Playing and planning games to understand our sense of place

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Intermediate Urban Designer

Understanding our sense of place

Understanding how people recognize themselves in their cities or places they live in, and the evolution and transformation of these spaces are the defining journey of a designer. Joan Sweeney's book Me on the Map put together the pieces of the naïve visions of a child’s dreams. It describes how important it is to give every child the necessary tools to help them understand their relationship with different spaces in a wide range of scales, from their own bedroom to their community, to their city, country, continent and eventually finding their place on a global scale.

Some cities and private sector practitioners start to understand the value of providing kids with the baton to guide urban planning. Examples such as the guideline book Playing the city to create better spaces in Mexico City, the new strategies in creating kid-friendly policies established in Tirana, Albania, or the ARUP report, Cities Alive: Designing for urban childhoods, which highlights the importance of children as influencers in our city planning. When we focus on children’s needs and reclaiming public spaces, we can unify stakeholders and help planners, designers and politicians understand that a safe place for a kid is a safe place for everyone.

Let kids play and learn

Our own urban designer, Malvin Soh researched and explored this in Kids and the city: how to plan cities for play, writing, "Play is essential to children’s health and well being. Public amenities such as community centers, play structures, play-fields and courts, plazas and open spaces afford children opportunities to participate in a variety of activities and programs in the community. Furthermore, these opportunities provide children with the ability to grow and mature, mentally, physically and socially."

It seems like a promising future if we allow kids to play and see the possibilities of successful urban planning from their early years. So, why aren't we allowing the kids in the adults playfully transform our cities? Are we using the appropriate tools to educate, participate and generate social transformation?

Since the early 20th century, urban planners such as Le Corbusier, Josep Lluis Sert and Walter Gropius, among others, used the top-down practice inspired by the technological advances at the time, developing ideas like functionalism and urbanism “from the airplane”. These practices created guidelines for the expansion of many highly concentrated cities and determined specific theories concerning how places should be used without the exercise of community engagement.

The bottom-up approach to community building

Social changes can be directly attached to urban transformation, but only if the community and people are involved in the process. This is known as a bottom-up approach to urban planning.

An interesting example of an urban social transformation can be found in Medellin, Colombia. The Metro Cable, a Gondola Project integrated into the LRT system, took over the unplanned neighborhoods of the Valley and transformed the ‘comunas’—known before as some of the most dangerous communities in the country—into more inclusive places. With this project, residents felt accountable, and for the first time, they could see the city asa whole, understanding their own community in relationship with their neighbors and the urban context. The gondolas enabled kids and adults to flyover their town, recognizing their home in the community, reclaiming ownership of their private and public spaces (by drawing messages on their roofs and small plazas welcoming tourists) and ultimately reinforcing their own place on the map. After the first few years of implementation, the community engagement process in the ‘comunas’ confirmed that sense of pride. It helped generate consciousness on how we are all responsible for the sustainability of the area we live in.

In conclusion

New methodologies have surfaced to communicate and integrate the community in the early stages of the creative process and make decisions on which topics are necessary to find solutions in their own city problems. Amsterdam with the Play the City programs and games, Stockholm with the Method Kit that engages citizens for participation and the Imaginable guidelines card game created by an Istanbul-based architect Alexis Şanal, are a few examples that all voices are equally heard and accounted for in the planning process.

Barcelona, a role model in urban transformation, has shown that a city that works towards developing strategies for more inclusive processes and human-oriented design and policies will always win. With the most recent project, Superilles or Superblocks, which focuses on recovering the street as public space for the community, allowing only residents and service traffic at the interior of the block, has increased opportunities for playful participation in the placemaking.

A respectful practice in planning should involve all citizens, regardless of age or gender, and understanding our place on the map will give us a better perspective, thought and voice to participate in the transformation of our cities.

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