Monday, 6 February 2012

Manifesto for a Playful City

This is a copy of an essay I wrote as part of my university studies....

Manifesto for a Playful City

‘70 per cent of the world’s population will be living in urban areas by the middle of this century’ (Klanten and Hubner, 2010:2).  As cities continue to get more populated, more and more strain will be put on cities to provide adequate facilities for their citizens, including those for play.  Cities today are no longer playful: Modernism and Capitalism have together managed to destroy both the playful city itself and the playful attitude people once had ‘many persons feel that cities are no longer any good or any fun’ (Friedberg and Berkeley 1970:12). If we define playful as full of play, our cities are seen to provide very few opportunities to play. Those it does provide are restricted to certain ages of people, times, places and typologies; little is done to understand peoples play needs and changing wants. THE CITY DOES NOT UNDERSTAND PLAY.  We believe that if the city understood play and its importance to the both the human and the city, it would aim to create a more playful city – a city ultimately more enjoyable for all.

We propose a city in which...

The importance of play is understood for both the city and its citizens. Play is seen to be key to civic life, and ‘play is (seen as) a tool for further development of our culture’ (Hendricks, 2001:11).  Play is seen as a legitimate function for parts of the city, and provided for in the same way that commerce, transport and housing are. Play is given its own space in the city, not just made to fill leftover spaces. Art, music, theatre and all ‘playful’ subjects are supported both at an educational and national level. 

As Brian Sutton Smith once noted ‘We all play occasionally, and we know what play feels like. But when it to making theoretical statements about what play is, we all fall into silliness’ (Sutton-Smith, 1997:2). Much ambiguity lies around the definition of play, for centuries we as a civilisation have tried to define and understand it with little success – this perhaps explaining why cities find it very hard to design for it. As psychiatrist Scott Brown describes in his book Play (2010:20) it as ‘an absorbing, apparently pur poseless activity that provides enjoyment and a suspension of self consciousness and sense of time.’ With no real ‘purpose’ as an activity, play is somewhat taboo; as Brown (2010:17) goes on to explain ‘Play is done for its own sake. That is why some people think it’s a waste is time.’  For many play has come to be seen as a ‘luxury’ activity rather than a necessity, for those who have time and money on their hands, and even sinful according to Puritan teaching. (This may be largely due to historic examples of play where the play was associated with wealth, and the need not to work.)  It is this apparent ‘uselessness’ as an activity, that has lead some schools to remove ‘non- necessary’ music and art from their curriculum in favour of more academic pursuits ‘in many school districts, even recess and physical education have been severely reduced or even eliminate’(Brown, 2010:99). Play is seen to be the opposite of work; it goes against everything society is aiming to achieve. With this attitude in society, many governments have found it hard to justify spending money on providing for play ‘as we know, public budgets are stretched taut, and recreation is too often near the bottom of the list if essentials’(Friedberg  and Berkeley, 1970:12). As a result of this play provision in cities has been poor. Little space in the city has been given to play- play has always found its home on leftover spaces from other ‘necessary’ buildings and services. Engaging in, and building for play, is often met with hostility. 

Play is however, an integral part of our cities, and has played an important part historically in shaping society today. Play is a natural instinct for humans; Huizinga (2000: Foreword) described us as ‘Homo Ludens, Man the Player’. Play is older than civilisation itself, ‘Play is not an activity that developed as civilisation became more sophisticated; rather play was at the heart of the start of civilisation’ (Cohen,1993:20). Play has played a large part in defining civilisation – with much of our civilisation war, work,  politics all developing from play. Much of what we describe today as our cities ‘culture’ - theatre, music and art - can be seen as a type play. Thus, play holds a vital part in defining and sustaining our present day cities. The culture of a city plays a key role in attracting people to live in and visit many of our cities.  Play should be seen as a function for cities in itself. As Friedberg and Berkeley (1970:12) describe ‘Recreation is very much a part of the total planning process and should be integrated with education, housing, commerce and transportation. To exclude recreation from the initial planning is to reduce its impact.’ ‘The playful city’ is not a new idea, we have continued to play in cities throughout history; up to as late as Victorian times we were playing ‘games of hide and seek, grass bowling and nine pins were everyday this time playing was still an acceptable behaviour for adults - even serious adult men’ (Hendricks, 2001:169). Paradoxically, it was the interest in play at this stage and its ambiguities (as discussed) that led to its abandonment on scientific grounds; ‘we have not yet outgrown this Victorian legacy’(Cohen, 1993: 16). The playful city existed before, and is within our reach again.

