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Community / Public space

Our cities should be "machines of play"

Le Corbusier famously defined houses as machines for living in: carefully constructed systems that would efficiently help us live. Following that line of thought, he claimed that carefully planned cities, composites of machines for living, would actually lead to a better, more humane urban environment.

In some ways, our modern western cities are somehow thought of, or dreamt of, as postmodern interpretations of Le Corbusier’s ideals. We want our cities to be planned, rehabilitated, open spaces for pleasure as well as productive machines for commerce and innovation. We dream of our cities as being efficient machines of inclusion, environmentally friendly and both forward looking and aware of their past.

But these cities are not very well oiled machines – unless, of course, you’re wealthy. The humane interface of the machine is only available to few, at the expense of the many who can barely scrap a living together in these urban spaces. Our cities have become politically determined zoned areas, corporate gardens through which we transit, but not stay.

Our model of the citizen has also changed. In this era of big data, to be a citizen of a modern city is to be a data provider. Modern cities have become hungry machines that squeeze from all of us all possible data to paint a picture of who inhabits them. The portrait of the modern citizen is a pointillist image made of countless data entries, from addresses to spending habits, framed by the city as the backdrop of what we call “living”.

The spaces of the city machines are highly regulated, with constant refreshers of norms and regulations about their appearance, style, and how citizens, or maybe users, should behave. The ways of traversing cities are also highly regulated, disallowing other forms of transportation than those deemed relevant, possibly, beneficial.

And yet, there are glitches in these machines. The skateboarders and “traceurs”, who see the open spaces of corporate parks and plazas as the perfect settings for athletic performance and just plain fun. The graffiti artists that know there is no better canvas than that paid for by a rich hand, the playful vandals that destroy CCTV cameras in the weird, poignant game of Camover. None of them resist order: rather they create new orders, new spaces of possibility, through play.

This is why making playable cities matters: it is an effort to make these machines human again. To play is to appropriate the world for our own personal expression, within boundaries we set. To play is the fundamentally human act of exploring not only the “what ifs”, but also the “what if nots”, searching joyfully for a space for expression, together with others.

That’s why making cities playable is also making cities livable – making the “public” corporate spaces truly public, spaces to meet across cultures and races and incomes to do what we can best do together: to play, and be playful.

Playable cities can help us rethink big data through toys and playgrounds, giving us the opportunity to reclaim our data. Playable cities allow us to play hide and seek with the restless datavore machine, potentially educating us on what big data actually means, and how to survive it.

Making cities playable won’t solve all of our urbanism problems. But like play theorist Brian Sutton-Smith once said, “Life is crap, and it’s full of pain and suffering, and the only thing that makes it worth living — the only thing that makes it possible to get up in the morning and go on living — is play.”

So let’s make our cities open for play: play as joyous revolt, as constructive resistance, as spaces for moments of joy. Let’s turn cities into collective instruments for pleasure and resistance. Let’s turn cities into machines for playing.

Miguel Sicart is a Copenhagen-based play researcher and a judge of the 2015 Playable City Award.

Submissions to the awards are open now and will close at 5pm on Tuesday 7 April. You can apply here.
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