Playgrounds might be closed, but we can still play.
March 2020: when everything changed in just a week. I had just moved to a temporary rental in Emeryville, California, after leaving our neighborhood of almost a decade across the Bay in San Francisco. Day by day, signs that we were navigating through a global pandemic began to emerge. Work was cancelled, events were postponed, then cancelled. The news became more panicked, there were runs on the grocery store, toilet paper became the number one most-discussed topic, and everyone started arguing about masks. The streets quieted, the background drone of the I80 highway nearby dulled.
One day, a couple weeks in, after we were formally ordered to “shelter in place”, a city worker stopped by the toddler playground outside our house and wrapped all the equipment in yellow caution tape. Signs popped up on the basketball court, the picnic tables and benches, and other playgrounds stating they were closed until further notice due to COVID-19. A week later, a city flatbed truck rolled through and spent the day installing orange traffic barriers to designate an “open street” with parking removed from a few blocks of road to create more “socially distant” space for people walking and biking. By April, the closed street began to fill between 4 and 5 PM with streams of neighbors going for an evening walk, kids getting out of the house, dogs getting their walks, and people riding their bikes.
It’s now June, and it’s becoming clear that cities are going to look and feel different for longer than we first expected. I say cities because the fact of density makes returning to our previous habits of recreating, socializing, transporting ourselves, playing, and otherwise interacting more problematic. In a rural area, going for a trail run, walking your dog, driving to work, kids playing on your own property, may not have changed as much. In the city, it’s been a shocking transformation — one that has highlighted a lot of small and unexpected joys amongst the anxiety, fear and anger — and one that is in a process of ongoing evolution. One component of public urban life that I started thinking about immediately at the beginning of the pandemic, simply because of my own research interests, was playing and public space.
Schools, school-based activities, sports, gyms, yoga studios, athletic leagues, park & rec facilities, and even public spaces such as beaches and trails were immediately locked down or cancelled in the weeks after the shelter-in-place orders took effect. This immediately sparked the question, and not for the first time: “OK – that’s well and good for people who live in a wealthy area in the hills or near a state park, or happen to be walking or biking distance from an open outdoor space — but this is a huge, densely populated urban area!”
There are hundreds of thousands of people who were asked to stay home and only recreate walking distance from their home. For many people, that means no parks, no outdoor space, not even a yard or balcony (and a cramped apartment with possibly roommates or children home from school), not to mention neighborhoods where the streets aren’t safe places for exercising or playing for a variety of reasons. For adults, gyms and workplaces and sports leagues are on hold, and for kids, schools, playgrounds, athletics, and playgroups are off the table.
It seemed immediately obvious that it would not be feasible to ask people to shelter-in-place indefinitely without any form of outlet for outdoor recreation, enjoyment, or play. I was excited to see some cities, such as Oakland, responding more quickly by closing off streets to create more space for “socially distanced” recreation. San Francisco, Emeryville, (Berkeley is still “working out the kinks” in doing this!) followed along to some extent. Unfortunately, but perhaps to be expected with a quick-response experimental intervention, the closed streets aren’t necessarily in the neighborhoods with the densest populations, most elderly or youngest populations, least green space, or dangerous streets most in need of more protected space.
I kept returning to the idea of the closed playgrounds as the days went on — they are such an obvious symbol of how the most prosaic things about city life have fundamentally changed. The image of a slide covered in yellow caution tape, a padlocked gate outside a park, and a pair of swings zip-tied together to prevent autonomous toddler usage really emphasize the feeling that normal life is on hold — play is cancelled — no more laughing, and no more fun.
As a country, we’ve confronted our worst anxieties and fears in the past eleven weeks, and are by no means finished doing so. We don’t know how or when the waves of infection will pass, we haven’t properly mourned the dead, we have a long road ahead as a country addressing deeply rooted racism, and the economic freefall hasn’t even come close to its full expression. I hesitated about doing any public art projects or reaching out to anyone to share ideas — it seemed like everything was suddenly too serious all the time — who was I to think that creating expressions of public joy and invitation, were appropriate? Not being able to work, interact with other humans, and feeling powerless to help with the big national and transnational challenges we face has been like a short-circuit to my creative brain.
More recently, I’ve been thinking about how important it really is to have small moments of joy in our lives, and that’s why I decided to do just a small intervention that I hope to expand upon. We can’t live in the anxiety cycle 24 hours per day, despite the fact that some of us probably have been doing just that. I’m not able to do a lot of the essential tasks or jobs most needed at this time, and I’ve devalued the potential gift of what I do have to offer creatively, that my wild internal world of animals and cartoons and neon colors and climbing on things and making space for people and being just plain silly is still OK, is still allowed, is still part of being human.
Given all of the real, terrifying uncertainty surrounding us, creating opportunities to play and experience joy is not about diminishing those realities — it’s an “and”. We can read the news and decide to take action AND we can take a minute to go outside, stretch our legs, or get some fresh air. We can job search or brainstorm on how to save our businesses AND allow kids to play and enjoy their lives. We can be in a hospital as a patient or a caregiver, AND enjoy our first walk outside even more when we happen upon something unexpected and playful that invites us to take notice.
