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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.

playful city, playground, bench, mural, Ireland
A Playful City - Beat Seats, a temporary Xylophone bench that repurposes cement barriers in a matter of minutes into play areas.

Interestingly enough, when you talk about risk and hazard, a lot of obstacles to a good playground area is the actual the cost of insurance, not mentioning the catalogue prices of equipment, even though they are almost so to speak, risk-free or at least the risks are very limited, and obviously, the parents are there to watch the child. One of the playgrounds we love to go to, took over a decade to materialise, so a couple of generations of children before the community was able to afford it, due to those financial implications. You've thought about those things a lot and you've observed the things that happen with those spaces. How would you imagine what the process of designing them should look like? What’s the starting point?

I'm not saying that you remove all catalogue play equipment from the experience of childhood, just to make that one clear. European relationship with public space, it's entirely different. We don't have that tradition of apartment living in Ireland. But one of the things that Aldo van Eyck and a lot of play advocates talk about is the idea of weaving play throughout the city. So rather than going to a playground as a destination, a playground should be, or at least, the original idea of playgrounds was, they were meeting points for play.

The first thing we could do is to move the playgrounds into the villages and towns, so you don't have to drive an hour to go to them.

The obvious obstacle to that is traffic, and 'stranger danger', the protection of stranger danger and the insurance implications that go with that. And so that's where we advocate for less car dependency in town centres. I'm not saying fewer cars, but car dependency. It isn't the silver bullet, but we should bring that type of energy back into towns that have faltered in the last two decades. Young people no longer want to be in them, because ultimately, there's nothing in them for a young family. Why would you go into a town other than to do your shopping at the moment if there's not a cafe and now that there is a cafe that can only serve takeaway, what else is there to do?

The Coronavirus really amplified the design problems that we've allowed to perpetuate because of affordances we give to adults who want to drive their car.

We should think about towns and villages as what they originally were, posts that you journeyed into and then you walked around. If you take your local box shopping mall areas, those types of places you find out at around every large town in Ireland. If people couldn't drive exactly to their door, what do you think, would they go there? I don't think they would. They expect that they can go into the complex and park at a distance, and then walk around that area for some time. And there's never a complaint. If you flick that and put that into a village context, and think about a village as a complex that you travel to, you make affordances for traffic outside the town. And then you allow that town to function in a way that's not just allowing drivers to come in but allows families and children to go about the place, allows you to sit out outside a shop if you want or not. Or bring your lunch in if you want and meet friends and sit around and play.

Essentially we should not be thinking of towns as places that you need to move through, but you need to move to.

When I think of my experience as a child in Poland, everything we needed as a family was on our street or maybe the next one. Groceries, bakery, chemist, a little park to sit and meet a friend. We also had educational spaces for children and teenagers to go to. I think it goes back to the history of the development of pre-industrial and industrial era, towns and cities were designed to have everything within a walking distance - your food, your playground, your community space. So you didn't have to go anywhere else to get the basics. It's a different life for me now, living in rural Ireland, where I have to drive to a town to get what I need. Thankfully, I live in a wonderful spot with beautiful surroundings, and quite a vibrant community. But there are so many villages and small towns in Ireland that are not so lucky. When you drive through rural Ireland, you see those closed venues, closed shops and empty streets. Do you see any way we can bring back life into those places?

I think we're experimenting with it all the time. There are funds put into the small towns' development. Things like working from home can be something that allows for that change for example. I could imagine rural towns being those centres for families where you can live in your own holding with its own land around and outside of towns, but a 20-minute drive into town. And because that's what you'd be doing anyway in the city to get your shopping and is the place where you don't drive through town, but drive up to town, and where you can let your children play and where you can meet friends and family and socialize literally in the streets. And it takes out the idea that socializing has to take place only in pubs. We're really trying to advocate for safer streets for play, not just playgrounds. Only in the last 20 years, this removal of children from public space has taken place. And that's happening literally the first time in history and squarely the biggest influence on that is traffic, vehicular traffic along with the perception of stranger danger, along with the different working hours of parents. Another thing is probably the age limit on the playground. And there's probably a sign saying no adults allowed in the play that children should be supervised by adults. And so children are relying on adults to bring them to these play areas when the allies are expected to work, because and because you can't afford anything else. Yes, so it's all on us, parents. It's very unsustainable stuff. People often get surprised that we're talking about playgrounds in this way.

But you can't be thinking about playgrounds or children as something separate from the rest of humanity. They are people and can't be seen as anything else.

Everything was put onto parents now because of that lack of independence of children. When we were children, we came home after school, we were just out of the house and we were back when mom was calling us for supper. And we didn't have playgrounds, we played on the roofs of houses and had those steel bars where you put your carpets to dust it off. Any tips on how we could make our spaces a bit more creative, a bit more playful, without using many resources? Any simple interventions in the communities that you think we could all do?

We do a project called playful streets and, and there's nothing original about it. But what's so shocking about it is, that it has to be done and it's considered an unusual quirky project that children would be invited to play on the street. But even something like once a month or every two months, the village street was closed and things like games, like building blocks and chalk would be provided. Maybe a designated area for sports could be allowed. But as well as that bearing in mind that adults like to play too. So not thinking about spaces just for a child or just for an adult, but trying to think about space in terms of the time of use, so that you would close the street in the morning and the afternoon during the summer holidays, for young children and their families to come to the town. And then you would close the street, for the teenagers to be able to enjoy coffees, or teas and just hang out, because that's what they do, as we all did, shoulder your friends, and flirt with someone.

Think about how space is used at the time of the day, as opposed to what to put it into space and keep it really loose. Chalk, bubbles, cardboard, and fabric instead of massive interventions.

It can be something as simple as going to your local community Gardai, closing the street for a couple of hours. You don't need counsellor permission if the Garda will close it. And that's something that we've used a number of times when we do our work in Dublin. It's a wonderful way for the Gardai to get to know the local community. Maybe in the West it’s not as much of an issue but in Dublin City Centre it's a massive thing that Gardai and local communities are completely unfamiliar with one another other than a particular group of people in terms of their interaction with Gardai. And so it's a much more positive way of policing as well. It's literally keeping the peace, back to that philosophy that was originally envisaged for the guards as unarmed force during the Civil War or just after.

It's all about the use of space, you don't have to change it, it just doesn't have to only be for our cars.

Aaron has worked for sixteen years in arts and community event management and is a founding member of Eek Arts Collective, Upstart, Upon A Tree and A Playful City. Aaron’s work has been recognised and awarded nationally as well as internationally as a founding member of Upstart. He was a core project manager on the internationally award-winning Granby Park.

You can follow Aaron on Twitter @APlayfulCity

Or visit A Playful City website

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