Play is undertaken by, and provided for everyone of all ages: children, teenagers, adults and the elderly. Everyone is encouraged to play. ‘The twenty first century should be the century when it becomes acceptable to be a lifelong player – when it is recognised that players enjoy a long life’ (Hendricks, 2001:).The playful city supports and provides activities that appeal to a mixture of different ages groups, and allow people of all ages to play together successfully. ‘Free play’ is adopted as the main form of play for all. 

‘All play means something’ (Huizinga, 2000:1). For many years now, scientists, unhappy with the explanation that play is done merely for pleasure, have studied play in the hope of finding a biological reason behind its existence in humans. We have been lead to believe that ‘play is important for children’s growth’ (Sutton-Smith, 1997:7), and so we have universally provided facilities for child’s play. For this reason, children, and only children, have been allowed to play. As a society, we instil on our children that on reaching adolescence, one must grow up, go to work, and stop playing. Teenagers that continue to play are seen as immature and lazy. Adults that continue to play are shunned by Western society. Play is not an appropriate activity for adults  as  Cohen (1993:20 ) describes ‘I finished Play, Dreams and Imitation in Childhood feeling that Piaget thought that sensible adults had better things to do that lark about on the football pitch or in the casino.’ For this reason, adult play is often defined by another name ‘leisure’, ‘recreation’, ‘sports’ or ‘socialising.’ Adult play is limited, more structured than child’s ‘free play’ – an all encompassing play where all inhibitions are lost - and is bound by complicated rules and regulations.  As Huizinga (2000:199 ) notes ‘Really to play, a man must be like a child;’ playground designer Hendricks (2001:22) suggests ‘like fooling around in water, jumping, skipping, swinging’. Much of adult play has come to feel more like work than play, and would be defined this way by its characteristics. Play is not play unless it is ‘free and benign’ (Stevens, 2007:1).  Adults are rarely allowed to engage in ‘free play’. Further to adulthood, provision for elderly play is rarely considered. As urban designer and architect Friedburg explains in his book Play and Interplay (1970:129) ‘we spend almost unlimited money to keep people alive but almost nothing to make their loves worth living...this is particularly true in the city.’ It is generally accepted that elderly people live life at leisure: leisure being defined as ‘passing time free form consumption, and in particular from the need to engage in productive activities’ (Stevens, 2007:28). Today the only way an elderly person can remain part of society is to continue to work – this being the reason why so many people are continuing to work to such a late age.

Play is however, important to people of any age ‘Fredrich Schiller wrote “man is only fully human when he plays”’ (Klanten and Hubner, 2010:5) and should be undertaken by all, throughout our lives. As Huizinga (2000:192) describes ‘Play should be developed from womb to tomb.’ Play is universally linked to healthy brain development. Following birth, when the brain is developing most rapidly, we, as children, require a large amount of play to help shape our growing brain. However, Brown (2010) describes studies show that through play we can continue to develop our brain right through our lives. George Bernard Shaw once said ‘We don’t stop playing because we get old; we get old because we stop playing’ (Wikiquote 2011). Even as adults, play continues to be advantageous in enabling us to explore our world and test our relationships with other human beings.  Adults that play are seen to work better, keep better relationships, and cope with life’s ups and downs. Play has long seen to be useful in reducing stress, ‘Since 1960s , we have learned that we live in a stress society. To avoid stress, ulcers and heart attacks, it is necessary to relax. All kinds of sports and games have boomed......we have learnt how to play with ourselves’ (Cohen, 1993:16).  Those that do not play, are seen to build up a ‘play’ deficit, similar to a sleep deficit, and become depressed and unable to function. As play specialist Brian Sutton Smith (2010:126) explains ‘the opposite of play is not work, its depression.’

