Reclaiming the City through Play

The use of new technologies in cities through play is a way of putting the use of public space back in the hands of citizens.

Boys playing "Roly Poly," New York or New Jersey, 1890-1910.

Boys playing “Roly Poly,” New York or New Jersey, 1890-1910. Source: The Henry Ford.

By the year 2050, an estimated three of every four people on the planet are expected to live in cities. Experts claim that only an appropriate use of technology will make it possible for these to be sustainable and ensure there are sufficient resources for everybody. What they mean by this is so-called “smart cities”. But will these supercities be more human? Will they encourage social relations among inhabitants? Will they make people feel less lonely? Or will they simply solve problems like energy efficiency and information availability? Many artists, designers, architects and theorists argue that the use of new technologies in cities through play is a way of putting the use of public space back in the hands of citizens. And of promoting socialisation, forms of behaviour based on interaction and cooperation.

Imagine that one morning, as you are walking through the square that you cross every day on your way to the tube, you discover an adult-sized seesaw. Perhaps you cast a sidelong glance and walk a little faster. But what if on your way home that evening you see a group of people standing around, watching a pair of adults having a great time as the play equipment lights up in response to their actions?

This is just what was done by the Australian design studio Eness, which set up a rather special seesaw in a city square in Melbourne: the body of the seesaw contained 33 LED strips that responded to the movement of the installation, creating light environments for the people who were using it. As the studio’s website explains, the objective was to teach participants a bit of physics and, above all, to remind them that having fun is not just for kids.

The installation also managed to trigger social interaction among citizens who did not know each other, and invited them to rediscover, through play, elements of their surroundings that are no longer public spaces or places for gathering and sharing, and have become transit zones.

For some time now, this has also the goal of many artists, architects, designers, theorists and activists who have been exploring this idea of reclaiming public spaces in cities, and turning them back into gathering and socialisation spaces through the use and the integration of technology.

And this idea has become even more important in the current context, with the popularisation of the idea of Smart Cities sheathed in digital skins, with connected buildings that save energy and share information, adapting to their inhabitants and learning from the ways in which they use the city. Many experts argue that these mega-connected cities will be the only way to manage the fact that 75% of the planet’s population will live in cities in 2050. And that technology will not be an added value, but a necessity. But will these smart cities also strengthen human relations? Can we use the huge numbers of smart sensors and connected computers that make cities smart to expand and enhance public spaces?

The importance of play

Since 2008, the installation Play Me, I’m Yours has toured to numerous cities around the world. The man behind the project is the artist Luke Jerram, who came up with the idea of setting up a piano in public areas so that anybody who felt like it could play and enjoy it. The chosen sites cease to be transit zones and become places where things happen, and the instrument becomes a wonderful catalyst for spontaneous social dynamics: the piano and its surroundings become a space for sharing, for social interaction. And the experiment does not end there, because each city that forms part of the project has a website through which people can access all kinds of material created during the experience, including photos, videos and texts.

Perhaps the people who are worst off in cities are children. They barely have areas in which to play, and the few playgrounds that exist are usually designed for very young children. This means that from the age of five or six the kids get bored, and it has become increasingly common to see them playing with their parents’ mobile phones or tablets.

A few years ago, Narcís Parés came up with an idea for encouraging group play through socialisation in parks, and at the same time solve one of the major public health problems of the twenty-first century, childhood obesity. This teacher from Universitat Pompeu Fabra (UPF) designed an inflatable slide like the ones that can be seen at funfairs, and enhanced it with interactive technology.

He turned the surface of the slide into a videogame screen in which kids play through their movements. A computer vision system detects their actions and reacts accordingly. The children launch themselves down the slide, over and over, in order to hit a green ball or a Martian with their body. And then they have to climb up quite a few stairs if they want to play again. “The aim of the interactive slide,” Parés explains on his website, “is to become a tool to encourage children to do more physical exercise while socialising with other children”.

