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July 4, 2023

Placing play at the heart of cities

Emma Boulton, Watershed producer for Playable City Sandbox, and Jo Lansdowne, executive producer of Watershed’s Pervasive Media Studio discuss, the ‘Playable City’, placing play at the heart of Cities since 2012.

Play is transformative – it invites curiosity, stimulates rich interaction, can inspire joy, and can be subversive, but what happens when we play in the city?

When we play in public, the usual conventions of space are paused or reconfigured, the structures that might normally limit us become materials with which to make something new. In Ian Bogost’s ‘Play Anything: The Pleasure of Limits, the Uses of Boredom, and the Secret of Games’, he describes looking down and realising that his young daughter had created her own game out of being pulled by the hand across a tiled floor – skipping between lines and turning a situation in which, she had little agency into a world of her own making.

Playable City Sandbox
Playable City Sandbox: Squeeze Me. (Photo by Florence Renaud)

Artists can invite the same feeling; for example, Luke Jerram’s pianos softly drift through a crowded station (Play Me, I’m Yours). In a station, the function is to get passengers from A to B but the piano temporarily disrupts this paradigm – entertaining, convivial and romantic – and there we have it, something is revealed about what we might actually want from a liminal space.

What if the surprise encounter is with a full-sized painting across the ground? What questions might you now be asking? Would you play with it? ‘Drone Shadows‘ is a confronting image from James Bridle that reminds us of the existence of something that is normally invisible, drones and surveillance, and that we might want to do something about.

Whether we engage or spectate, these kinds of interventions create connections and invite us to think about what we want our cities to be. And we need this now more than ever. As we emerge from a series of public health-driven lockdowns, as we renegotiate who is honoured in our statues and who is allowed to protest, as public concern about surveillance technology is ever more palpable, and as our tangled relationships to an ecosystem in crisis become ever clearer – the need to reclaim space and mess about with the rules becomes increasingly urgent.

What is Playable City?

Playable City is a Watershed-originated project that seeks to use play and creative technology to create moments of pause and joy while thinking about our relationship to public space. We have done this by commissioning new work in cities around the world, hosting conferences and supporting artists and producers through peer-to-peer networks. 

Playable City began in 2012 in Bristol, UK. It was and is, in some ways, an alternative to the Smart City, less interested in efficiency and profitability and more fascinated by spontaneous and messy encounters. Our earliest projects enabled us to share stories with street furniture, inject fun into pedestrian crossings and invited us to dance with our shadows

[Read more: Why swings are disappearing from UK playgrounds]

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Since its creation, Playable City has travelled the world and created city-specific projects. Reaching five continents and nine cities, from Lagos to Recife, Toyko to Melbourne, Seoul to Austin. We have worked with more than 74 partners and 50 creatives, reaching more than one million people globally. As the programme grew our energies shifted from specific projects to people; setting foundations of deeper partnership and growing a more sustainable network of city change makers through Creative Producers International

Then in 2020 the world suddenly stopped. Cities centres emptied and play paused. Wildfires burned, destroying over 1,000 buildings in California alone. The statue of local trader in enslaved people Edward Colston that had stood in the centre of Bristol was pulled down and dumped in the harbour just outside our front doors.

We needed to reflect; our understanding of public play had changed and there was an urgent need to go deeper and co-design a framework that could enable more inclusive, thoughtful, and impactful interventions. We convened an Artist Lab with people who we felt would stretch and challenge our approach. 

Making cities differently

Six key themes (paired below) emerged from this Lab that has informed what and how we have commissioned and produced with our most recent set of projects, those that make up Playable City Sandbox. Working in partnership means that we have been balancing different ideas and perspectives. This has meant being as intentional as we are spontaneous in our play – acknowledging the complex landscapes of the cities we inhabit. 

Definitions & Accessibility: How can the definition of play be expanded and owned by everyone, especially those who are marginalised and underrepresented? What biases are present in the very materials with which we work? How can this create barriers and inaccessibility?

Inspired by the nomadic structure of the Aqal, dhaqan collective is co-creating an interactive installation with Somali communities in Bristol and beyond. House of Weaving Songs integrates Somali weaving songs and tapestries in an experiment to connect the city to cultural practices that challenge extractive relationships to natural resources. It positions play as a way of following our curiosity into a new environment, in which other ways of life are possible. Street Pixel, an interactive pavement using light and sound, sparks a more recognisable form of gameplay but Biome Collective has created an open system which enables many rule sets to emerge. By working with socially engaged architects and disability rights activists both teams are exploring how the materials of the city can be reconfigured by the people who live there.

Perspectives & Details: How can we embrace the many different ways people perceive cities, spaces and play? What details truly build a sense of place for people? How do these change from person to person and how do they shift over time?

Cities are not blank pages onto which we write experiences. There are dynamics of history, power and culture that have their own players in the game. We want to support work that is in dialogue with its place. Glitch AR created the augmented reality show Fireflies to celebrate Bristol’s music culture and have layered it onto the threshold of the legendary Lakota nightclub, while Zoomscape Zoetrope by Jack Wates and Thomas Blackburn is a composition of light that responds to the many speeds and movement that define the modern city. We spent a lot of time finding the right sites for these works, some places felt too contested for short-term interventions, while the tangled web of ownership and permissions prevented access to other so-called public spaces (see the Guardian’s excellent work on investigating the increase of pseudo-public space in our cities).

Permissions & Safety Comfort: How can we better understand the different social and cultural pressures different people feel about how they can ‘play’ in public? What and who might consciously or unconsciously reinforce these pressures? How are safety and comfort given or taken away?

We share our cities with many non-human bits of intelligence, some living and others computational. By encountering these systems as possible playmates, what do we learn about our own ways of being? Air Giants’ Squeeze Me uses inflatable soft robotics to create huge tactile creatures that wrap around street furniture, inviting passers-by to hug or squeeze them, invoking a tenderness unusual in our relationships with both technology and urban infrastructure. How (not) to get hit by a self-driving car by Tomo Kihara and Playfool is a street-based game that challenges players to avoid being detected as pedestrians by Artificial Intelligence. It sets up an enjoyable, intuitive interaction while raising uncomfortable questions about the hierarchies of ‘humanness’ which govern our societies. 

Playing might seem like a luxury in the context of the multiple emergencies facing life in cities – and there have been times when we have worried that it is naïve to continue to advocate for it. But if to play means to act collectively, to get hold of the systems and structures around us and repurpose them, and to recognise that many different outcomes are possible then it feels vital. Rather than being dragged towards an inevitable future, perhaps we will find an opportunity in inventing some new rules for ourselves – or at least we might have more fun along the way. 

These newest prototypes from Playable City Sandbox are open to the public between 3–9 July across Bristol.

[Read more: Cities are facing a “silent emergency” in the erosion of children’s play areas]

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