Play happens at all times and is integrated into all aspects of our lives. The playful city encourages and supports play 24/7. Days are not divided into work/play time – they are as one. Play is incorporated into both school and the workplace; it is seen as a significant tool in both learning and working, and students and workers are given ample time to enjoy each. The playful city creates opportunities for play day and night; spaces allow and support playful activities at all times. ‘Necessary’ functional spaces, such as work and school, gain secondary playful uses at non-peak times of day. Playful activities at peak times of day are not restricted. Play facilities are placed near ‘necessary’ functional facilities to encourage playful encounters.  The playful city uses ‘urban time’ (Cohen, 1993:203) to its advantage and deliberately creates moments of ‘pause’...........allowing time for play to occur.

As children we naturally play all day, ‘Play is a constant happening, a constant act of creation in the mind or in practise’ (Hendricks, 2001:7). However in today’s society play is restricted to certain times of day; there is a time to work and time play. Work, due to its status as a ‘necessary’ function, is always seen to come before play; play often being seen as a ‘reward.’ As adults we learn and understand these different situations, and are able to switch between playful and serious behaviour.  However as a child it is different, ‘The child doesn’t recognise a special time to play though, his whole world is an adventure’ (Friedberg and Berkeley, 1970:36) - it being common to see adults scolding children who continue to play at ‘inappropriate’ times. During work periods, playful behaviour is not tolerated but treated with suspicion, and can have dire consequences. This has even reached the stage, as Brown describes, that   ‘Enjoying your work too much might be a sign that you are not working hard enough (i.e. playing) or don’t have enough to do......all in all, its best to take on an energetic but stoic attitude towards work’ (Brown, 2010:49). Many people, spurred on by the hostility of their work environment, have learnt to desensitize themselves during work periods, in order to deal with the drudgery of work ‘the urban adult learns to turn off, not to experience life’ (Friedberg, 1970:103). This only heightens the need for play further - the phrase ‘living for the weekend’ has become all too popular as most play in Western society is seen to take place at ‘off peak’ hours – normally at evening and weekends. During these peak playtimes, work spaces are seen to cease functioning as usable space completely, reducing the available city space for occupation.

As Huizinga (2000:3) describes in Homo Ludens ‘play cannot be can deny seriousness, but not play.’ Play cannot be restricted to only certain times of day. A playful state of mind can be triggered at anytime. Play usually happens when a moment’s pause (either induced by the environment or voluntarily), from a ‘necessary’ activity causes human desires to take over.  Playful behaviour can be incorporated with success into our whole day. We have known as a society for many years the advantages of using play as a tool in education, and many companies attribute their success today to their playful ways of doing business – as Steve Jobs once said ‘I think we’re having fun’(Wikiquote, 2012). It has been proven that having determination to work is not enough, and that by adding a sense of play people will stick to a job for longer. As Hogan (cited in Brown, 2010:143) observes ‘people reach the highest levels of their discipline because they are driven by love, by fun, by play...because they love what they are doing.’ Its no longer work, its play. Work and play are not the opposite of each other as we have been taught to believe. As human we actually need a balance of both. As Stuart Brown describes ‘we need the newness of play, its sense of flow, and being in a moment. We need the sense of discovery and the liveliness it provides. We also need the purpose of work, the economic stability it offers, the sense that we are doing service for others, that we are needed and integrated into our world’(Brown, 2010:126).

Play happens anywhere and everywhere; it has no boundaries or fixed positions.  ‘We see the city as a giant playground’ (Burnham, 2008:20). Public space IS play space. In the Playful City, ‘no-play zones’ are removed. There is no zoning of play and functional facilities. All areas, including those previously for ‘necessary’ functional activities consider play, and have play designed in. Play is allowed to take place anywhere, with features inviting play throughout. Play can happen on streets, bridges, and transport interchanges. Play is integrated with both transport and buildings. Ideas of ‘shared space’ are put in place. All boundaries and fences between play, traffic and building are removed. The human and his needs are the most important part of the city. Play is encouraged and accommodated for in the centre of the city, and not set in parks and entertainment zones on it outskirts. Existing previous adoptions of space outside of play ‘zones’ are allowed to continue and people are encouraged to share existing play spaces. 

