and deep into an urban lifestyle that is uplifting and, most importantly, healthy and of net gain to society.

The health benefits of well-planned open space are the subject of another article, but if you care to research the benefits provided by the well-planned urban regeneration project in Miasteczko Wilanow in Warsaw, you will be staggered to see the results, which include having the highest birth rate in Poland, the lowest crime rates, and extremely low rates of childhood obesity.

With all of this in mind, I believe there exists an opportunity for the most sophisticated precinct-scale developers to think about the inclusion of ‘adult play’ beyond the happy hours provided by small bars and the body-pump gyms. Inclusion of a rich tapestry of open spaces with active play elements like climbing walls, interactive water features and ‘play-me’ pianos provides the opportunity to create communities whose legacy is much greater than the real estate that houses them. This, I believe, is the biggest opportunity for the development of the most successful urban regeneration projects in our cities.

With the small prompt of the play programming I am suggesting, you can be sure that we will soon be chasing zombies, hiding with a stranger, or singing in a pop-up choir with a deeply committed community.

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  1. Bianca Brazile

    This is an interesting thought: "above four storeys, one is totally disconnected from the street". I think this could be a growing problem as we squeeze more high rise buildings in cities. I find James' "play" angle interesting and personally as a 30+ adult I too would like the opportunity to participate in play activities in the city. While a waterslide seems a little gimmicky for me, natural spaces that make you feel disconnected from city hustle should be a priority – think Central Park, NY. In Melbourne, I would love to see Birrarung Marr more activated for adults particularly during lunch hour.