Play: In conversation with Lucy Musgrave

BY Lucy Musgrave | October 2012

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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Lucy Musgrave in conversation with Jack Hardy

Why is play important?

Playable landscapes are everywhere – it’s amazing how the most ordinary elements of the city can contribute to its playable qualities. Everyday if I look out of our office windows in Clerkenwell Green at around 4 o’clock, I see two eight year old girls climbing across the racks of the Barclays bike stand on the other side of the square – up, over and across, up, over and across – play is an everyday, unanticipated thing but that’s what makes it so brilliant at enlivening civic space. Our current projects consider play integral to area strategies, for developers, for local authorities and for community groups. Play is an essential function of city life and it’s not just about children, about planned spaces or playgrounds. Great, unscripted opportunities are just as important.

In 2001, during the time I was director, the Architecture Foundation had its 10th anniversary. We took the opportunity to look forward to some of the challenges and issues facing London’s urban realm. With curator Clare Cumberlidge, we sent out an open invitation to a huge array of academics, architects, artists, planners, journalists and campaigners: anyone involved in the built environment. The message was simple – come and host an event in our space, come and do something about the future of London. What culminated were 3 events everyday for 21 days. People from different disciplines and different walks of life all came with ideas and contributions to share experiences. Of all the topics discussed, the most common theme, to our very great surprise, was play – people of all ages, with varied perspectives all discussing play. Largely, all were concerned that the opportunity for spontaneity in the public realm was being designed out of this great city.

How have you been involved in championing play in London?

Play is ingrained in the way that we live, act and entertain ourselves in everyday city space, it isn’t just about children. In the past, the UK and London in particular has been very intolerant about a different pace, a different activity, a different programme or different people using the public realm. Our current work here at Publica and past work at General Public Agency, the research we do, and the projects we’ve done are ways of digging into the history of play, thinking about contemporary interpretations of it, and testing what it means with practitioners. We continue to archive examples of the best playgrounds and play spaces in the world for this purpose.

We started looking at play in a lot of detail, looking back at some key campaigns and looking at how previous generations of children were able to use cities. Lady Allen of Hurtwood’s 1968 ‘Planning for Play’ documents the production of adventure playgrounds in London and internationally. Having seen new adventure playgrounds in Scandinavia, Lady Allen introduced the concept of ‘restorative play’ to the UK, fast-tracking construction by suggesting that bombsites in the city were ideal places to quickly create new play spaces. She was a really effective campaigner, positioning her first adventure playground in Lambeth directly opposite the House of Commons, and the necessity of play provision in the public eye.rnrnAnother great project came out of a book called ‘The School Looks Around’. In 1948 The Association for Education and Active Citizenship, chaired by Clement Attlee, had commissioned two architects from the AA, Justin Blanco White and Elizabeth Layton, to develop a thesis which outlined detailed plans through which school children could be charged with the task of undertaking local surveys and understanding how neighbourhoods work – from housing, employment and manufacturing policy, to open space and planning strategies. We set out to create a contemporary interpretation of this project, with aid from the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation. This has been an on-going project thinking about how young people can begin to look at and influence the accumulation of intelligence, research and analysis about the urban condition.

How has London changed?

At General Public Agency, we were commissioned by Argent to produce an area strategy for the redevelopment of King’s Cross. We approached this through our interest in urban characterisation. What we discovered, as well as a rich history of illicit pleasure in the area, was that a huge amount of industrial archaeology had been softened and humanised over the years by a fine green layer. We came up with a provocation, an idea, about putting a soft play strategy into the mainstream landscaping strategy of the master plan – why not make the whole public realm an urban pleasure garden in a hard landscape? Play is a crucial and very effective tool in urban regeneration, and this is starting to be recognised throughout London. Camden Council approached us to advise on the engagement, selection and on-site appointment of design teams for their Play Pathfinder project – 29 new playgrounds in 2 years on housing estates and open space in the Borough. It was a really ambitious project and resulted in some wonderful play spaces like the Kilburn Grange Adventure Playground by Erect Architecture.

How can London be more playful?

We need to take it seriously, we need to find our collective voice and say we care about play and want it discussed at the very top. Today, the effective allocation of resources demands cross-disciplinary strategic planning around the re-use of existing spaces and support from legislation much of which exists, but has been overlooked. This is finally beginning to happen as a dialectic process between communities on the ground and planners and policy-makers in government. Tim Gill, play expert and Publica Associate, has been a leading activist for many years. Paul Hocker, working through London Play, is pushing for the re-introduction of the ‘Play Street’s programme, founded in the 1930’s, which brilliantly encouraged children to play in civic space. We need to allow for children to be inventive with the urban landscape and expect them to want to change it. Aldo Van Eyck has been highly influential to us – he positioned himself within the Amsterdam Department for Public Works in the mid 20th century, where he was able to influence policy makers from within. This process produced over 700 playgrounds in the city, and defined the fundamental representation of play in Amsterdam’s street spaces. It feels like play is finally beginning to become mainstreamed in urban policy as a major development tool, with lively discourse on ‘The Playful City’ an excellent example.

Play can be found in the most unexpected places. Broadgate, City of London.


Lucy Musgrave is the director of Publica, a twenty strong team of architects, planners and researchers who develop urban strategies and public realm briefs. They are currently working for a range of clients including the City of London, Westminster City Council, the Crown Estate and the Howard de Walden Estate. Lucy was formerly co-director of General Public Agency and director of The Architecture Foundation. She is co-author of the book Design and Landscape for People – New Approaches to Renewal. Interview by Jack Hardy.