We can make necessary public health decisions such as closing playgrounds and shared facilities AND offer suggestions on what else we can do and where else we can go. This last point was the spark behind my first pandemic play-related intervention. All of the closed signs on the playgrounds give us only the necessary information: this playground is closed, here’s why. What if those signs said: this playground is closed, here’s why, AND here are some other games you can play. Right here! On this sidewalk, on this corner, on this closed street, in this park! What if we painted interactive games on the sidewalks outside every closed playground, and markings for games, fitness challenges, and place-based activities on every closed street?
I decided to start small — right outside my own front door in fact, next to the closed toddler playground — to take a concrete first step in taking action toward creating more opportunities to play everyday, everywhere. I created a game that would fulfill the following challenges:
1.) Easy to draw with cheap sidewalk chalk (i.e.: couldn’t be reliant on different colors, as they all look too similar);
2.) Coronavirus friendly — no touching! No touching of other players or any surfaces.
3.) Interesting, and hopefully attractive looking for non-players (walkers, neighbors, those who can’t physically play).
4.) Very simple instructions that could be understood by all ages quickly, without needing interpretation or too much text.
I created a variation on “The Floor Is Lava” game, and invited players to “hop from rock to rock: don’t fall in!”. The “rocks” were made with red and orange chalk and placed at random intervals, surrounded by an “ocean” drawn with wavy lines reminiscent of topo lines that wound around various bits of the sidewalk and lightpoles. Instructions on how to play were written directly on the sidewalk at both ends. This game was drawn on the sidewalk outside the main entry gated (padlocked) to the toddler playground. After I drew it, I observed and had extra chalk out for people to take and draw their own additions. Unfortunately, the night I did this installation happened to be extraordinarily windy and quite chilly, after a week of warm, sunny summer Solstice evenings, so I did not have the opportunity to observe or get ideas back from players as hardly anyone was outdoors. Over the past week, I’ve seen and heard folks, including children, play the game from time-to-time from inside my house!
Up next, I have several challenges I want to address – learn more about, get ideas and feedback, and incorporate into future games and installations that can add quality of life and joy to our lives as we go through what is likely to be an abnormal summer. Some of these challenges include:
1.) Kid-created games: I’d like to hear ideas for favorite games and NEW from kids themselves. What do they miss most about playgrounds? School? Playing with friends? I’d like to see what they come up with and how they might use and see spaces like sidewalks and closed streets differently.
2.) Non-kid kids: 12 years and up, the age where you don’t feel welcome anywhere. How do youth and teenagers feel welcome (or not) in public space, what do they miss the most during the pandemic times we’re living in? If they’re into sports, how are they staying active and having fun? Do they have games and experiences to suggest, or even an interest in creating games for kids and explaining them?
3.) Older neighbors: clearly, older adults are experiencing an extremely stressful impact during the pandemic as they’re most vulnerable, and most housebound. What spaces do they feel most comfortable in and how can we create more of them through the coming months? What activities do they miss the most, and how might some of those elements be replicated in public spaces?
There are so many important benefits to spending time, money, and effort on creating more opportunities for joy, play, slow streets, and public life as we navigate “post-COVID urbanism”:
1.) with gyms, transit, and schools impacted or closed, outdoor play is now the ONLY option;
2.) recreating, playing, and socializing outdoors is actually safer than indoor recreation (at least as it regards coronavirus transmission — I recognize there are many exceptions to this as it regards street safety, mobility levels, personal safety, environmental/weather factors; cultural; racial, and gender factors as well!);
3.) playgrounds can be anywhere, if you imagine the “cityscape” as a “playscape” — why not install games and objects of delight where people already are? Next to the grocery store lines; outside the closed playgrounds; in the densest neighborhoods with the tallest apartment buildings;
4.) Play is for everyone! For too long, “urban interventions” and “popups” in spaces such as parking lots have focused on a narrow user segment of young(ish) adults, skewed heavily toward private/business use of public spaces (which we will be navigating again as we try to support our beloved restaurant industry to reopen and offer safely spaced seating!) and offered programming centered almost exclusively around fitness (but not really for older adults, and definitely not for kids) or eating/drinking (if you have the spare cash and look like you belong. I’m talking about creating playful active spaces, not another food truck/beer garden situation!). Adults can play too! Spaces where there are games and activities for a wide variety of users is possible, and even easier than ever if we consider post-pandemic urbanism as a prototyping opportunity;
5.) And building on that last point — this is the time for cities, businesses, and public space agencies to be open to collaboration with supporters, neighbors, and creative thinkers as they work on how to deliver their value and services in a completely new way.
Can it also be a time to circumvent bureaucratic processes to pilot more creative and inclusive programming and space uses — and take time to get real user feedback and data gathering from community members? Can it also be a time for cities to finally prioritize persistent issues that have been lacking significant action for years? Can it be a time for cities to seriously consider our qualitative, harder-to-pin-down needs around creating a high quality of life, instead of prioritizing quantitative measures like facilitating the highest carrying capacity and speeds on roads for people looking to quickly cut through neighborhoods on their commute?
Playgrounds might be closed – but play isn’t cancelled! Now, we play everywhere.