How to Use Science to Make Cities More Playable

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Research shows that play is important. So why are city streets so sterile?

Back in the day, city streets were places where people got together, hung out and played. But over the last century, they've become places to travel through, not enjoy. This is a bit sad for everyone, particularly for children.

"We know play makes kids healthier and happier. We also know that play is critical to building 21st century skills such as creativity, critical thinking, empathy, and collaboration—skills that are integral to the jobs and economy of the future," wrote Ideas 42, a design firm that specializes in behavioral science, in a recent paper about making cities more playable.

Personally, I think there's value in kids learning creativity and empathy beyond becoming economic cogs, but I get the point: Play is important. And kids need more of it. According to Ideas 42, here are a few ways we can combine urban design and human psychology to make play less of a special activity and more of an everyday thing.

1. Everyday places

people crossing crosswalk in manhattan

© View Apart/Shutterstock
Parents don't always have time to organize a bunch of playtime. Instead, why not make regular streets more playable?"Imagine instead that the kids eagerly go to the bus stop because the sidewalk is painted with hopscotch and other playful activities," the paper went on. "They don’t complain at the bus stop because they are enjoying the swings that replaced the benches, and they don’t cause trouble in the clinic waiting room because they’re busy playing games with their mom."

2. More and smaller

boring playground

Greg Goebel -- Just like every other one in the U.S. It's so boring, it hurts./CC BY 2.0
If a playground is far from someone's house, they probably won't go very often.

"A park can feel far just because the parent has to drive or take public transportation, or even walk to a different part of the neighborhood," the paper explained. "This makes going to the park or a playground seem like a major outing rather than something every day and incidental. Studies have found that people are willing to walk a quarter to half a mile at most to go to a park."

Instead, creating smaller playgrounds all over the place can make playtime more of an everyday activity, rather than a special trip.

4. Not just for kids

©. Voyagerix/Shutterstock

© Voyagerix/Shutterstock
Playgrounds are usually made exclusively for kids. But guess who usually brings kids to the playgrounds? Adults. Grown-ups like to play too, but they're not likely to get all that excited about sandboxes.

"Making local play opportunities more fun and social for parents and caregivers could help," said the paper. "Designing games and equipment that can be used by a range of ages and abilities can engage adults and kids of all ages."

As lovely as all this is, it doesn't seem right to act like putting swing sets near bus stops will be enough to make cities truly playable.

"No one swears they’re leaving London, New York, or Paris because they can’t play Pong at a crosswalk," pointed out Feargus O'Sullivan, a journalist who writes about cities. "Playable interventions don’t democratize cities. To do that, you’d have to fight far more serious threats than crosswalks that aren’t fun enough. Your probable first move would be to battle the privatization and control of supposedly public spaces, an oppressive process that arguably does more than anything to suck the creative oxygen out of cities."

Alright, O'Sullivan. I see your point. But hey. In terms of small things that cities can do easily, these seem like a good start.