Playing and planning games to understand our sense of place

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Intermediate Urban Designer

Growing up, my family and I would remain at the kitchen table after breakfast and go through the Sunday newspaper. It would often come packed with extra advertisements, cartoons and real estate magazines. My mom liked to do the crossword puzzle, and I loved helping her when she needed to look for a word in the dictionary or a specific place on the map. “Look at the map of Germany for a city that has six letters and starts with ‘B’”, she would tell me, and I would quickly bound towards the bookshelf, grabbing one of the big green atlas volumes to find the answer. “Berlin”!

Little did I know, moments like this would shape my path towards a career in architecture and urban planning. Books have always helped me understand the places where I lived and belonged to in that moment. I loved studying cities from an aerial view, which often influenced my dreams. I remember once flying over Pereira, Colombia—my hometown—staring down at the streets, my school, the airport and other significant landmarks.

Understanding our sense of place

Since then, my role as an urban planner has led me on a fantastic journey in understanding how we recognize ourselves in the city or place we live in, and how that will help us play an essential role in its transformation. Joan Sweeney's book Me on the Map put together the pieces of the naïve visions I had in my dreams as a kid. It made me realize 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

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 wellbeing. Public amenities such as community centres, 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 ourselves to be kids again and 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

Through my years as an urban planner, I saw and learned that 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 neighbourhoods 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 as a whole, understanding their own community in relationship with their neighbours and the urban context. The gondolas enabled kids and adults to fly over their town, as I did when I was a kid, 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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