Piano stairs in action at a station in Osasco, Brazil Paulo Whitaker/Reuters

Turning infrastructure into flashy playgrounds only results in cutesy distractions from real issues.

Why walk to work when you can dance there instead? That’s the premise behind an installation coming to Bristol, England: a disco crosswalk that explodes into a “30-second party” when a pedestrian presses the button to cross the street. Created by design studio Hirsch and Mann, the project recently won a £30,000 ($37,000) prize from the UK’s Playable Cities Award. It fought off competition from similar funhouse-style projects, including a sidewalk that lights up with dance-step footprints and a plan for signposts that give extra directions only to people who are smiling.

These oddball designs might sound unique, but they’re part of a growing and misguided trend to populate streets with kooky, interactive infrastructure. With projects in Tokyo, Recife, and Lagos, and support from the UK’s British Council, the Playable City network is going global. It’s just the most visible manifestation of a movement that has put piano stairs in subway systems, twisty slides in major galleries, and old-school arcade games in pedestrian crossings.

In some cities, entire neighborhoods have been rebranded as adult playpens. As Owen Hatherley has noted, London’s Southbank Centre — a brutalist riverside art complex that’s also a popular strolling spot — has now had its corners nibbled away by fun, in the form of slides, quirky udder-shaped performance sheds and burrito-dispensing day-glo containers. In this space, pedestrians are no longer permitted to amble aimlessly. Their attention must be continually channeled into active, infantilizing distraction.

These quirky ideas might make some hearts sing. Personally, as a human-shaped husk whose inner child was probably born with gray hair, they make me want to barricade myself in a windowless shell and never come out again. Pressuring a reluctant person to dance is, under any circumstance, an act of pure malice. And these lightweight interventions, under the banner of playable cities, are just cutesy distractions from real urban problems. What’s more, it’s a distraction with a subtle but coercive edge.

First, a grudging concession: At least the idea seems well intentioned. Advocates of the playable city, such as Julian Baggini, suggest that the concept is “a creative response to the coldness and anonymity of the urban environment.” Cities are gray, soul-sucking places that need bright spots to spark playful interactions and lower the usual barriers between strangers. An antidote to smart-city visions that see urban spaces as machines only needing their parts better oiled, the playable city concept is “about interrupting the utilitarian efficiency of the urban environment.”

This doesn’t stand up. 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.

Playable infrastructure’s real function is too often an explicit, top-down nudging of the public toward particular behaviors. Piano stairs are not primarily playgrounds, they’re a way to cajole people into walking more for the sake of public health. That’s not a bad goal, but to present it as relinquishing utilitarian control of public space is patently false.

Slides installed by the artist Carsten Höller at London’s Southbank Centre. (the_dead_pixel/Flickr)

In the place of real freedom, playable infrastructure like this gives us coordinated hijinx, jostling people into responding to their surroundings in ways that the specific gizmos commissioners deem desirable. Cities are already full of tools to channel behavior — that’s why we have traffic lights in the first place. There’s still a clear honesty of purpose, say, to a sign that quite simply reads STOP. Those kinds of messages make no attempt to conceal what they are. They’re commands — useful ones — and if people choose to rebel against them, it’s clear that they’re being childish and irresponsible. Playable infrastructure, on the other hand, assumes we’re all idiots who cannot be influenced by anything but the desire for distraction.

Of course, there is one group for whom this stuff often works: children. The infantilizing frolics of playable infrastructure must be great if you’re an actual infant. For the rest of us, there’s an underlying pessimism about both cities and adult life. Without these interventions, they suggest, the city risks becoming miserable.

This isn’t good enough. Cities can be gray at times, but even gray can be beautiful. Cities aren’t necessarily soul-sucking, either — and when they are, it isn’t because the sidewalks lack whoopee cushion cobblestones or pop-up tickle palaces. When cities demoralise people, it’s because the costs are too high, the commutes too long, or the spaces too unsafe. No one swears they’re leaving London, New York, or Paris because they can’t play Pong at a crosswalk. Let’s not forget that cities are still the best places the world offers most of us for self-discovery and pleasure, sites of charisma and transformation. Look closely — the magic is already there.

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. A person tapes an eviction notice to the door of an apartment.
    Equity

    Why Landlords File for Eviction (Hint: It’s Usually Not to Evict)

    Most of the time, a new study finds, landlords file for eviction because it tilts the power dynamic in their favor—not because they want to eject their tenants.

  2. Equity

    Berlin Will Freeze Rents for Five Years

    Local lawmakers agreed to one of Europe’s most radical rental laws, but it sets the stage for a battle with Germany’s national government.

  3. A photo of Lev Hunter, a Flint resident who works at a hospital, is also a local entrepreneur behind the Daily Brew, a coffee start-up.
    Equity

    The Startups Born of Flint’s Water Crisis

    Five years after the Michigan city was hit with its public health emergency, there’s good news—and signs of an entrepreneurial resurgence—coming out of Flint.

  4. A photo of a Google employee on a bicycle.
    Equity

    How Far Will Google’s Billion-Dollar Bay Area Housing Plan Go?

    The single largest commitment by a private employer to address the Bay Area’s acute affordable housing crisis is unique in its focus on land redevelopment.

  5. A map showing the affordability of housing in the U.S.
    Equity

    Minimum Wage Still Can’t Pay For A Two-Bedroom Apartment Anywhere

    The 30th anniversary edition of the National Low Income Housing Coalition report, “Out of Reach,” shows that housing affordability is getting worse, not better.

×