Imaginable Guidelines gives players a shared vocabulary and base of knowledge with which to talk about their city.
When mass protests erupted in Turkey in the summer of 2013, sparked by the planned development of one of the scarce green spaces in central Istanbul, a hand-painted banner hung in the threatened park encapsulated the demonstrators’ wide-ranging frustration with life in a city many felt was slipping out of their grasp. It read: “Hands off my neighborhood/square/tree/water/soil/home/seed/forest/village/city/park.”
“There was a lot of anxiety about the huge influx of global capital pouring into Istanbul at that time, and all of the potentially destructive consequences. People felt that they weren’t being listened to,” says Alexis Şanal, an Istanbul-based architect.
In her architecture practice, Şanal felt stymied by how the politicization of public space was entrenching both citizens and city officials further in their positions, resulting in what she describes as “an endless loop of bad decisions guided by emotional perceptions.”
“I saw how even though they were very small, my kids had no problems creating a strategy and carrying out actions based on it within the format of the games,” Şanal says. “I started to think about how the social act of imagining together could be a way to break down all this dogmatic determinism I was so frustrated with in Istanbul.”
The result, created over a four-year collaborative process, is Imaginable Guidelines, a deck of 101 colorful, oversized cards, available in Turkish and English versions. Each is illustrated by a local artist and represents one aspect of urban design, ranging from “street vendors” to “sidewalk dimensions,” to give players a shared vocabulary and base of knowledge with which to talk about their city. During the consensus-building gameplay, participants each decide which topics are necessary, desirable, or irrelevant to the urban design problem they’re trying to solve in their community. The selected cards form the basis for a custom set of guidelines with which to move forward in the planning process.
“A game-like environment with specific rules can help create a more equal playing field, and make sure you hear all the different voices, rather than having a general discussion where the most vocal people take the floor first and set the agenda,” says Tommi Laitio, executive director of the City of Helsinki’s Culture and Leisure Division, which has been utilizing similar game methodologies to increase citizen participation in city planning.
“But the game format doesn’t take away from the need to reach out to communities, and meet them in places where they feel comfortable and welcome,” Laitio adds. “It’s still important to have the right people in the room.”
Architect Jordan Valentin-Lane agrees. “We found a lot more positive and meaningful outcomes in mixed groups working toward a tangible goal, usually working on a specific place in a community,” says Valentin-Lane, co-author of MethodKit for Cities, a card-game planning tool developed by the Stockholm-based design firm MethodKit.
Imaginable Guidelines was launched in November with a series of gameplay workshops, facilitated by Şanal and other members of her team, in Turkish cities. (They are also working on collaborations to bring custom versions of the game to Lisbon, Sydney, and other cities around the world.) University students in Bursa used the game to identify ways to develop lively public activities around a newly built park and sports center, while those in Eskişehir worked on concepts to enhance connectivity between the train station and the city center so more people would feel safe and comfortable using the route.
In the coastal town of Ayvalık, café owner Damien Dessane and architect Haluk Aysu hope the game can help create and enact a plan to revitalize their Sakarya neighborhood, a historic area that’s been neglected in recent years. “Many of the buildings are empty, there’s a lot of litter, and there’s no common space where people can gather and take a break,” says Dessane. As a result of the Imaginable Guidelines workshop he hosted at the café, community members are developing plans for street improvement and turning an abandoned lot into a pocket park with composting and community-gardening facilities.
“Most people haven’t thought much before about what their ideas for their street or their neighborhood would be; they don’t think of this as their job,” says Aysu. “They expect this is something to be done by city councils or other authorities or institutions.”
Both Dessane and Aysu acknowledge that some municipal resources will be necessary to carry out the Sakarya community’s plans. Though city officials failed to respond to their invitation to the first workshop, they hope the written plan and design concepts the neighborhood representatives are developing through the Imaginable Guidelines gameplay will help get the municipality on board.
“These kinds of games are fantastic tools for self-organization; they give a community a way to sit down without any architects, planners, politicians, or experts, and decide, what is our priority, what do we want to work on first?” says Valentin-Lane of MethodKit. “Then when they go to seek buy-in from officials, they can present a solid front, with a single narrative and an action plan, in the same language that people in power speak.”
“This is part of the maturation of civil society; making the switch from protesting and defending to proactively creating something,” agrees Serhan Ada, an advisor to Imaginable Guidelines and head of cultural policy at Istanbul’s Bilgi University. “If we are not able to create our own solutions, we have to wait for others to find them for us.”
Though the prospects for successfully implementing such bottom-up solutions might not seem high in a place like Turkey, where many planning decisions are centralized and politicized, changing dynamics may be opening up more space for collaboration, according to Ekim Tan of Play the City, a city gaming practice based in Amsterdam. Over the past year, Play the City has been organizing game sessions in the southern Turkish city of Mersin as part of a project to create a collaborative redevelopment plan for a low-income neighborhood around the city’s Müftü River.
“When we started working with the local municipality last March, they had decision-making power over the river spaces in their area; now in one year’s time, that power has been taken away from them and given to the greater metropolitan municipality,” says Tan, who is originally from Istanbul. “As similar things happen around Turkey, local governments are starting to understand that they have to work along with NGOs and communities and all the other stakeholders in order to regain some of that power.”