Playability is gaining momentum and decision makers are embracing playability.
Over 80% of the population lives in urban areas, with the percentage of kids even higher. Akin to walkability and bikeability, playability is the extent to which cities make it easy for all kids to get the balanced and active play they need to thrive. Cities are increasingly recognizing that play can be part of the solution to the challenges that they already prioritize. Cities are also becoming hotbeds of innovation, and this innovation has the potential to increase playability. Playability looks different in each community, such as extending the school day to enable all kids to get recess and PE, shutting down streets in low-income neighborhoods to let kids play and increase foot traffic for local merchants, or redesigning the town square for the benefit of kids and families.
Since we first coined the term in March 2014, various thought leaders and national media outlets focused on cities, corporations and consumers have picked up on the trend of playability in cities. These though leaders and media outlets are spreading the work about what cities are doing to enable more opportunities to play and how important this is for the health of kids and communities. To help accelerate the trend, we convened twelve leading 2014 PUCSA cities at a Leaders Summit last fall. These cities developed big ideas for addressing their own city-wide challenges (from childhood hunger to use of non-motorized transportation to attracting and retaining families) by using play. These cities continue to tackle some of their biggest challenges by increasing playability.
Some cities are leveraging existing large-scale institutions to achieve playability. Chicago has implemented the Chicago Plays! program to bring play to every kid. The mission of the program is for every kid to be within a seven to ten minute walk of a park or playground. In the past 5 years, the city has refurbished or built 325 playgrounds, investing $37.5 million for the kids of Chicago. Chicago has also provided Spaces to Grow, transforming 34 schoolyards into active spaces for the community. These schoolyards prioritize active play, outdoor learning, exploration, and community engagement. Through Chicago Plays!, the city aims to build 26 additional playgrounds at schools where there is no playground or where the current playground is unsafe or outdated. The city has also implemented a 30+20+10 policy in 54 schools where elementary school students receive 30 minutes of PE, 20 minutes of recess and 10 minutes of playful active classroom activities each day. Chicago Public Libraries are working to make the children's section of each library a play area that facilitates learning and engagement.
Other cities are embracing playability by instituting new city-wide policies and allocating funds to these initiatives. These policies can increase playability in neighborhoods throughout the city. Bismarck, North Dakota has a new policy that will require play in all new developments. The Bismarck Parks and Recreation Department, in conjunction with local developers and the City of Bismarck will actively enforce the new policy that obligates a neighborhood park be placed in every new development. The policy and ordinance will allow for parks to be developed with a playground, shelter, and loop trail. This policy strives to provide a place to play within a half mile of every resident in new developments.
Another city-wide approach to increase playability is through public financing of kid-friendly arts projects. The Charlotte, NC City Council has adopted a new ordinance that appropriates 1 percent of eligible capital improvement project funds for public art to enhance public spaces. This playful art can be seen along every stop on the Lynx Light Rail, in the Arts District of North Davidson Street and throughout Center City. Charlotte also offers unique art experiences such as the Arts & Science Council "Finding your Part in Public Art" scavenger hunt.
Cities can improve the quality of life of all residents by embracing playability.
As cities embrace and implement playability, we need to ensure that play is used to address inequity. Playability needs to avoid the pitfalls of the walking and biking movements, which have been positioned as a competitive advantage for cities to attract and retain the creative class, particularly young, college-educated professionals. All families deserve to live in safe communities with ample job opportunities, affordable housing, great schools, and abundant opportunities to play. There is currently inequitable distribution of services, resources, and opportunities for low-income families, and cities need to be mindful that opportunities to play do not become yet one more inequitably-distributed asset.
Some cities are finding creative ways to ensure that their poorest kids have access to play despite economic constraints. In the economically distressed community of Flint, MI -- 58% of all Flint youth live in poverty -- the budget for the Flint School District does not include providing extracurricular activities like physical education time for kids to play. Because the city values its kids, a public-private partnership that includes a diverse group of community partners has emerged to fill this gap.
