Let’s Play: Thoughts on the Intersection of Creativity + Urbanism

by Mejay Gula, Building Strategist and Construction Manager

The Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU) Illinois invited Mejay to present at CNU Illinois 9: Pragmatic Urbanism, a mini-conference that took place within the 2016 American Planning Association, Illinois Chapter's (APA-IL) State Conference. On September 29, Mejay presented Play Urbanism: Creative Interventions Undeterred by Regulation, Policy, or Learned ‘Best Method’ Practices. The presentation was part of CNU Illinois’ Tactical Urbanism SLAM! program, a PechaKucha happy hour hosting eight presenters. PechaKucha is a presentation style in which twenty images are shown, each for twenty seconds. They are informal gatherings where creative people get together and share ideas, works, and thoughts. 

The theme of the CNU mini-conference was Tactical Urbanism. Tactical Urbanism takes an approach to city-building that leverages rapid, small-scale, creative interventions. As CNU Illinois described it:

Leaner. Quicker. Easier to deploy. And sensitive to different neighborhoods and scales. That’s tactical urbanism. Pragmatic urbanism makes quick improvements to urban spaces to make them more livable and walkable and to build a constituency for longer term improvements. Tactical urbanism allows for vivid exploration at a cheap price tag.

Playing. Remember that? (image from Mejay's "Fort Follows Function" community class)

Playing. Remember that? (image from Mejay's "Fort Follows Function" community class)

The CNU Illinois mini-conference explored the question of the best and most innovative practices currently supporting Tactical Urbanism. If you’re familiar with Place Lab and what we do here, then you know that our work tends to fly in the face of common ‘best practices,’ so I decided to address the question from a different angle. I presented on a mindset I call Play Urbanism, a reminder to urban practitioners that there is value in playful practice. 

When we were kids, playing informed and inspired us. Playing nurtured our imaginations and emboldened us to take risks and try new things. But as we grew older, we grew out of playing. The act of putting playfulness behind us in fear of appearing too childish is an act of limiting our creative ability. Play Urbanism encourages us to strengthen our creative muscles with regular workouts—playing.

When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.
— C.S. Lewis

Community arts-based practitioners grapple with a common hurdle: sustaining momentum. The lengthy time required to pass projects through regulatory processes often causes interest in the project to wane. Supporters, stakeholders, communities—and even we practitioners—become dispassionate or disillusioned. The driving force behind the project slows or dies completely. Play can prevent this from happening.

Play can be used as a pivotal tool for engagement, infusing creativity and imagination during various stages of the development process. Play can also incite dialogue, strengthening the emotional investment of supporters while often drumming up new interest. Through play, we can avoid the threatening pause that often comes as we wait on regulations, rules, licenses, and permissions. Play maintains project vitality.

Tactical and Play Urbanism go hand in hand. Both are about quick, effective, creative happenings. Tactical Urbanism supports projects that create lasting impact; Play Urbanism supports interim moments of engagement that keep the fires for change burning.

Very good play can even endure.

The Better Block project of Oak Cliff Dallas is a fantastic example of how play can translate into permanence. A group of community activists, neighbors, and property owners collaborated to revitalize a single commercial block in an underused corridor in their neighborhood. The group pooled community resources to convert the block into a walkable, bikeable neighborhood destination for people of all ages, complete with bike lanes, cafe seating, trees, plants, pop-up businesses, and lighting. The project demonstrated how the block could be reimagined to improve area safety, health, and economics. Like other Better Block projects developed throughout the world, many of the temporary infrastructure improvements and businesses became permanent.

St. Laurence Board-Up project.

St. Laurence Board-Up project.

Here at Place Lab, every project involves considered opportunities for play. We are currently working on a demonstration project called Board Up, a community engagement series that involves communities in reimagining the possibilities of spaces during  redevelopment. Our first Board Up focused on St. Laurence Elementary School, a building long vacant that is a part of Chicago's civic commons initiative. This past summer, young people in Chicago's Greater Grand Crossing neighborhood engaged with the property through artistic intervention. They used the windows in the building as a canvas, their original designs providing comment on the possibilities of new life for St. Laurence. The window boards required on the property became murals, and in doing so, signaled the beginning of the building’s transformation from abandoned to activated space.

Tactful and Playful Urbanism remind us to continue the cycle of prototyping ideas. Get iterations of your project out there, visible and vulnerable for feedback. Successful projects are often the ones that engage before the space even exists.