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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

Planners at PLAY!

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Sarah Street block party, summer 2009

HALIFAX – I know a few things about the city of Portland; I’ve heard about the bridges that cross the river, distinct little neighborhoods that make up the greater urban network, and that in addition to a notably liberal-minded community, the place is known for its play-fullness. Rumor has it that steep city streets are closed down on days of record snowfall — not for safety and convenience, but because they are prime slopes for sledding. It is policies like these that are the growing trend in the contemporary approach to city living, fueled by an understanding that playful places promote creative thought, and in turn, creative urban development.

The idea of play, however, is not as simple as it sounds. It requires a discussion of the types of activities that engage individuals, and demands that we honestly consider what playful acts look like, what enables them, and how they manifest themselves.

It is with this attitude that the Dalhousie School of Planning held its annual conference, titled Play! On March 18th and 19th, students, professors and interested community members speckled auditoriums for a series of lectures, discussions and performances on the topic.

Some definitions of play stand in opposition to work. Its physical manifestation is an emblem of mental freedom: actions emerge liberated from stresses, the dull and mundane of routine. In this way, the concept of play characterizes a realm where individuals are open to new experiences, act freely, express themselves through movement; a quiet, symbolic communication. The question of play engages ideas about the kinds of materials, dimensions and costumes that give both children and adults the permission to play.

Concern for the concept of play is a break from the way in which planners have thought about the city for decades. Without question, the automobile has been the dominating unit of design. It has created a demand for parking lots, determined the shape of suburbs, and inspired looping and distant cul-de-sacs, drive-thrus, concrete overpasses and strip malls. And now, when we wonder where all the places to play are, all we get are scraped knees.

But the challenges are more than physical. Social definitions of play have transformed, and the digital world has compounded the sterilization of the streets. The under-stimulation of the public realm has developed greater distance by the over-stimulation in the private realm where personal computers dominate.  In contrast, reoccurring images at the Play! conference portrayed idealized nostalgic memories of the ‘things we used to play’ with, on, at. Discussions lamented the destruction of those dangerously-fun playgrounds and soapbox-car races of the past, and the sense of ownership that kids used to have.

While the cry for ‘open spaces’ is considered congruent with demand for recreational locations, presentations at the conference suggested otherwise.  Studies about the places that children value revealed that often these places are veiled in the illusion of some privacy, or are distinguished by topography and/or material.  It seems that kids and adults alike are drawn to more dynamic landscapes — they express a desire for places that can be interpreted and explored.

In the conservative concern for safe cities, we have constructed walls and uprooted trees.  Topographic relief has been leveled, and the unexpected has been eliminated.  The idea of planners at play challenges the conventions of the profession, it critically addresses the landscapes designed to be safe, and considers kids the new experts.

photo by Jessica Walker