In many Western cities, play is restricted to certain areas in the city.  The city has areas for functional ‘necessary’ activities, and it has areas for play.  As a result of zoning, new ‘entertainment centres’ have been created ‘when we play we look to Disneylands and Legolands’ (Cohen, 1993: 22). Many of these play areas, are located on the outskirts of the city – grouping together all the key play facilities of the city. In the centre of the city play areas are determined by transport and other buildings. The city player is not free to play where he likes. Those play areas located in the centre of cities are ‘bounded by forbidding fences (to keep people out or in)’ (Friedberg and Berkeley, 1970:36) closed off from the rest of city, in the name of health and safety. Passers-by are discouraged from gaining access to the play areas and getting involved.  Many cities, As urban designer Friedberg and Berkeley (1970: 14-15) highlight: ‘suffer from the universal preconception that recreation consists of ‘facilities,’’ and requires them in order to occur. Urban planners design play areas specifically for set activities – they believe that a set activity will defiantly take place there, and that only those set activities will occur there.   Many cities do not allow for playful activities to take place outside of these allocated play zones, actually making it illegal in some areas ‘authority over the visual landscape has made places out of reach of the very people who live in them’ (Burnham, 2008:63). Many urban planners go to extreme measures, and spend lots of time and money designing in features to prevent legal play from happening in certain areas.  

‘Play is freedom’ (Huizinga cited in Stevens, 2007:30). People play anywhere. By creating spaces purely for function that does not prevent people from playing there – human nature of defiance only makes the need to play there stronger. As Stevens cites ‘designers should not go to expensive, truly wasteful efforts to suppress particular, perfectly legal activities’ (Stevens, 2007: 199). Urban planners can only predict where play is going to happen and design for it, yet they can never be really sure what spaces will inspire play. Furthermore, providing facilities play does not always guarantee that play is going to occur in a place. As Stevens (2007:29) explains ‘Play activities are irrational because they are not shaped around conscious, preformatted, ethical and pragmatic goals’– as a result and can throw up unusual patterns. Play does not always require – often expensive and politically controversial - facilities, which can act to reduce the imagination required for play ‘The recognition that children play everywhere has lead one or more politicians to ask out loud why it is necessary to spend money on playgrounds- after all the children are all over the streets and corners and no in the playgrounds’ (Hendricks, 2001:9). As Hendricks (2001:15) describes in her book Designing for Play ‘Satisfying these (play) needs will involve more than the occasional (or even frequent) use of a ‘facility’. It will require an environment that is beneficial – recreational to the whole man.’ By providing play facilities but by ignoring the city surrounding them, the benefits felt by the play are reduced ‘the environment defeats the facility. And one only had to think of the many playgrounds to which the toddler must be led by the hand, across streets choked with cars’ (Friedberg and Berkeley, 1970:16).

Play is diverse, it exists in its many different forms., In the Playful City a variety of different types of play spaces exist to encourage a diverse range of play. No two spaces are the same in the city, each is relevant to its location and designed differently. The playful city has flexible ‘loose’ spaces that can be used for a range of play activities. These spaces do not have specialist equipment, or do not belong to any one person, they are shared spaces and attract a variety of different players. The Playful City has spaces that encourage a diverse range of play to happen next to each other. Different types of play are bounded against one another to create interesting transition spaces between activities. These spaces encourage chance encounters between people and activities, and even lead to new types of play forming. They create a mixture of different environments, some of them pleasant others less so, but all stimulating. Playful opportunities are placed near serious businesses to create interesting play combinations. The playful city surprises and has elements of risk which keep the city interesting for its citizens.

In today’s multicultural cities, there are many options to play, yet limited space and support by the city for all of them.  Space is often allocated to a limited number of options; highly specific spaces often with few functions are often created. These spaces appeal to a limited range of players. As a result many play spaces are under used; as Stevens (2007:1) explains ‘if public spaces prioritise one kind of need, then people not motivated by that need will be inclined to stay away.’ Paradoxically, play is actually keeping people apart rather than bringing them together.  Play spaces offer little inspiration for play, with the same standard facilities being provided in every city and throughout the city.  Spaces are designed with little or no real imagination or relation to the context in which they exist. As a result of this the diversity of cities, and their own cultural richness is being lost; as Ivan Chtcheglov explains in his essay Formulary for a New Urbanism (cited by Knabb, 2006:1) ‘We are bored in the city, we really have to strain still to discover mysteries on the sidewalk billboards.’ Cities are being neutralised, made safe and inoffensive, they are losing all elements of risk and surprise.

