Play: Reflections of the design and development of our cities

BY Daisy Froud | April 2013

To tie in with the theme of the 2012 London Festival of Architecture – A Playful City – and also build on our recent debate on the same theme, this series of think pieces considers play in the city.

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Perhaps it’s only since having a four-year old by my side that I’ve realised – remembered even – what play is really all about. Having fun, certainly. Imagining different worlds, that too. But more significantly, it’s about taking risks: trying things out and pushing beyond what appears possible. And when we play together, it’s about negotiation: learning how to operate in the world and to manage our conflicting desires.

When it comes to play as an adult, and playing in and with the public realm – a theme of this year’s London Festival of Architecture – I’m definitely not against having fun, or seeing our environment in more creative ways. I enjoy sitting in giant pieces of furniture, paddling in temporary lidos, and playing parts of the city as life-sized games. But I am rarely left feeling that I, or my fellow players, have undertaken any kind of risky negotiation with the city’s form, or with the social relations that construct it. We enjoy the spectacle. Then we go home.

Play-themed strategies, including oodles of playful art, are also quite the thing in the design of London’s permanent public realm. From Spitalfields to Dalston Square, More London to Kings Cross, cheeky sculptures, interactive water features and flexible performance spaces are emerging everywhere. Kings Cross for example, explicitly aims to generate “an ambient playfulness for the whole site, regardless of age or users”.

In many ways, this is great. There are doubtless civic benefits in getting us all out there, playfully interacting. But there is an irony – as many point out regarding the increasing privatization of public space – that as symbolic play gains increasing prominence, any genuine possibility of taking risks and experimenting together in the public realm is eroded. Play is fine, as long as we play nicely, and don’t try to question the way in which space is actually produced, and ways in which we might produce it differently. Henri Lefebvre, that great spatialiser of politics, would probably have described this as the dominance, in our historical period, of certain ‘representations of space’, the conceived space of “scientists, planners, urbanists, technocratic subdividers and social engineers”, over ‘representational space’, the “fluid and dynamic” space of users and inhabitants.

Now we should be clear, as Lefebvre is, that there is no neat dividing line between these, and that this isn’t a clear case of us and them. Technocrats, after all, are users too. Nonetheless, the fertile ‘lived’ space of our individual and collective imaginations, of shape-shifting dreams and desires, memories and possibilities, does appear increasingly marginalized in the organization and practice of the, theoretically public, spaces of the city.

As symbols of play and fun crowd our field of vision, one might even argue that we are being deliberately distracted by a brightly-coloured illusion of agency, a parody of the Van-Eyckian ideal of the city as playground. (That concept’s political roots – hopes of participative, bottom-up urbanism – are long withered away, crushed beneath ‘good design’ limestone pavers, where only fluorescent acrylic trees, polite shrubs and No Cycling signs now blossom.) While an invisible game with much bigger stakes goes on elsewhere, as the major players exchange tokens and clean up the board.

The outcome, to cite Kim Dovey, Quentin Stevens and Leonie Sandercock, eloquent analysts of the relationship between planning and power, are places made up of a “predetermined, generic and predictable palette of images, perceptions and opportunities for action”. These “landscapes of [a certain kind of sanctioned] desire” are nonetheless vital to the work of place marketing and city branding, themselves paths to much sought-after inward investment. So we keep on making them, for the greater good of the regional, and national, economy, and the celebrated ‘trickle-down’ effects.

But away from cynicism, what might a city of real play look like? How might we open up genuine risk and experimentation in urban development? One suggestion comes from another playful trend: the world of the ‘pop-up’. It does often seem in today’s London, that once you pop-up, you can’t stop. Of course, one can still be cynical about this much-documented activity, with its ubiquitous leisure use and middle-class associations. Like Pringles given architectural form, pop-ups may be great at facilitating collective fun, and are inevitably a funny shape, but too many of them can leave a strange flat taste in your mouth.

However, what pop-ups offer, in the right conditions, given the right support, unlike much currently sanctioned play, is the opportunity to experiment not only with use and form, but also with the way we ‘do’ change. At their best, they suggest a more piecemeal and improvised way of making and re-making the city than endlessly repetitive strategic masterplans with carefully curated variety and identically bespoke assemblages of ‘character areas’. It’s just a shame that for the time being this methodology, not unknown elsewhere in the world, seems confined to ‘meanwhile’ interventions.

I am doubtless naïve. I am certainly not an economist. I do understand the logic, particularly in under-resourced areas, of private-sector partnered large-scale development of new urban districts, with all the economies of scale, benefits of experience and risk-reduction that this theoretically brings. But when I read the research behind sustainable communities, lifetime neighbourhoods, or whatever we call them now, I can’t help fantasising about things being done differently. Time and time again I see the argument that for any of these visions to really thrive, meaningful civic engagement and strong civic networks are required. What better way to do that then producing our neighbourhoods in a more experimental and collaborative manner?

Take the London Borough of Newham, for example, somewhere I spend a lot of time. And currently home to Caravanserai, a five-year pop-up ‘trading-post’, experimenting with “ideas for commerce and community cohesion” on a major town centre site. Newham is packed with regeneration areas, due to its east London location and swathes of ex-industrial land, and is doing a valiant job of balancing developer-enthusiasm with the broader needs of its existing communities.

I’ve heard positive noises about some of Caravanserai’s achievements being captured in some form within the permanent Bouygues scheme. This sounds interesting. But, thinking more ambitiously, wouldn’t it be great if sites like that one could respond to lack of public sector regeneration funding by taking risks with a more fundamentally bottom-up and playful form of development? What if Newham, or a council like it, decided to experiment with delivery of ‘placemaking’ and renewal objectives by facilitating the emergence of an experimental self-build district? And, with that, a self-build community?

This might involve moves such as long-leasing plots of land at low rates to small cooperatives, or even individuals. Or supporting the development of a variety of collaborative masterplan. (I remember an elderly Newcastle planner saying to me that he really thought we should be making servantplans not masterplans. Cheesy, I know, but you get his drift.) It could happen to varying degrees of Non-Plan-esque anarchy. But there is no lack of interesting precedents or emergent economic models to learn from and built upon, from relevant projects elsewhere in Europe like Freiburg-Vauban, to current cohousing, Community Land Trust and asset transfer experiments.

Of course, there are would be issues around equity and ownership to resolve, and the pronoun ‘we’ would have to be flung around rather less casually than it is in this article. But, in principle, wouldn’t a genuinely sustainable community, and a sustainable local economy for the wider area, be more likely to emerge through a similar process – through creatively taking risks and negotiating outcomes together – than via any attempt to design one in, no matter how many hubs and piazzas one scatters through a scheme?

I daydream of the city, my city, as a real life-size game board for risk and experimentation. Where the public realm, including what genuine public land and assets we have left, is collectively understood as a positively political space. One where – through meaningful spatial play – we work out how to live together.


Daisy Froud is Head of Participation at AOC. She worked with Central London Partnership, Groundwork London and Groundwork Camden and Islington before co-founding AOC in September 2003. She has extensive experience of devising and undertaking stakeholder engagement and consultation and led both the community R&D process on the Building Futures neighbourhood regeneration game for RIBA and CABE and the participative briefing and design process for the Lift New Parliament. She has also worked as an expert advisor on community engagement to regeneration initiatives in Germany. Daisy has lectured at leading schools of architecture in the UK and Europe and currently teaches on the history and theory of regeneration at the Bartlett, UCL. She is a CABE Enabler, a member of the London Borough of Newham\’s Design Review Panel and an accredited Building For Life Assessor.