Reclaiming playfulness in Irish towns and cities

Updated: Feb 16, 2021

A conversation with Aaron Copeland from A Playful City

How did your adventure with urban design and playful spaces began?

I've been working in public art and community-based art since 2004. I got a first art commission from the Arts Council when smoking areas were being introduced into Dublin, and pubs were revealing these wonderful Georgian's yards in the backs of their buildings, and they were kind of cornering them with those awful cigarette trays that were used for advertising and just completely impractical. So myself and a few friends, we transformed a number of them into art galleries by putting in sculptures that were ashtrays as well, trying to take away an idea of advertising is the only thing that can go into public space. That gave me a bit of a bug for public interventions but then started working with the collective called Eek that we set up, which was promoting collaboration between poets and graphic designers, and visual artists, and to bring those three together. In my interpretation, 20 years in Ireland, there weren't a lot of partnerships that I could see. The idea of collaborating between different mediums or different art forms was important to me, so I started publishing artists' work. We used to put on poetry nights with pro wrestlers, and poets. That brought me into being part of setting up Upstart Collaborative. In 2011 we've put up 1000 artworks around Dublin City at the time of the general election and transformed large parts of the road into a walk-in like gallery, took up space from politicians and their posters. At that time there were enormous amount of cuts, arts were being really pushed to the sides in terms of the perception of what was important to society. So this was a kind of a protest.

Interesting projects! Very much in an activist's spirit. And where does the ‘playful’ aspect of your work come from?

Dublin City street playground community sustainable
Spiel Mobile - mobile consultation & play area

In the next project we went on to build a pop-up park in Dublin 1. It was the third-largest visited closed public space. It was a 30-day park that was open to the public, that we built on a site that was knocked down by a public-private partnership and then City Council, that never came to fruition because of the crash. We involved a number of children that should have been living in that space. We've also brought a group of young children from Belfast who were from a loyalist tradition to build a theatre that was inspired partly by 12th of July bonfires. A group of 17 teenagers built a large section of a park that was open to the public. It won the best public space in Ireland and got a lot of recognition. It's now apartments and a supermarket. My wife and I just had our first boy, Arnie at that time and we realised that there was actually nothing to do for parents in Dublin other than going to the park.

If you walked through the city, it was like a death trap because of the cars. It still is. You might as well be walking beside a cliff.

So we've built a play area, but it was all loose parts play and non-traditional play equipment. It was all wood and there were no swings, or if there was a swing it was for adults and children to use and nothing was there that could be interpreted as just one single way of being used. It was that designing children into the centre of public space and what that did to space, I've found it really fascinating. We had none, not one, so-called anti-social incident in the park in the 45,000 visits to the park. One of the reasons for that was that the flow of people had to move through the eye line of parents who sat about 15 - 20 meters away from the playground when their children played at a cafe that we had. Pretty much everything was donated to the cafe and we had different chefs donate their time to that cafe. People had to walk through a line of sight for parents, but the parents still didn't have to be hovering over their children.

By 'removing' parents it allowed children free-range play without the interruption of how an adult perceives how their child should play.

Parents had the added benefit of a very clear view. They were removed far enough away and close enough to enjoy the experience as well. It was then when I started asking questions around the sustainability of city design in relation to families and children in particular and the absence of that type of design.

Do you see a tendency in Ireland towards more sustainable projects and projects that are creating a happier community through design, considering the environment and family?

I'm not sure if I agree with the philosophy of that change, but there has been an enormous effort made to address play provision in Ireland. Since 2003 there's been 1300 playgrounds built and that sort of 773% increase in play provision of playgrounds. The only issue with those playgrounds is that are being designed as these literally fenced off areas of play, away from local amenities. They are destination spots and you actually have to travel to them. How many of those playgrounds have access to toilets or changing facilities near them? The play is being provided, but none of what's happening outside of that is being taken into account. So you'll get a bench in a play area for a parent, but the parent ends up following their child everywhere around the play area. The child in Ireland can visit any playground and the equipment will be all the same, except for maybe 15 to 20 playgrounds and it's all to do with risk eliminating. This generic design that's based on essentially insurance implications, results in an experience that children are having up to a certain age. Once they get past the degree of mastery on any piece of equipment that they already know, they stop getting any reward. And what I mean by that is they don't experience any trepidation, they don't experience any perceived perception of risk. And the risk is not a hazard. Play provision is often from a catalogue, it's measured out, there's very little interaction that children have in the natural world. And because of that, children don't learn to navigate risk. So if every playground has the exact same diameter of a bar, and a child climbs a tree, and they have no experience that things are different in different scenarios. It's a strange message to give to children.

How is a city going to be sustainable if it does not accommodate people after they have a family?

Dublin 1 would be a good example of that. There are 17,000 children in Dublin City Centre, and they have three football pitches of space dedicated to them in the city centre. The problem with those spaces is that only 28 of those 60 spaces are actually in the public round, the rest are in complexes, and so are not available to play in. When you actually look at the age group who plays in the playground, you're talking about until maybe 10 years, although a lot of them will take 12 to 14 years old and some playgrounds are making efforts to make them older and that's really commendable. But I think this idea of equating play provision with quality is not something that we've done. So yes, there's been a huge improvement in play provision but at the same time, there's been little reflection on what type of play provision is being done.