Play, like cities works best when there is a diverse mixture of different building typologies and people in one place; as described by Quentin Stevens, a reader in urban design, in his book The Ludic City (2007: ) ‘it’s the interactions among these diverse individuals, their mixing, which really constitutes urbanity, which gives city life it special character and possibility.’  Play arises from diverse situations – Stevens (2007) notes people often play at what he labels ‘Boundaries, Thresholds, Paths and Intersections,’  where this diversity can be found. This is largely to do with the fact that the player requires something to work with and push against. Play is often attracted to the seriousness of everyday necessary city functions, and can be found nearby. The diversity of a city can provide opportunities to experience a wide range of emotions, essential to human life. Scientists have proven that we need to experience this diversity of emotions, and if the landscape does not provide this variety it we will make our own opportunities. Play can be used as a tool to create this diversity; Guy Debord (cited by Knabb, 2006: 10) of the Situationists once said ‘(varied play) gives rise to feelings as differentiated and complex as any other form of spectacle can evoke’. A huge range play experience are available; the types of play can be (controversially) categorised as follows: frivolous play, creative play, intellectual play, imaginative/fantasy play, exploratory play, active play, extreme play and social play. People need a mixture of these types of play to feel fulfilled.

frivolous play: categorised as usually the precursor to play, is where a person partakes in small and simple acts that induce a playful sensibility. For example, this can be as simple as an adult telling a joke or a child playing a prank.

creative play: All play involves a degree of creativity. This type of play is categorised as where a person creates (often using the hands) something new, for pleasure, as way of expressing their personal interpretation of the world and its complexities. For example, a child building a house out of blocks or an adult painting a picture.

intellectual play:  categorised as usually stationary play, where a person solves mental mind games for pleasure, as a way of exploring and developing the mind. For example, an adult solving a crossword or a child playing a board game.

imaginative play: categorised as where a person invents scenarios in their imagination, and sometimes act them out, as a way of escaping or understanding the world. These scenarios can be triggered by simple ‘scenario references’ such as period/fantasy objects, scenery or costumes. For example, an adult watching a play in a theatre or a child playing ‘shop’ at home.

exploratory play: categorised as where a person uses their senses e.g. sight, hearing, touch, taste to experience the world surrounding them; using play as a way to help explore and understand it, and his place within it, better. For example, an adult strolling leisurely through a city or a child exploring the woods.

active play: categorised as where a person moves of all or part of the body, to actively induce a playful state of mind, using play as a means for exploring the body. This type of play can be as simple as a adult going for a swim or a child running around a playground. Exercise and competitive sports can often be mistaken for this type of play.

extreme play: categorised as play whereby a person uses extreme scenarios/conditions to induce a range of emotions, the combination of which amounting to pleasure. This uses play as a means of testing the body’s limits. For example, an adult going skiing or a child skateboarding.

social play: categorised as where a person interacts with other people through playful scenarios, using play as a means to explore and develop his understanding of human relationships.  Various forms of this type of play exist - for example a child’s game of ‘rough and tumble’ or an adults night in the pub. 

(NB: This list is based on personal observation. It is in no way finite. It is important to note that play can span across more than one category.)

Play is created by the citizens according to his wants and needs. In the Playful City public space is for the public. Play is created by the city user, not by big business - ‘create activism not consumerism’ (Burnham, 2008:91) Existing play is supported and new play is encouraged. Public space is only complete when inhabited and interacted with by the user. The Playful City creates spaces that encourage interaction. People are able to physically change their surroundings, and get involved in planning space within their city at a government planning level.

Public space is not public – ‘So called public space is, in fact, only public in name, reflecting no reality except that of the dominant ideology’ (Burnham, 2008: 4) Western cities are owned by big business, that dominates much of the city space. The whole play industry is owned by these big businesses, which have cashed on various play opportunities, and sold them back to us. Play for the citizen is no longer free, everything is charged –a price many cannot afford. The city has sold itself these big business play possibilities, and we have accepted them. ‘Our Modern Cities have become consumer products- controlled, packaged and exploited. Urban living is comprehensively structures, with all work, living and leisure aspects fully defined’ (Klanten and Hubner, 2010:4). Public lead spontaneous play activity is hard to find or initiate in the city. Today people have little part in determining their own city and its activity. As users they have even less opportunity to determine the built landscape, as ‘every square inch is carefully planned’ (Burnham , 2008: 7) by urban designers. The city has little trust in its citizens, often worried that if everything is not planned it will look ugly, messy or will just get vandalised. 