For example, the Crim Fitness Foundation hosts lunchtime activity programs and the Chamber of Commerce hosts after school programs that incorporate dinner, active play, and music lessons. These programs allow students access to muscle-building, mind-expanding, friend-making play that would not otherwise be possible. And much more is in the works. The Flint Public Arts project in the north side of Flint – one of the city's poorest areas -- is connecting artists with residents to help them re-imagine their neighborhoods. Kids in one neighborhood told project artists that they would like to have a skate park on the site of a demolished house. Within a few weeks the artists and kids together created an art installation which represented the skate park that they are working to bring to fruition.
Our behavioral research told us that proximity to play matters. When parks and playgrounds are a bus ride away, they become special-occasion locations. Cities need to offer right-around-the-corner options, and some cities are finding ways to bring play opportunities that exist in other areas of the city into low-income neighborhoods. After attending the Playful City Leaders Summit last fall, Brownsville, TX extended its popular health and wellness CycloBia events into underserved and vulnerable areas as Cyclobia2U. CycloBia is modeled after the cyclovias popularized in Bogota, Colombia, where streets are closed down for the exclusive use of pedestrians, cyclists and kids and families who want to play. CycloBia2U are held in the greatest areas of need in the city eight times a year, yielding safer streets, opportunities to play, and improved economic vitality. CycloBia2U made its debut on March 22 in one of Brownsville's poorest areas. This is particularly impactful in a city ranked the poorest metropolitan area in the nation.
Columbus, GA saw an opportunity to improve neighborhood safety and cohesion by providing places for recreation and play. The city had had a robust network of recreation and community centers since the 1950s in neighborhoods around the city that offered opportunities for kids and adults to be active, get together and play. Due to budgetary constraints, in the early 2000s the city decided to close many of the smaller neighborhood recreation centers and shift funds to four large "Super Center" facilities located in the four corners of the city. Unfortunately, what resulted was an increase in crime in the impoverished neighborhoods that no longer had operating recreation centers. Seeing this problem, the city decided to bring play back to some of these neglected neighborhoods by providing funds through a Crime Prevention grant program to reopen closed recreation centers. The first of these facilities -- the Boxwood Recreation Center -- in a high-crime area that lacked recreational play was renovated and reopened to provide programming activities and play opportunities for local kids. It has provided a place for kids to be safe, learn and have fun. Due to the success of Boxwood, two other closed recreation centers are currently preparing to reopen and provide more recreational opportunities for kids and families in those neighborhoods.
Playability is a competitive advantage.
Play provides a competitive advantage for cities by developing healthy kids and thriving communities. Beyond the social benefits of play – kids living within 1 kilometer of a park or playground are almost five times more likely to be of a healthy weight than kids without playgrounds in nearby parks; play helps kids become more creative as it encourages recombining ideas, making associations, and transforming objects; play can be a protective barrier against toxic stress for kids experiencing extreme adversity; etc. – communities benefit from attracting and retaining families across the socio-economic spectrum who pay taxes, attract businesses, and care about the health and vitality of their community. The average income for householders from ages 35 to 44 is 28% higher than for those ages 25 to 34, and they are more engaged in their communities. Open spaces such as parks and recreation areas can also have a positive effect on nearby residential property values, and can lead to increased economic vitality through proportionately higher property tax revenues for local governments.
Cities are increasingly embracing playability as a competitive advantage. Greenville, SC understands that increasing play opportunities for kids contributes to the city being consistently ranked as a great place to work and live. Greenville combines infrastructure and innovative play everywhere ideas to foster playability. The city has a robust park system with 40 playgrounds, and addresses play deserts -- areas of the city without access to play infrastructure -- with programming. Examples of city-wide programming include Mobi-Rec, a box truck stocked with games and activities; Play Streets, a program that blocks the street for activities such as an art mural to be completed by the children, basketball goals, and bounce houses; and Park Hop a summer-long scavenger hunt that encourages participants to visit local playspaces. With one of the fastest growing populations in the state with a 3.8% growth since 2010, nville is clearly doing something right.