Another project that seeks to give public parks back to children and at the same time promote cooperative play is Hybrid Play, by the group Lalalab, which consists of the artists Clara Boj and Diego Díaz. They came up with the idea in 2008 when they published an article entitled “Hybrid Playground: Integration of Videogame Tools and Strategies in Children’s Playgrounds”, in which they suggested that these public spaces that are supposedly designed for children could become stages for interactive play, and promote collaboration. But the technology was not sophisticated enough yet. Which is why they are now taking up the idea again.

As they explain on their website, “Hybrid Play is a system that seeks to rediscover urban spaces such as parks, combining traditional street play with videogames.” Hybrid Play consists of a robust device that looks like a giant clothes peg, and is placed over a piece of play equipment such as a swing, a slide, or a seesaw. It works with a circuit board compatible with Arduino that adapts sensors such as accelerometers and gyroscopes to detect the children’s actions. Both the “peg” and the software that runs it are open source. What happens in the park, the children’s real actions, affects what happens in the videogame on the mobile.

Another example – which is not just targeted at children – is the interactive musical swings that literally took over one of the places with highest traffic density in Montreal (Canada). The installation, called The Swings, was created by the Daily Tous Les Jours studio and consists of 21 swings that are like piano keys; each movement generates a note, but all the swings have to work together to compose a tune, making it obligatory for citizens to cooperate and adjust their actions to those of the others. Over the past few years thousands of people have had a turn on these swings; in fact, each swing has swung an average of 8,500 times a day.

Towards the hybrid city

All of these projects are based on the concept of the hybrid city, in which physical and digital space overlaps. Along these lines, an increasing number of new projects aim to recover the city and to connect citizens through play and technologies, creating a kind of hybrid urbanism. Another example is the popular StreetPong in Berlin, where a group of German students set up two consoles of the famous game – in which players hit a little ball – at two of the city’s traffic lights facing each other. The idea is for strangers to play and interact while they wait for the traffic lights to turn green so that they can cross, thus also promoting civic behaviour.

Another project that seeks to reclaim public space through play and social interaction is a version of the legendary Tetris called Lummo Blocks, designed by the collective Lummo. It can be used by up to four players at a time, who have to cooperate to form Tetris pieces with their bodies and place them in the appropriate position. A similar project is Javier Lloret’s Puzzle Facade, which transforms buildings into huge Rubik cubes. It transformed the façade of the headquarters of the Ars Electronica festival in Linz (Austria), for example, into an enormous cube that invited passers-by to participate in an interactive experience.

One of the artists who has specialised on this concept of play, citizen participation, and human behaviour in public space is Britain’s Chris O’Shea. In his work Hand from Above he placed an huge screen in a very busy square, the kind that we barely notice as we walk through it. A camera recorded pedestrians and projected the images on the screen. Every now and then, a huge hand appeared and ‘tickled’ the image of the people, shrinking or stretching them, or even making them disappear altogether. It selected pedestrians and playfully transformed them, interacting with the surroundings.

Another interesting project along these lines was the one that O’Shea produced for the BBC British public television network . It was called Big Screen Quiz and it worked on the basis of questions and answers. A giant screen located in a public space invited passers-by to form groups in order to play. They were asked questions and offered a choice of four possible answers, so that they had to discuss them and agree on the correct choice. They then had to position themselves in one of the four virtual squares that were projected on the floor. The area with the highest concentration of movement after a countdown was the chosen answer.

Then again, if you are tired of the stress and noise of the city and need to escape to an oasis of peace and tranquillity, your best bet is to download the mobile app Mapa mudo, by Sandra García, a search engine for spaces of silence in the city that allows you to find them, but also to add and share personal silences. Innovations in smart cities that make urban life better in all senses, particularly the human sense.

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  • Ben Gwalchmai | 26 December 2014

  • Carles Gutierrez | 22 April 2015

  • Marta | 12 June 2016

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Reclaiming the City through Play