Nicole Javorsky is an editorial fellow at Mother Jones, and a former editorial fellow at CityLab.
Playable cities are here, and they want you to stay awhile.
A toddler, gripping a ring nearly the size of his face, stands next to a Connect Four board that’s almost twice his height. Two women reach toward a giant Jenga tower as park-goers lounge on blankets nearby.
These scenes, captured in photos from the Bryant Park picnic program in New York City, illustrate a trend in urban public spaces in the United States: life-sized games. Whether it’s supersized chess and checkers in Buffalo or giant Scrabble at The Wharf in Washington, D.C., the games appeal to children and the young adults who have flooded into cities in recent years, and whom developers and businesses are eager to court. They’re part of a larger push for “playable” cities, and for urban public spaces to be active rather than contemplative.
“We see the increase in giant games as one of the ways cities are being creative about cost-effective ways to activate and enliven plazas,” said Erin Lonoff, a director at the real estate and economic development consulting firm HR&A Advisors, which has worked on major public spaces like Brooklyn Bridge Park and CityCenter in D.C.
The increasing role of developers and Business Improvement Districts (BIDs) in managing public spaces seems to have contributed to the rise of giant games, which are easily movable—and, of course, supremely Instagram-friendly. More game-players means more people who will shop or eat (or potentially live) in the neighborhood. Even so, there are examples that predate the urban revival, such as San Jose’s Monopoly in the Park, the largest permanent Monopoly board in the world, installed in 1992.
In Arlington, Virginia, the Rosslyn Business Improvement District (BID) has hosted movie screenings in Gateway Park for the past decade, but recently decided to lay out giant games beforehand. “It just encourages [people] to put down their phones and meet their neighbors or colleagues,” Mary-Claire Burick, the BID’s president, said. The BID now runs a pop-up bar as well to encourage individuals to socialize and play before the film begins.
Property owner JBG Smith installed life-sized games, including Jenga and chess, in Crystal City, another part of Arlington, earlier this year. These are available for 24/7 play. Kara Milkovich Alter, a JBG Smith vice president, said they haven’t had any trouble leaving the games unattended: “People are taking great care of the games.”
But it turns out that it takes a little work to get people to play—it’s not as simple as plunking games down on a lawn.
“Patience is an important aspect. It takes the public a while to learn how to trust the space,” said Maureen Devenny, deputy director of operations at Bryant Park. “Sometimes it takes a couple of years [for park staff] to figure out how to execute it better, how to get people aware of it and build it into their routines.”
In College Park, Maryland, home of the University of Maryland’s flagship campus, a past economic-development coordinator had high ambitions for what giant chess could do for the downtown area, like attracting crowds to local businesses. The chessboards are still there, integrated into the pavement, but they were devoid of activity on a recent sunny afternoon.
“The only time I’ve ever seen anyone over there is if they’re drunk and just got out of the bar,” said Maddy Gray, a server at the Cornerstone Grill and Loft across the street.
One of the reasons might be because, on weekdays, people have to go into City Hall to borrow the chess pieces. Another might be the location, a street corner with a couple of benches, as opposed to a full-fledged park or square.
“I’ve never seen anyone playing,” Gray added. “It’s kind of a shame, because it’s a cute spot.”
Dan Fishman, Bryant Park’s public events manager, said that weaving games into programming encourages people to play them on return visits. Events already draw crowds, so including the games in those events get people accustomed to using them.
Though life-sized games might seem like a trivial pursuit, they are a low-stakes way to get people of all ages to linger in parks or plazas—especially if these spaces are new and not familiar to the public yet, as is often the case with big urban redevelopment projects.
As Lonoff said, “The point of public spaces and the point of these giant games is, besides the fact they’re plain fun, to bring people into downtowns … and, in turn, this supports economic development.”
They may also reveal a shifting balance between private and public space. Kate Tooke, a landscape architect at the design firm Sasaki, has worked on projects including Smale Riverfront Park in Cincinnati, which features big chess and checkers and a giant “foot piano.” Tooke said she has “absolutely been seeing [the] trend” for giant games, and observed that the movement to cities has changed how we approach public space. Since more people have given up private square footage to live in the city, that has also put “pressure on our public spaces … to be places that feel intimate.”
She continued, “The trend is happening partially because these are the kinds of activities that used to happen in suburban backyards and were brought to cities.” Game night used to happen on the screened porch or in the rec room—now, it’s out on the urban waterfront, too.