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Thursday
Jun182015

How Incorporating Playability Can Help Us Design Better Cities

Image © Gensler

As a global firm, Gensler touches an incredible variety and scale of project types in the built environment. As a result, we are able to identify trends, see patterns across cities, neighborhoods, organizations and countries. One of the trends we’ve observed is playability, an idea that interconnects happiness, health, cultural identity and engaged communities. Playability, and the notion of the playable city, has the potential to expand our thinking in the planning process and design solutions. Integrating play into our civic landscape creates family friendly environments that appeal across generations and create opportunities for the balanced and active play needed to thrive. Simply, playable places help remind all of us of our innately curious nature as humans.

In the past years, we have seen a number of precedents, or examples, where redefining and incorporating play, and expanding its audience, have been key to creating successful and memorable design solutions. Organizations like KaBOOM! help highlight these ideas and bring civic leaders and citizens together around best practices and stories through programs like Playful City USA.

Efforts such as Playful City USA can only help to build on the growing investment and interest in rethinking our city and neighborhood streetscapes to be more inclusive, activated and multi-modal. This rethinking shifts the idea of play from something that happens in a single place (such as a school playground) to something more dispersed that can happen “along the way”. As designers, architects, and planners, the idea of play as a way to encourage positive behavior and engage people of all ages becomes a powerful foundation to explore. Attention to building interactivity and delight into everyday experiences lends itself to definition of new types of play places - be it a hopscotch side walk, mobile recreation vehicles or a musical bench. We have some recent examples in our own backyard in Baltimore, including a large scale BUS stop next to a creative hub in the neighborhood of Highlandtown. It perfectly illustrates the value of how something as simple and practical as a transit stop can become artfully playful and help build an identity that transcends the immediate corner it sits at. Connecting events like city-wide play days or creating something like York, Pennsylvania’s “Play Everywhere” subcommittee – Play becomes part of the culture of the place. Designing these playful moments are delightful for kids and parents, and are a means to grow and attract new families to our cities.

Bringing this type of accidental, everyday play inside buildings is closely aligned with active design –the design of environments to promote movement and wellbeing. By connecting floors with open, beautifully designed stairs, for instance, workers are more likely to walk than take the elevator. As building interiors become more connected, we can use play as a tool to encourage people to get out of their seats, engage in physical activities, and promote interactions across different groups. By finding ways to make activity desirable and fun, these behavior shifts are supported through the design.

Play can enrich everyday experiences (and our health), but it also has the potential to connect us with others. In neighborhood planning, engaging communities requires building trust between neighbors and designers. Planning projects can provide an opportunity to incorporate play into both the design and the design process, bringing in new voices, ideas, and energy into what can be a long and challenging road. Play can work multi-generationally, and across race, gender and class, creating a common ground for communities to come together around ideas and solutions. When conducting community engagement sessions, we frequently draw from our toolkit of “games”, which can be as simple as affixing dots to an idea board (a more opinionated version of Pin the Tail on the Donkey) or as complicated as allocating “million dollar” poker chips to simulate decision making (our high-stakes version of Monopoly). Representing critical voices, like kids and families, early in the process is cost-neutral, and results in creating more meaningful outcomes, ownership or engagement with the spaces being designed.

Our role as designers is to work with agencies, cities, and citizens to consider the kind of communities we want to live in and help identify a path for us to get there. Play provides a language everyone can understand and a function that is not only joyful but also essential to the human experience.

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