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.

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