Play is determined by the player; it is a voluntary activity, undertaken for our own enjoyment.  In order to play, we need to be in a comfortable state physically and emotionally, to enable the play state of mind to be induced. As humans we don’t need to be told how to play, ‘As children we don’t need instruction in how to play. We just find what we enjoy and do it;’ (Brown, 2010: ) what constitutes play is different for every person. Real play is characterised by its lack of rules and regulations – very different to much of the play we currently undertake.’ As Stevens (2007: ) describes ‘reducing public leisure activities to defined functions rescues what it means to be at leisure, in part because leisure is a domain of individual choice and control.’ A human should be allowed to play as he likes, it is this continually evolving human play that keeps the city interesting. As Burnham (2008: 7) describes in the book Droog Event 2: Urban Play ‘All cities, when reduced to their basic components, are the same. It’s the individuals touch that makes the difference.’  Cities should understand the importance of creating comfortable public spaces that allow people to induce their own play.  ‘A public space is, by its nature ‘an incomplete space’ one that is endlessly ‘completed’ by the people that use it, and finding its uses, and the process of compromise through which they are accommodated, enhance what public space is’ (Stevens, 2007:198).

Play is constantly in flux; it changes with the city. In the Playful City the fleeting nature of play is understood and designed for accordingly. All play spaces are designed so that they are flexible and can be adapted to changing needs and use. Temporary play is recognised and designed for, from a few hours to a few days. In the playful city we recognise that playfulness is more an ingredient of how people see the city, rather than a specific thing to design for. Play is kept in mind in the design of everything. 

The city is in a constant state of flux – a continually changing population, with its new ideas and technology have a constant impact on the city. City users are constantly finding new ways to play in response to their changing environment. However, city planners design for the city as if it was static. Much of the play equipment we see in our cities today has not changed its design for over 50 years. Much of the equipment is no longer relevant, as play constantly evolves; as Friedberg and Berkeley (1970: 37) sights ‘preconceptions that the traditional swing, slide, and seesaw provide a desirable play experience must be questioned.’ People in the city change, yet the city does not change with them.  ‘The end of the twentieth century has brought with it many paradoxes. In the well fed, well developed world, games are all the rage for children and adults too. One mark of the so called post modern adults is their willingness to play games’ (Cohen, 1993:169) – something our city now needs to change to accommodate..

Play is characteristically spontaneous and changing, and so needs a flexible space in which to exist. As Brown (2010: 18) notes  ‘Another hallmark of play is that it has improvisational potential. We aren’t locked into a rigid way of doing things,’ meaning new ways to play are constantly being created and explored. In order for play to remain enjoyable it has to retain people’s interest: changing play situations are the best way to achieve this. As Stevens suggests ‘planning might also consider that design is never design policy needs to consider how to best provide the possibility of ongoing alterations to public open spaces and their programmes’ (Stevens, 2007:203).

The Playful City is within our reach. Through better understanding of play we can create a more playful city. This knowledge and understanding needs to be feed into both how and what cities physically provide for play, and also into in how both the citizens and government think about play ‘The architecture of tomorrow will be a means of modifying present conceptions of time and space. It will be both a means of knowledge and a means of action’ (Knabb,  2006: 3).  Understanding the importance of play to the city and human beings; it is fair to say that in solving the ‘problem’ of play in our cities, we will go long way to solving many of the other problems of the city.

As the great philosopher Plato once said ‘Life must be lived as play’ (Wikiquote, 2012).

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Caillois, R, 2001, Man, Play and Games, University of Illinois Press, Champaign, USA

Cohen, D, 1993, The Development of Play, 2nd Edition, Routledge, London, UK

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Klanten, R and Hubner, M ed, 2010, Urban Interventions: Personal Projects in Public Spaces, Gestalten, Berlin, Germany

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Stevens, Q (2007) The Ludic City: Exploring the Potential of Public Spaces, Routledge, London, UK

Sutton-Smith, B (1997) The Ambuiguity of Play, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, USA

Wikiquote (accessed 05/01/2012)

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