Other cities are building vast public-private partnerships to demonstrate a commitment to kids and families. The Playful Pittsburgh Collaborative has launched several initiatives such as Kidsburgh, an online clearing house of resources about activities and programming for children and families; and the Playful Pittsburgh Collaborative Ultimate Play Day, a daylong celebration for the Pittsburgh community to learn about and engage in play. These play focused initiatives are helping Pittsburgh reverse the trend of young families moving out of the city. Mayor Peduto has a goal of attracting 20,000 residents back to Pittsburgh by 2024, and says he "recognizes the value that play has for the city's health and economic vitality."
The Collaborative is comprised of member organizations representing city government, philanthropy, educators, museums, healthcare, and parks that are dedicated to advancing the importance of play in the lives of children, families, and communities.
Mayor Rawlings Blake of Baltimore, MD believes that "to grow Baltimore by 10,000 families" there must be a commitment to "building a city that is even more family friendly." The city is exploring new and original approaches in order to retain current residents and attract new ones, including providing them with opportunities to play that help them grow and develop as individuals and build community. One such approach includes a thought shift around the use of the city's vacant properties. Power in Dirt is a city initiative that significantly reduced government barriers and created new incentives for residents to adopt vacant lots and transform them into spaces that meet their needs. In the initiative's first two years, more than 1,000 vacant lots were adopted. Residents found multiple uses for their adopted land, from open community gathering areas to highly specific uses like a horseshoe playing pit.
Cities are providing play everywhere as a part of beginning to set the standard of playability
To inspire cities to overcome behavioral bottlenecks that keep kids from getting the play they need to thrive, we conducted research with ideas42, a non-profit organization that uses behavioral science to create scalable solutions to societal challenges. We examined how cities can ensure that all kids get the balanced and active play they need to thrive. This research revealed that to change behavior, cities need to make play the easy, default choice. Kids -- especially those growing up in poverty -- spend a disproportionate amount of time with adults running errands or taking care of daily necessities. This results in excessive down time where kids exist in a "dead space." The solution is for cities to put play everywhere, integrating play into this dead space. Play everywhere means integrating play in routine time and space where low-income families and kids spend time, turning moments of frustration into moments of joy. Cities are reimagining how everything from sidewalks and bus stops to grocery stores, laundromats and health clinics can be filled with play, making it easier for families to prioritize play for their kids.
Leading cities are taking comprehensive actions to bring play near all their residents. Ottawa, KS painted 40 hopscotch courses throughout its neighborhoods to promote fun and active play with the Hoppin' Ottawa Campaign. Hopscotch courses can be found everywhere -- downtown, in public spaces (city hall, schools, hospitals), in retail businesses and on trails. The city also installed three Play Pods – small, innovative play structures made of recycled tires -- on the Prairie Spirit Trail through several lower income neighborhoods that don't have a park or playground within walking distance. The city plans to add more pods in the future in other locations, and neighboring towns have expressed interest in replicating the idea in their communities. These comprehensive actions were achieved by a Play Task Force of city officials and community leaders focused on improving health and welfare of the community through play.
Other cities are providing opportunities for active and imaginative play in places where people are normally sedentary. Playwalks in Thomasville, NC will incorporate active play such as hopscotch, balancing lines, shape hops, and other activities at bus stops, waiting areas and along ordinary sidewalks and trails to make them more kid-friendly.
The York, PA Bring On Play committee has a "Play Everywhere" subcommittee focused on creating replicable, sustainable, environmental changes to increase play opportunities throughout the city. The subcommittee's first infrastructure investment is coming soon -- a bus shelter that hosts bike parking spaces and an area for play activities. This initial effort will serve as a model for future shelters throughout the city.